“The Office Of Historical Corrections” is a Necessary Critique of the Current Moment – Chicago Review of Books

Danielle Evans’s second story collection, The Office Of Historical Corrections, draws on the current zeitgeist with provocative narratives examining race, female friendship, and privilege. The collection concludes with a novella by the same name dealing with both our present obsession with truth and the historical legacy of racism. Women carry this collection, and the characters of these stories are burdened by the death of loved ones, emotional personal decisions, and the weight of their families in crisis, but the persistent interrogation throughout the collection is America’s unending racism. 

The stories are tightly structured, compact and efficient, driven by wry wit and Evans’s keen observations. For example, the first story of the collection, “Happily Ever After,” is set on the Titanic—not the doomed ocean liner, but a replica banquet hall built on dry land. Evans quips, “it was not a metaphor: it was an actual replica.” The playful narrative voice draws us in, but Evans is merely toying with us. Like the other stories in the collection, the upbeat voice is a rouse disguising far more sinister undertones. Protagonist Lyssa faces fertility concerns and a dying mother, while routinely confronting racism. The characters endure racial conflicts, whether it’s harassment while picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy or Lyssa never having the opportunity to play the part of a princess at the Titanic because of “something about historical accuracy, meaning no black princesses.” Thematically, this conflict reappears throughout the collection. The Black characters end up punished for the color of their skin. 

The stories are strengthened by the use of sarcasm and droll observation. For instance, in “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain,” protagonist Rena is dragged along as part of a bridal party. The dresses leave the bridesmaids looking “like a team of bridal Power Rangers.” These kinds of quips add levity to the otherwise menacing tone. Even Rena’s narrative, as close as any story in the collection comes to having a happy bending, is marred by her personal tragedy. Escaping a troubled fate seems impossible for Evans’s characters, and their sadness permeates through the narratives. 

A standout story in the collection is “Boys Go to Jupiter.” Claire doesn’t get along with her stepmother, nicknamed Puppy. Visiting her father during her college break, Claire starts dating a high school student, although Jackson is actually older than she is. Her father lives in Florida, explaining all that and perhaps why Jackson gives her a Confederate flag bikini. Claire is unaccustomed to the warm winters and the overt racism. Then Jackson posts a photo to social media of her wearing the hateful swimwear. 

Carmen, who lives in the college dorm across the hall from Claire calls her out for wearing the hate symbol. Instead of apologizing, Claire does the opposite and antagonizes the woman with a threatening note. Soon the entire college has chosen a side. A libertarian comes to Claire’s defense. He is, like typical libertarians, the kind privileged white guy that thinks he knows a lot more than he does. Claire ends up doubling down and embracing the Confederate flag despite her previous apathy towards it, a privilege of her whiteness. The flag controversy drags up a past Claire wants to forget. As a child, she grew up next door to Angela and Aaron, two Black siblings, and her best friends. She sleeps with Aaron and later Aaron dies in a car accident driving Claire home—because Claire was drunk. 

The brilliance of Evans’s writing is in the ability to both generate sympathy for this cringe-worthy white girl while simultaneously eviscerating her. Claire’s antics antagonized Carmen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Claire deserved to be on the receiving end of “twenty-two different rednecks” sending her “supportive pictures of their penises.” Claire’s actions are despicable, but her mother is dead, her high school boyfriend is dead, and Evans forces us to acknowledge that even though she’s mostly created this crisis herself, maybe she doesn’t deserve an inbox full of dick pics.  

Although Claire does face a college disciplinary hearing and even is forced to confront her fellow students in a town hall event, unlike so many of the other black women in this story collection, Claire never really faces any meaningful comeuppance. Aaron is dead. Angela lost her brother. Carmen lives in fear. But Claire? Her white privilege endures, and in the end “she can still be anybody she wants to.” There are no consequences for her, although the Black people her life intersects with all pay a heavy price. 

About half the collection consists of the novella, also titled “The Office Of Historical Corrections.” As with the other stories, racism defines the narrative, although the greater expanse of the novella allows Evans to examine female friendship as well. Cassie, an academic and historian, works at a government agency responsible for fact checking everyday objects, like a flyer at a local bakery incorrectly explaining Juneteenth as a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. There to order a cake, Cassie ends up printing out a correction sticker explaining the holiday actually commemorates the day slaves in Texas learned they were free. Also employed by the agency is Genevieve, a woman Cassie has been frenemies with since grade school. There they were the only two Black students enrolled in the expensive private school.

Genevieve has her own agenda. She continues making historical corrections even after leaving the agency, and one of those corrections draws both she and Cassie into pursuing the truth about a murdered Black man in Wisconsin. Here the novella becomes something of a who-done-it mystery, and as the women investigate, they are once more forced to deal with common racism endured by Black Americans. Underpinning the story is their friendship. It began because they were both the only Black people in an all white social circle, but somehow their lives are yoked together anyway. Cassie explains her discomfort around Genevieve because she “felt revealed by the only nearby witness to my life as a whole.” The uneasiness they feel stems from their forced friendship dictated by their otherness rather than by their sameness. They are only old friends because of the racism of other people.

The Office Of Historical Corrections is a collection for the moment. Evans skillfully interprets cancel culture, fake news, and political cults in order to craft  a unique critique of the country’s underlying racism. The success of the collection stems from balancing the gloom of racism with Evans wry commentary. The snarky narrative voice cuts deeply. These stories are now even more necessary. 

The Office of Historical Corrections
By Danielle Evans
Riverhead Books
Published November 10, 2020

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