Pluralistic: 01 Nov 2022 "When Franny Stands Up," Eden Robins' debut novel

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The cover for 'When Franny Stands Up.'

"When Franny Stands Up," Eden Robins' debut novel (permalink)

Of all the alternate history premises in fiction, the McGuffin of Eden Robins's debut, "When Franny Stands Up," is one of the most unlikely and – it turns out – rich. Robins' novel opens on Franny, a teenage Jewish girl from the Chicago suburbs who's snuck out on Christmas Eve to hear the notorious comedian Boopsie Baxter do standup.

It's an all-female audience. After all, WWII is in full swing, and all the young men are Over There, including Leon, the older brother Franny adores. But there's another reason that Boopsie can pack the house with women: she's got a Showstopper.

This is the alternate history part. In Robins' world, the advent of World War II and the rise of woman comedians (filling in the vacuum left by the departure of all the men) reveals the existence of Showstoppers: involuntary psychic reactions that woman comedians can induce in female audience members when they're really cooking.

Some Showstoppers are relatively mild – like the uncanny sensation that you have just caught your bus. Boopsie Baxter's is a little more intense: she induces involuntary, powerful orgasms in the women who hear her sets. So yeah, she's got a packed house.

The magazines where Franny learned about Boopsie are squeamish about this, speaking in ellipses and euphemisms of Boopsie's Showstopper, and Frannie (young, naive) doesn't understand what's happening when Boopsie works her magic. Panicked and ashamed, she runs out of the room and flees home – just in time to learn that her brother Leon is missing in Belgium, lost in battle and presumed dead.

That's the setup. When we return to the action seven years later, Leon is home – shell-shocked and traumatized – and the world is roaring into the post-war new normal. Franny gets roped into sneaking out to a show at the Blue Moon, Chicago's last all-female showcase for comedians and their Showstoppers.

And that's where the action really takes off. Franny, it turns out, is funny. She's also pretty messed up. And soon enough, she's involved with the gangster's wife who runs the Blue Moon, and the comedians in her stable, and there's the clean-cut young man across the street who sexually assaulted her on her 21st birthday and the blockbusting Black family who lives next door to him but might as well be on the moon for all the neighbors interact with them.

On one level, this is a period coming-of-age piece about Franny, who is trying to release the humor that comes from the pain in her life and the lives around her – and reveal her Showstopper, and maybe save the Blue Moon from being shut down by the gangster who owns it.

On another level, this is an utterly contemporary story about allyship, gender and sexuality, one that never introduces an anachronism even as it explores how these eternal themes played out in a very different time and place.

It's a book about comedy, so it's funny – but it's a book about comedy, so it's also wrenching and difficult to look at (or look away from) in places. The supernatural conceit at the heart of the tale – the Showstoppers – are played perfectly, in matter-of-fact realness, and the rules that say men can't experience or create Showstoppers creates perfect cover for how something so profound could be confined to such a small corner of the world.

I taught Robins at the Clarion West workshop more than a decade ago. Even then, she was a standout for her slick prose, deft characterizations, and humor. Now, an overnight sensation more than a decade in the making, that promise has blossomed into an outstanding talent, a storyteller who manages to tell tales that feel utterly contemporary and like old classics.

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Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

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