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Will You Love This Book In All Its 'Damaged Glory'? Maybe

Raphael Bob-Waksberg's new short story collection, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, opens with an Internet date that's going well. "He's handsome, and charming, and everything he claimed to be on the website," the woman thinks, somewhat to her surprise. Later, at the man's house, he offers her a can of cashews that looks suspiciously like a novelty product that, once opened, will release a spring-loaded snake.

Understandably, the woman balks. "Open this can and everything will be okay," she imagines the can saying to her. "You will be so glad you put your faith in me. This time is different; I promise you it's different. Why would I lie to you?" The story ends with the woman still undecided; having been burned before, she can't choose between open-hearted vulnerability and self-preserving wariness.

It's a fitting opening to the book by Bob-Waksberg, best known as the creator of the Netflix animated comedy series BoJack Horseman. Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory is an imperfect but promising debut from a writer whose view of relationships seems to alternate between hopeful and jaundiced.

In the story "We Men of Science," Bob-Waksberg follows a science professor who has co-created an "Anti-Door," a passageway to an alternate universe where everything is the opposite of how it is in the real world. "You walk through the Anti-Door, and suddenly you're a different person," he explains. "Something is lost and something is gained. Something is forgotten and something is found."

When the scientist decides to test the invention out, he finds an alternate version of himself — an oblivious, jockish lout — and one of his wife, whom he eventually develops feelings for. It's a sharp, humorous story about the expectations that come with love, and its ending is as dark as it is funny.

It also showcases Bob-Waksberg's talent for conjuring fantastical scenarios and writing about them with a straight face. He does something similar in "A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion," about a couple planning their wedding in a bizarre world in which it's de rigueur for the betrothed to sacrifice goats and perform "the Dance of the Cuckolded Woodland Sprite," and in "Up-and-Comers," which follows a "alt-folk/fuzz-punk/shoe-core" band whose members have develop superpowers they can only activate when drunk. Bob-Waksberg concentrates on the human aspects, only slyly waving at the extraordinary — human relationships, he seems to be saying, are weirder than anything else our imaginations can come up with.

But while Bob-Waksberg clearly has a vast imagination, he's actually at his best when he takes on the world as we know it, with no superheroes or alternate universes. The best story in the collection is "These Are Facts," about Heather, a young woman celebrating her high school graduation with a family trip to Mexico: "You were done with high school forever, and soon they would ship you off to college in Boston, where you would forget about all the friends and enemies you had in high school, all the things that were so important, all the inside jokes."

While in Mexico, Heather shares a hotel room with her half-brother, West, whom she hasn't seen in years. The story follows their uneasy attempts to build a friendship, despite having little in common — Heather is shy and conflict averse; West is a semi-charming jackass with a drinking problem. It's a beautiful, restrained story that demonstrates Bob-Waksberg's gift for observing the sometimes uncomfortable contours of family relationships.

... you have to admire Bob-Waksberg for his open-heartedness and his ambition — when you swing for the fences enough times, you're bound to whiff once in a while.

Not all of the stories in the collection succeed, however. Bob-Waksberg sometimes allows his whimsy to get the better of him — that's the case in "Rufus," told from the point of view of a dog observing the behavior of his owner, whom he calls "ManMonster." It's a high-concept story that's both obvious and sentimental; there just isn't much of a point besides "Dogs think humans are weird but love us anyway." Which is true, of course, but not enough to sustain a story.

To his credit, Bob-Waksberg is willing to take risks — some of the stories in the book are told in the second person, which he consistently manages to pull off. He's less successful, though, in "the poem," which is exactly what it sounds like. In a series of quatrains, Bob-Waksberg tells the story of a woman's broken engagement and subsequent fling. The concept is in line with his other stories, but the verse is distracting and, well, pretty bad; it reads like the lyrics to an overly earnest emo-pop song.

Still, you have to admire Bob-Waksberg for his open-heartedness and his ambition — when you swing for the fences enough times, you're bound to whiff once in a while. Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory is a mixed bag, and when the author stumbles, it can be difficult to read. Nonetheless, it's a respectable book with some excellent work in it, and Bob-Waksberg clearly has real potential as a writer of fiction.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.