The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling; Book Review

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Another Skylight books reading, another favorite novel. Seems to be a theme in my life lately, something I’ve taken as a reassuring constant. Readings in this literary bookstore offer a bit of a reprieve from normal life- time seems to slow down when I’m listening to someone read. The streetlights on my walk back to my parked car seem brighter, and my mind is clear, observant. This past Sunday the reading was complemented with a miniature writing workshop with my friend- we exchanged pieces for the first time, and it felt not only good but full, a plunge back into a consciousness I’d been away from for too long. Recently, I wrote a 23-page (single-spaced… yikes) essay on Adventure Time- now, my obsessive and panicked and anxious brain is giving me the OK to say goodbye to AT for now and to move on, again. I’m always reading, and I hope to always be writing, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I get high on the couch and the night goes around me while I sit in a stupor. And those nights I love- they, too, are important to my creativity. It’s these relatively small nights that attract me the most, their immediate and hyper-specific settings. It’s what I loved about Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State.

This novel, written in first-person present tense, focuses on Daphne, a woman alone in northern California with her 16 month old baby, Honey. Daphne, a middle-class woman, has vacated her home in San Francisco and her job at a university there, in order to check in on her family’s mobile home in a small town home to pro-Trump and pro State of Jefferson people. What starts as a quick trip up north quickly becomes a ten day exploration of a specific isolation- Daphne does not return to work, and instead stays in her grandparent’s (now dead) mobile home. Readers quickly learn that Daphne’s husband, Engin, is in his home country, Turkey, due to an immigration issue, and that he’s been gone for the majority of his daughter’s life. Kiesling frames this story within ten days, each chapter marking a different day of Daphne and Honey’s pseudo-getaway. Isolation, which Daphne has become accustomed to, takes on a new form during these ten days, and transforms into a specific aloneness, one that is not punctuated with work or daycare or even a functioning internet connection. Engin, far away, looks on his wife as concerned as he can be, and Daphne’s first person immediate consciousness constantly provides honest insights into her bitterness, her resentment, sometimes even her hatred, for his missing state. She oscillates between feeling thankful for him, happy to have met by chance in a bar during her work in Turkey, to feeling useless, catatonic with immobility. “I pull on my cigarette and look around at my ceyiz and get the feeling that sometimes comes over me when I think of Engin, one that has nothing to do with Skype, when my brain can manage to slough off the impedimenta of logistics and access, the feeling of whole-body contentment and gratitude and need, the obvious core of everything I feel about him and which I can only hope will continue to be there existing at some unseen level, shaping decisions and material outcomes until we both die.” 

Throughout the novel there are scheduled Skype calls, diaper changes, dinners arranged, cheese sticks given out as snacks and then regretted, playtimes, nausea-inducing difficult naptimes, walks… on the surface, they’re boring tasks, perhaps not warranted of constituting a novel. But it’s for this reason that Kiesling wrote this novel- how dire can packing a diaper bag feel when you’re alone, when your infant is crying, when you only have two hands? Daphne isn’t in a breakdown, she’s in motherhood. Her frustrations double back into a cycle of shame and self-hate; we witness her doubting nearly every decision she makes on behalf of Honey, ones regarding her diet, her naptimes, etc. Daphne struggles to be a mother- what does that mean without the baby’s father? What does it mean to siphon the daily experiences of living into a Skype phone call with a shitty connection? Daphne’s life, what used to be important, falls away with only a shred of guilt. There is enough guilt swirling, after all, in this room with Honey. “Here are the ways I have imagined Honey dying: she stands up on a chair and the chair tips back and crashes through the window and the glass shatters and pierces her throat. She stands up on a chair and the chair tips back and crashes through the window and she falls two stories and shatters on the pavement. She darts out into the street like a panicked cat and gets crushed by a bus. She strangles in the blind cords. We fly to Turkey and someone blows a hole in the fuselage or the pilot reaches the nadir of a years-long spiritual torment and drives the plane into a mountainside of the pitot tubes freeze up and the inexperienced pilot who knows something is wrong is overruled by his imperious boss who was in the bathroom and has no idea what the fuck is going on but always has to have the last word and the place speeds into the ocean. I give her a tortilla and she folds it up and crams it into her mouth all at once and stops breathing. The ceiling fan comes loose from its 1920s moorings and crushes her skull while she eats breakfast. We visit my father-in-law and he doesn’t pay attention and she is swept away by the sea. We go anywhere and I don’t pay attention and someone spirits her away. I go to work and forget to bring her to daycare and she roams the house screaming until she falls down the stairs and breaks her neck. I go to work and the Big One hits and I can’t get home to her and she dies in the wreckage of her daycare with all the other babies. We go to Istanbul and some demented widow from Dagestan blows herself up and Honey is scattered across the pavement. We stay here and she goes to school and some demented teen takes his dipshit mother’s unsecured assault rifle and fires rounds and rounds of bullets into her body and her classmates’ bodies. She rides a bus across Bulgaria and the bus veers off the road and flies into a concrete barrier. Her cells suddenly decide to murder her with mad replication. She gets in a taxi outside of Diyarbakir and a van crosses the median. Why did I have a child? To have a child is to court loss.”

