Things You Might Hear in a Conch Shell: A Review of Joe Sacksteder’s Make/Shift by Amy Dotson

Make/Shift is Joe Sacksteder’s debut story collection: a collection that won the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature from Sarabande. It's a series of stories and musings that are relentless in their sharp experimentation, cleverness, and playfulness. There’s an awareness in Sacksteder’s writing that insists he pays attention to the cracks in daily life, quite literally, according to a musing on how crack sealant in pavement looks like language in “Enough Sealant to Pool the Concavity." But the stories don’t end there; they don’t simply float around in the sphere of smart phrases and sonic games. These stories are poignant and emotionally full. This book gives you the sense that Sacksteder has internalized everything. You'll find incredible joy in his sentences and come across phrases that feels like they were taken straight from your head. There were too many moments when I wanted to just sit and be with a sentence I had just read, but that would mean I’d never have finished the book. Of course, it's possible to take it slow and really live inside this book for a while, but the stories are also so good that readers will want to keep turning pages. In terms of problems, that’s certainly not the worst one to have.

The stories range from the surreal to the deeply real, from Americana to science-fiction, from movie scripts to visual maps that display thought holes about Jimmy Buffet—which sounds like a recipe for whiplash—but Sacksteder glides from form to form, style to style, with a cohesiveness that makes each transition seem effortless, like his natural territory is everywhere. There are a few more-traditional narratives in this book, but even those subvert tropes and defy expectations in Sacksteder’s clever fashion. There’s a cohesion in this book that seems like it should be impossible given the range of narrative modes and forms.

The first piece, “Earshot-Grope-Cessation,” certainly sets the bar for what to expect. It’s a violent back-and-forth that exists somewhere in the time between a car crash and a piano recital, hanging in specific points in time for what could possibly be forever, rubbing raw the emotional wound of a mother who has lost her son. It showcases Sacksteder’s ear for poetic prose right off the bat: “Transfixed, leaden, inert, she willfully blurred her vision. As cessation. As lurched. As her and her memory and her muscle memory.” The story also showcases his penchant for playfulness, his ability to somehow conjure up a concrete image with not-quite-nonsense: “Josh Danfoss lost control of burning and was probably knocked Audi before they stopped rolling and started unconscious,” which is one of my favorite lines in the entire book. This story immediately throws the reader neck-deep into a new kind of perception; it’s one that they’re likely not used to, but it still feels natural.

The first story is followed by a short, spicy rant about what opportunity really looks like in “Opportunity is Missed by Most People”: “Four hundred inbred bunnies because a sick woman in Reno thought her acre of a backyard was sanctuary enough,” is placed alongside other short quips that tear apart the American conception of opportunity. It’s both a criticism of, and extremely empathetic to, the myriad of things we put ourselves through to try to get ahead.

“Game in the Sand” is a snappy piece about the movie of an egotistical director who's arrogant enough to make his own “Making Of.” The story has everything needed for a good piece of Americana: a dog, a truck, a gun. The artful subtlety of the cheesiness in the story-within-the-story is this piece’s highlight, giving it the moodiness and atmosphere of an episode of Twin Peaks. The ending of the story is still shocking, however, even considering the campy nature, and I never thought the piece would end up where it did. Which is another thing worth mentioning about these stories: they never end up where you think they will.

“Ten Million Worldmarks for the Ouroborics,” is a heck of a title, but the story itself is even more and it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t recap the plot. It follows a young boy who grew up in some sort of religious, plain society as he tries to win ten million worldmarks on a game show called Find Your Fetish. What seems like a hilarious premise actually lends itself to a somewhat heartbreaking piece as this young boy learns about the world while standing on the stage of this game show. The story is introspective and philosophical in nature, tackling concepts that float somewhere around the realm of Noam Chomsky. This story was also the first where I started to notice something Sacksteder is particularly good at: mantras and platitudes.

Many of his stories contain these one-liners and mantras that can’t possibly be as poignant as they are. He writes an incredible fortune cookie in “The Unquestionable Sincerity of Fire Alarms,” a story about a school hockey tournament that wavers between coming-of-age and the desperation of middle-age, featuring some stream-of-consciousness narrative that James Joyce would have been happy to write: “Faster and faster the oscillations, until Catherine Leroux halts it with her tar pit of a paragraph, her stupid . . . oh, what’s the word? There it is! Placidity. What’s it called when the one thing stands for the whole?” The small-town, coming-of-age, sports fiction premise of this story might make one initially hesitant to read it. But this story—like all the others—is infused with Sacksteder’s cleverness and narrative experimentation, making it as enjoyable and interesting to read as any of the others.

One of my favorite stories in the book that also deals with the youth of America is “Lucky Girl.” This story, which falls right in the middle of the series, highlights the bureaucratic slog of an arts academy where a group of female Korean students are having some major internal conflicts, which seems like it’s about who gets to wear clouds, but gets at something much darker. The story follows the counselors at the school, who realize that they may not be equipped to handle the conflict. One of the more traditional narratives in the book, it is skillfully told. It is careful, conscious, and serious. It also features my favorite mantra in the book: “I like nightmares.” This story made me realize that while Sacksteder is incredibly clever, he is also sensitive to issues that plague American teenagers and attempts to tear apart a system to show its dark insides. This is something that’s done again, and again, and again in each of these stories. This book breaks apart ritual, routine, ceremony, and tradition, and leaves readers both unnerved and sympathetic.

But it’s also a fun book. “Nepenthe” is almost a detective story about a boy named Jake who has an odor problem. Meaning he smells incredible. While not necessarily any less interesting content-wise, this story really highlights Sacksteder’s penchant for the silly and surreal. Though it’s a fun story, whenever Sacksteder goes into this realm of absurdity, it’s never just for the sake of absurdity. Everything Sacksteder has written in this book shows the readers that what might seem weird at first actually might not be so weird at all.

Make/Shift can be found through Sarabande Books for $16.95 USD. His most recent book, a novel called Driftless Quintet was published in November 2019 and is available through multiple sources from Schaffner Press’s website. Joe Sacksteder’s writing has also appeared inSalt Hill, Ninth Letter, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Read his story, "Tunneling" in Issue 14 of Miracle Monocle.  

AMY DOTSON is an associate editor of Miracle Monocle.