“She had this band? Rainbow Rainbow? Their music made other girls gay,” insists Heidi, a teenage girl in the penultimate story of Lydia Conklin’s debut collection. Surrounded by people she imagines as older, more sophisticated, and more comfortable in their queerness than herself, she clings to the stories of her bolder, brazen best friend Kim as talismans. These stories don’t need to be true to offer her a reprieve from her sheltered sidekick life. Kim’s stories of her old life at her old school are, for Heidi, signals from a world that doesn’t exist, where she’s better connected than she is, where she can be charismatic by extension, where she can reach out and touch the life she dreams of.
Like the imaginary band that gives this collection its name, Rainbow Rainbow is fiction-as-talisman. This debut collection from Lydia Conklin shows us queer life in all its vulnerability, frailty, and growing pains, and it holds off despair through gestures of hope and connection in unlikely places, against the odds.
There is so, so much to love in this collection: its melancholic realism, its desperate and heartfelt protagonists, its narrative willingness to follow through with consequences rather than to flinch from the implications of a story’s action. The tensions in each thread hold the others taut; this cat’s-cradle effect is the hallmark of my favorite collections of short fiction, especially as you move through a collection and see the strands pulling, so that what began as a tangle becomes an intricately variegated web.
Over and over but without growing samey, Conklin’s collection repeats and refines this formula. Whether it’s a sex-addicted librarian in recovery, a negligent girl who is wild about her girlfriend and less so about the girlfriend’s dog, or uneasy children in over their heads at their first house party, Conklin’s protagonists are the sidelong queers at the periphery of their lives, whose response to getting in too deep is to go even deeper. After all, isn’t that what we do when we are so curdled by our desperation that we accept proximity to what we want at any cost?
Flirting with risk and connection, Rainbow Rainbow’s stories are connected by this thread of experimentation. Repeatedly, and through a variety of lenses, we follow behind characters fucking around and finding out. For me, the highlights of this collection gathered into clusters. Highlight characters include the protagonists of “Pioneer” (a middle schooler shedding gender and decorum during a school activity day), “A Fearless Moral Inventory” (a recovering sex addict staves off relapse and learns who in her life she cares enough about to truly trust), and “Cheerful Until Next Time” (a trans man in a queer literature book club has a risky idea for how to confess his love to a classmate). Highlight premises include “Sunny Talks” (a closeted nonbinary aunt takes their trans nephew to a trans YouTube convention, encountering a younger generation living lives that would have been unimaginable during their own childhood), “Laramie Time” (a gay couple in Laramie try for a child while navigating the secrets and expectations in their relationship), and “Counselor of My Heart” (a tragic accident by a negligent girlfriend threatens to derail a grad school relationship before it can even really begin). There are magnificent portrayals of queer youth and intergenerational queer community, with all its attendant friction and pressure. From middle school to middle age, no one can accuse Lydia Conklin of not having the range.
Conklin’s greatest skill, however, is resisting the urge for wish fulfillment. There’s a lot of tenderness in their realism — not in the superficial way that “tender” gets bandied about lately, but a profound affection for the ways that queerness involves reaching for the unattainable as we continually grow toward the sun. These moments are akin to unrequited love, but it’s often an identity recognition or community love rather than a solely romantic one. Again and again, readers watch the excruciating moments when relationships begin to dissolve and when a long-sought-after connection slips through grasping fingers. Characters mistake moments of abandonment for moments of closeness, and we hope helplessly that they won’t do That One Thing as they’re drifting inescapably toward a mistake. They arrive at points of no return, and turn around as if bewildered at how they got there. For readers, it’s classical dramatic irony at its best.
These moments of missed connection arrive in the reader’s hands full of emotional resonance. With so much access to the internal turmoil of these people coming to know themselves and their capabilities, we can’t help but want for everything to be alright: for the newly out nonbinary person to connect straightforwardly with their young trans YouTuber nephew; for the couple compromising about having a child with a friend as sperm donor to arrive at an easy, seamless queer family; for youthful sexual experimentation to be harmless; for apologies to fix mistakes. And sometimes, they simply can’t. These moments seem, at first glance, to be moments of failure, but they’re not that straightforward. Instead, these moments are the kinds of rock-and-hard-place choices that make the community we hope for worthwhile.
In resisting the tidiness of a happy ending, Conklin demonstrates something profound and important that made me cry at several of these stories. Even when what we’ve hoped for is within reach, we aren’t freed of our obligation to those others in our lives who are more vulnerable than we are and to whom we owe our protection, be that younger generations of queer people (“Sunny Talks”, “Ooh, The Suburbs”), or be that the pet ferrets left in a half-cleaned cage during a festival (“A Fearless Moral Inventory”). Frustration and disappointment are, sometimes, part and parcel of living out our values. The hope (and humor!) comes from the knowledge that these sacrifices are worthwhile.
It must be said that one of the threads in the mix is a strand of potent, aching secondhand embarrassment. I’m personally very susceptible to this — I joke about how after a lifetime of being goofy and firsthand-embarrassing myself, secondhand embarrassment is the only thing that really gets me. There were times when I set this collection down to get my breathing sorted out and under control, times I’d take a few days between stories to “walk it off,” times I threw the book across a picnic table because a twist had wound too tightly around me. But when I tell you that I loved these characters fiercely even when they made me cringe out of my skeleton, I want you to know how much that means coming from me. I need you to understand how good the story has to be for me to pick it back up after flinching so hard I saw God!
This collection is every bit that good — and then some. Rainbow Rainbow is a cat’s-cradle strong enough to catch even the nerviest reader (me), a safety net for the most easily bruised parts of our hearts. As Conklin twists the threads of each story tighter and tighter, you’re in capable hands. When you think you’ve gotten too deep, go deeper; the payoff comes when each story is so tightly wound that it snaps in on itself, twisted into a tight and perfect coil.