Although this is a novel primarily about motherhood and the shame and darkness intertwined in womanhood holding hands with motherhood, Kiesling also manages to connect issues of politics into the story. It’s a quiet thread, but it’s undeniable; Engin has been separated from his family because of a governmental clerical error, and no amounts of money or paperwork or attorneys help to get him back. In Altavista, where her family’s mobile home is, Daphne is surrounded by people like her neighbor, Cindy, who support the State of Jefferson, a movement that pushes for northern California to be its own state, untethered to cities such as LA and San Francisco, liberal hubs that do not reflect the state’s less populated north. “I see it’s an older woman, classic Altavista, short hair western shirt nice white pants, she could actually be my grandmother back from the dead, except that my grandmother loved being a Californian, loved going down to the cites, loved eating Crab Louie in San Francisco and tacos in San Diego and going to Los Angeles to visit her cowboy friends in the film lots. I can’t in my bones believe that she would support any of this but then again she was a Republican her whole life and maybe this is where that ends up now. I’d also like to think my grandmother wouldn’t say ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ like a curse. I realize it’s a luxury, not to know.” There’s a friction throughout this novel, as Daphne exists in both Altavista and Turkey- two othernesses that she somehow holds in her heart, despite the one’s attempt to cleave her heart in two.

As Daphne explores town with Honey, she meets Alice, a 92 year old woman passing through vis a vis a solo road trip. Alice, nearly immobile, begins spending time with Daphne and Honey, revealing that she’s been widowed for fifty years, that all three of her children died when they were young. This aloneness shocks Daphne- it’s a new specificity, one that may trump even Daphne’s. “I am thinking about how you could have three babies and all of them die and my brain worries the thought a little like a dog with something between its teeth and I have the thought I always have first that there must be something extenuating something that makes it less sad what thing she could have done that made her deserve it what thing could they have done what way could they have died that would make this situation acceptable, but there’s never anything like this and I wonder if that’s the source of all the world’s sorrows, that everyone assumes everyone else did something to deserve it because otherwise the things that happen to people are just too horrible to bear.” When Daphne worries that she may have a concussion, she asks Alice, the only person in town she slightly knows (and trusts), to check on her in the morning. Daphne goes so far as to write directions as to what to do should she die in her sleep, and how to get Honey to Engin despite the immigration issues. Along with her concussion comes a hangover, one ripe with shame and disgust, and Alice volunteers to watch Honey while Daphne recovers. It’s a favor that catapults Daphne and Alice’s friendship, and what leads Daphne to driving Alice into Oregon, to finish her road trip at an old campsite of her husband’s. Alice is a welcome figure in the novel, almost a reflection to Daphne, and the two women offer each other something profound and elemental. They’ve both suffered motherhood, suffered loss, and provide comfort to one another at the crucial stages of their independent transformations. When Alice finally gets to her destination, she begs Daphne to leave her alone in the Oregon woods to say goodbye, again, to her husband; this results, as I expected, in Alice’s death. It’s revealed that Alice had been planning this all along, her medication untouched the entire time she’d been traveling. As Alice warned Daphne, “‘You’re never safe from bad things happening,’ she says. This thought is so profoundly depressing I hope the earth opens and gently swallows everyone on it, right now.”

Kiesling’s awareness of marriage hits me hard. While I’m not married and do not have children, the struggles of shame and resentment that cycle through Daphne are things I’m incredibly wary of as my life progresses. I now have a partner who I’m close enough to to have resentments and regrets. It’s dark to have these thoughts- “Every so often this thought comes and knocks me on my ass, that we’re just building this whole castle on such a flimsy and hastily constructed premise that we love each other and want to be together raise our child together grow old together and how easy- how wrong but how easy nonetheless- it would be to walk away from it all, with nothing changing except I could stop worrying about the progress of a lot of expensive pieces of paper through a vast administrative machine.” This book is such an honest masterpiece of what it means to be human, to be the self when the self doesn’t have room to exist, and what happens to the world when that’s true. 

