Ahh, Lester Bangs. Or at least, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs via Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous. Did I just grab this quote because it features the word “currency”?
Well…yes and no. Currency, my latest dive into Amazon Original Stories (but not the latest collection released) describes itself as being about “friends, trends, and dividends”. The link between these eight stories is the currency between people; social, professional, and personal transactions made when money is too much to offer or not enough to cover. The players of Currency do live in a bankrupt world, and frequently the temptation of being “cool” far outweighs anything else.
“I Would Be Doing This Anyway” – Jia Tolentino, performed by Kelly Marie Tran 3/5
This was the first piece that I picked up. I loved Tolentino back in The Hairpin days, Trick Mirror was one of my favorite reads of 2020, and I was intrigued by Tolentino giving us a fiction offering! “I Would Be Doing This Anyway” feels like a Tolentino personal essay. It’s plugged in to the modern age, written in first-person, and reliant on social media. Our narrator becomes fascinated by a glamorous Influencer with whom they were briefly friendly in college. A pandemic hits (it feels at first like our current situation, but things slide into vague spec fiction angle that does not entirely work but I appreciate the try) and work dries up for everyone but influencers, leading our narrator to take on the role of “Assistant” (read: paid friend) for the Influencer. The tone attempts to be tongue-in-cheek, but the stretches into a possibly worse version of the pandemic are goofy in their earnestness, despite depicting troubling and terrible things. Luckily, this piece is performed by the always delightful Kelly Marie Tran. She keeps the whole thing afloat with both pep and pathos.
“Rewards” – Emma Cline, performed by Helen Hunt 2/5
Helen Hunt tries her best to breathe life into “Rewards”, but there’s really nothing here to animate. I haven’t read any Emma Cline, but I’ve heard plenty of buzz about The Girls so I was looking forward to checking her out! Unfortunately, “Rewards” was not the best entry point. I don’t know this is indicative of all of her writing, but I found it hard to distinguish between characters and storylines- which is particularly annoying while listening to a teensy tiny short story. “Rewards” follows two women (who I sincerely struggled with telling apart!) and their relationship/connection to local hero-brothers, the Devlin boys. One woman is their…neighbor? The other is a host on some sort of Dragons’ Den/Shark Tank show on which the brothers presented/competed. I do not know why the neighbor lady is so distressed by the Devlins. The host/judge/investor was a clearer character, but her frustrations seemed less Devlin-driven and more woman-in-the-workplace related. Hunt gives a solid performance, yanking this piece into the two-star realm. Would I feel differently if I had read instead of listened? This will be a mystery for the ages, as I do not care enough to try again. On a less related note: Dragons’ Den is a FAR better name than Shark Tank! I do not watch either, but I will die on this hill.
“Crewelwork” – Justin Torres, performed by Wilson Cruz 4/5
Justin Torres and Wilson Cruz deliver the best story of the bunch in “Crewelwork”. While this story is more fragmented than the others, it works as an almost string-of-consciousness like confession thanks to the performance of Cruz. Hopefully you’re loving Cruz now on Star Trek, but maybe you know him best as Rickie Vasquez from My So Called Life?! Cruz has been providing authentic and nuanced performances for almost 30 years, and he continues to do so while giving voice and breathing life into a young artist finding himself in the world. Of course, all of the work didn’t come from Cruz alone. Justin Torres created a deep and honest look at what it takes to be an artist in America. He does not shy away from discrimination, poverty, and hatred. He is candid about relationships, love, and sex work. He gives wry commentary on “model minority” expectations. I have not read any of his other work, but now I most certainly will.
“The Tomorrow Box” – Curtis Sittenfeld, performed by Eric Dane 3/5
Ah, lifestyles of the not-rich and not-famous. A teacher at a third-rate prep school comes to terms with his lot in life- which is, I must say, NOT a bad lot to be representing! He went to elite schools, partied with wealthy friends, ski-bummed about for a bit, and settled into teaching at the prep school where his father was once the Head Master. He is married to a teacher at the school and they have two young children. They live comfortably. He got married later in life, so he has drifted a bit from his old classmates and friends. His discomfort at being left out grows from itch to obsession when another old friend gets back in touch. The old friend was the odd-man-out of his original group, and has since claimed fame and fortune as a Jordan Peterson-esque relationship and life expert. Woof. Their paths cross and they exchange the only currency that matters to them: who is cooler man? Eric Dane provides narration, and he as an excellent voice, but it is REALLY hard to separate him as a teacher and family man in “The Tomorrow Box” from how he behaves with teenagers on Euphoria. Yikes! This story ends with a whimper; an issue that strikes multiple stories in this collection.
