Sarahland, the debut story collection from Sam Cohen, links disparate stories through a unique framework: each story features a character named Sarah. This architecture allows Cohen to explore a variety of topics from heartbreak to youthful self-discovery. The stories stand alone, but by linking them with Sarahs, the collection manifests something more complex. There are other unifying elements as well, like queer and gender non-conforming protagonists, and anti-establishment, anti-conformity perspectives.
The stories shift over the course of the collection from naturalistic towards more surrealist, stretch metaphors into the fantastical, and embrace the increasingly bizarre. For instance, in the story “Becoming Trees”, Sarah and Jan decide to, well, become trees. Sarah laments how the people in their lives have changed, and not necessarily for the better, such as Tam, who is “straight now with a kid.” Sarah and Jan’s change is more fantastical, with the couple handing over their house to a friend, sprouting roots, and literally becoming trees. Cohen also likes to play with folklore, such as with “The First Sarah,” a retelling of the biblical story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar. Cohen remakes the narrative into a queer and trans love story with a feminist rejection of patriarchial oversight, quite the opposite of the original Hebrew telling.
Content warning for next paragraph: sexual violence
There are also more naturalistic stories in the collection. The titular “Sarahland” portrays the lives of several college-age women. They nickname their dormitory Sarahland because everyone residing there is named Sarah. Although most of the Sarahs are hoping to find a nice Jewish boy to settle down with, protagonist Dr. Sarah — a pre-med major — attempts to break the Sarah mold. One of the strengths of this story is how Cohen accurately captures the waywardness of youth. Dr. Sarah struggles to determine the direction she wants her life to take and whether she should conform to the same traditional, heteronormative desires embraced by the other Sarahs. She worries a traditional domestic fate will leave her unfulfilled. Just as she has a breakthrough and embraces her own confidence, a man rapes her in the entrance of the dorm. In that instant, her entire awakening is snatched from her. She returns to her room as though nothing happened, suddenly, passively accepting her fate. There is a shocking power to this story; readers are unnerved while Sarah is left numb. Cohen leverages our surprise from the sudden violence to maximum effect, and then just as quickly, Sarah accepts this violence, leaving readers to bear it alone.
Not all the stories are as violent. There are characters in relatively healthy relationships, although this doesn’t necessarily prevent them from heartbreak. For instance, the narrator of “Exorcism, Or Eating My Twin,” slowly finds her relationship fading away, and realizing there was never as strong a connection as she thought there was. The two women are such a great match, the narrator refers to them as twins, but this isn’t enough to keep the relationship sustained. In “Gemstones,” a genderqueer couple, Manny and Ry, have their relationship tested when a visiting poet comes between them. In both these stories, the dominant narrative follows the natural ebb and flow of relationships. These are seemingly mundane and ordinary themes for a collection built around the transgressive. But though these characters believe they are rejecting traditional expectations, the source of their happiness and unhappiness is tied to whether or not they are partnered up in a romantic pairing. A tale as old as time.
There are moments in the collection where Cohen’s narrative perspective assumes a common understanding of human experience through the lens of contemporary progressive philosophy. Cohen’s stories create a dichotomy between the conseravative values of traditional norms and a more enlightened, open mindedness. For instance, in “Naked Furniture,” Sarah, a sex worker, notes that one of her customers is willing to spend thousands of dollars buying sexual pleasure, but also is the kind of person that “talked shit about sex workers and voted Republican.” In context, this observation is wry and witty, although also would probably fall flat with C-PAC attendees. Moments like this appear throughout the collection contributing levity and humor, but also make the reader a co-conspirator against convention.
The central tension across the stories is built around the protagonists confronting a set of norms and expectations and choosing to either reject them or participate in them. In some cases, these are broad societal norms, like Sarah in “Sarahland” being pushed towards a heteronormative marriage. In other cases it is more personal, like the expectations of partners, such as Manny becoming upset when Ry spends too much time with the poet. Cohen wants us to reject these expectations, even at the cost of superficial happiness.
The final story in the collection provides a beautiful conclusion and helps bind all the stories into a coherent, singular project. “The Purple Epoch” describes a time long after the last Sarah has existed on earth, long after civilization has collapsed. The story is a flash into the future. Cohen predicts the end of everything, but with a hopeful nod to a cyclical repetition. Bacteria evolve from the soupy remains growing among our forever chemicals and styrofoam, and the cycle of life repeats.
Sarahland is a collection that suggests a better world comes when people challenge the status quo. The characters are not always rewarded for their risks, but the systemic societal flaws that entrap them are illuminated even in their failures. The stories themselves push the expectations of storytelling, venturing into the fantastical. Cohen embraces the bizarre, and often leverages it against the ordinary. Sarahland is a uniquely premised collection successfully corralling a varied assortment of ideas into a singular, unified statement.
by Sam Cohen
Grand Central Publishing
Published March 09, 2021
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.