The title of "Where You're All Going," a quartet of novellas by Californian Joan Frank, is also that of the book's final and best story. It's spoken by a strange, unknowable woman in a video showed at her funeral: "I'm here to tell you goodbye, and to talk a little about how it feels to be on my way to ... where you're all going!"

The woman, Julia, who is about to die of cancer, never had much to say in life, but on her deathbed, she lays bare her fury at the "ax-blow" she has been dealt and rambles on, making it "her first item of business not to let the spared feel spared."

The horrifying video only gets worse, showing Julia after her death: "It is the mouth frozen open which tells you [she is now dead] — clamps at your sternum like pincers — like Monet's portrait of his dead wife, Camille."

This excruciating funeral, which the narrator, a woman who barely knows Julia, describes as death pornography, is long, melodramatic and theatrical, created by Julia's wildly grieving husband, Mason, a theater director.

Cut! When next we see Mason, he is happily telling his barber, the narrator's husband, that he is now married to a man and they're thinking of having a baby together. Julia is never mentioned.

This atonal juxtaposition of Mason's nearly insane grief and his rapid move into a new life is just the sort of thing that fascinates Frank. In all four novellas, the characters are facing loss of some sort. In one, a happily married older woman is plunged into obsessive unpleasant memories of a long-ago lover after she learns of his death. In another, a lonely widow shyly reaches out to a younger man whose friendliness she mistakes for interest in her. In the third, a young couple expecting a baby struggle to find balance in a longtime friendship with an increasingly paranoid and angry loner.

Frank's stories catch people at what, in looking back, they will identify as the most awkward and embarrassing moments in their lives. That makes for some fascinating plot twists, but also for irritation at these privileged characters' self-absorption. Are they leading wisely examined lives, or simply navel-gazing? It's hard to tell sometimes.

Music, and sometimes nature, play redemptive roles in these stories, a balm for characters who rarely find comfort in each other. There is also humor, though it's usually dark. And lots of, well, weirdness.

Frank's writing is taut, precise, with no word or image wasted. Her work has won a number of prizes; "Where You're All Going" garnered the 2018 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her mastery of the novella form is complete and powerful, but prepare to be disconcerted, even disturbed, by the people she writes of.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.

Where You're All Going
By: Joan Frank.
Publisher: Sarabande Books, 241 pages, $16.95 paperback.