“If You Are Lonely and You Know It” – Yiyun Li, performed by Malcom Hillgartner 4/5
This was my introduction to the work of Yiyun Li, and I will be adding her work to by TBR pile in the future! She crafted a spare and lovely little story in the hills of Oakland. Gordon, an older man and temporary caretaker of a large boisterous dog, is at odds with the world. He’s at odds with the neighborhood, with his neighbors, with his peers, and with his family. He isn’t a bad man- he’s just a man that time forgot. He’s the only renter in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The HOA is not happy with his large dog, and he is holding on to a very tenuous connection to a former step daughter by holding onto the leash of this dog. She needs help, he doesn’t know how to care for her, but he does know how to care for the dog. Do not worry, pet readers: there is no animal peril afoot; only the crushing mantle of human loneliness. This piece also comments on our current pandemic climate, but in a more effective way than Tolentino’s.
“The Summer House” – Cristina Henriquez, performed by Thom Rivera 1/5
Alberto, a quiet and dutiful man, leads the way into the weakest story of the bunch. There’s nothing new, unexpected, or revealing in “The Summer House”. A poor boy, infatuated by a smart and beautiful classmate and teased by his richer peers, grows into a poor man who does the everyman bidding of an important (read: problematic) local big wig. The big wig is out of town, and he needs Alberto to tend to his empty and unkempt summer estate. The estate is, of course, in Alberto’s small home town. The woman wasting away in the estate? Of course! The wife of the big wig is the all-grown-up pretty local girl with a heart of gold and a head for literature. Everything you think will happen? Oh you were right, it happens. The dry and dusty landscape is far more interesting than the characters within. If you are curious about this collection, do not start here.
“Me and Carlos” – Tom Perrotta, performed by Jackson White 3/5
I am a sucker for a coming of age story, and I cannot keep myself from jumping into stories specifically about high school athletes who believe that they are owed the world! Digger is a high school junior and a rising soccer star. Well, he could be a star, if the preternaturally talented kids ahead of him got out of his way. He works hard, but he’s carefree. He’s loved by friends and neighbors, but not relied upon. He’s smart enough to coast by, bot not a genius. He’s wealthy but not the wealthiest, cute but not the most handsome- you know- he lives a pretty charmed life. Enter Carlos: a Honduran immigrant and fast fixture in Digger’s friend group and life. Prom anxiety dances with mental health worries, immigration worries party with keggers in the woods- the haves and the have-nots continually slam against each other but never see their similarities. “Me and Carlos” is a selfish little piece, and I appreciate that it leans hard into highschool mentality. The only thing that took me out of the story was the performance from Jackson White. He does a perfectly fine job with the material, but his voice is just too stereotypically “adult” to hear the teenager within.
“Simplexity” – Kiley Reid, performed by Arden Cho 3/5
“Simplexity” is the most complex story of the entire Currency collection. There is nothing simple about Simplexity; some sort of vague and trendy startup where Yumi works as a Project Coordinator. She is not sure exactly what Simplexity does, nor is she entirely sure what her role of Project Coordinator entails. She does know that the other people on her team- especially the wealthier, straighter, and whiter team members- treat her as a gopher and fill her days with “bitch work”. Frustrated with her co-worker’s lack of respect, she seeks out the guidance of a Black co-worker who seems to have figured out a way to navigate the hierarchical web of Simplexity. She can’t find her co-worker, but she does find one of the women who has been treating her as a personal assistant. The woman, who is white, is enjoying two time-slots at the Simplexity weekly haircut perk; an event of trims and blowouts offered for free on the roof. She has a double time-slot as Martha, the Black co-worker, does not use her designated slot.
Yumi, full of righteous but misguided anger, goes to a white supervisor about making the Simplexity perks more inclusive…but does she truly know what it means to be inclusive, or does she want to punish the mean girl for taking advantage of the situation? Yumi learns some big lessons about race, inclusivity, self-esteem, and climbing the corporate ladder. My only complaint is for an element of Arden Cho’s performance. While she voices Yumi and most other characters with both ease and care, Cho- who is Korean-American, gives one of the Black co-workers an over-the-top and completely unnecessary “blaccent”.