“I wait for the word that will highlight what a disaster it’s all been. But he just says ‘I love you,’ in English, and I say ‘I love you too’ and I know it will carry us forward another day.”

On the way home from Ohio recently, I watched the film Tully. I cried silently in my seat, processing the movie and processing my trip home, the concept of home, and all of the transformations I’d been through the past year. That week in Ohio was full of family- my grandmother was in the hospital, almost dead, and my mother, nearing 60 herself, weeped into me. My mother consoled herself by telling me stories of my infancy, of how wanted I had been after her three miscarriages, how beatific of a baby I was, quiet and docile and playful. She has a habit of romanticizing, of letting the bad fall away, of delivering slanted evidence in the face of the unpleasant. I watched the events of Tully play out and cried because I knew my mother had been through something similar, that all women who took on motherhood had been through the agonizing and brutal loss of self that comes with giving birth, with raising an infant. Tully doesn’t hold back in the honesty of how dark the menial tasks of motherhood can be, and neither did The Golden State. But neither of these are pessimistic or dismissing of motherhood; in fact, I think both creations show the experience to be undeniably. worthwhile, despite.

During Kiesling’s reading, she mentioned the immediacy of the moment. She reminisced on how quickly things move and grow during a baby’s first few months on earth, and how odd it is to be so intimately acquainted with their antics only to have them change within the week. The pressure to remember, to retell to Engin and to herself later, when lonely and alone with quick memories of the baby Honey used to be, sometimes wants to cripple Daphne. But it doesn’t cripple her. “I am thinking Keep this moment, let’s keep this one and while I am trying to fossilize this moment or X-ray it or photocopy it or do something that will make it stay with me forever she is squirming thrashing rolling and she is off the bed, she is on the move and suddenly I have what I think may be my most important epiphany about motherhood which is that your child is not your property and motherhood is not a house you live in but a warren of beautiful rooms, something like Topkapi, something like the Alhambra on a winter morning, some well-trod but magnificent place you’re only allowed to sit in for a minute and snap a photo of before you are ushered out and you’ll never remember every individual jewel of a room but if you’re lucky you go through another and another and another and another until they finally turn out the lights.”

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The Third Hotel by Laura van Den Berg Book Review

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I hadn’t read anything by Laura van Den Berg before I went to her reading at Skylight Books here in LA (thank God for Skylight Books). She gave a brief reading of The Third Hotel, and then answered questions posed by Aja Gabel, another author I am thrilled to read soon. The two rallied philosophical and existential questions, volleying questions about marriage and identity and aging and travel for two hours. It was a thrilling conversation to be a part of, and Den Berg’s brief but powerful excerpt led me to opening the cover that very night.

The Third Hotel opens in Havana, Cuba, where a solo woman traveler questions just what she’s doing in this foreign place. We come to understand that Clare, the protagonist, is visiting Cuba for a horror film festival in the absence of her husband, who, we realize at the end of the first chapter, was killed by a hit-and-run accident 5 weeks earlier. Richard, the husband and horror film professor/expert, was scheduled to attend the Cuban Film Festival, and, newly widowed, Clare goes instead, unsure of her motivations for going, sure that solo travel is what makes her feel less afloat, less ‘widowed.’ Despite Richard being dead, she sees him, sure as day, in Havana, an event that mirrors the horror film setting, and one that sets the novel in motion.

Clare, a former sales rep for an elevator company, describes her travels throughout the US midwest, admitting her desire to be alone, to be away from her husband: “She wanted to be married and she wanted to leave; the two did not seem mutually exclusive. She had this second, secret self that she didn’t know how to share with anyone, and when alone, that self came out into the open.” She describes Richard in the last year of his life, admitting that he’d been acting strange, noting that he’d developed a slower pace, wandering aimlessly when he walked, as if just now discovering his own secret self. “Most people found him loose and lighthearted. ‘Easygoing-‘ that was the word people used, and in time she became suspicious of anyone who could be described in such terms. What was so easy about going?”

My favorite aspects of this novel are the bouts of wonderment at the concept of marriage. Van den Berg poses often unanswerable questions via Clare, ultimately delivering a single truth that is hard to swallow: not even in marriage can we know one another’s secret selves. “Who are you? They seemed to always be whispering to each other, in this peculiar middle passage of their lives. Who are you becoming?” After Clare’s first spotting of Richard, she attends more and more film festival events, reflecting on lessons learned from her husband and memories between them. She takes up momentary residence at the Third Hotel, not the actual name, but rather the third hotel she stumbled into, lost, at her arrival. She develops a small friendship with Isa, the receptionist, and a few other film-festival attendees; in all of these relationships, she is struck by her status as a stranger, her ability to invent a new life even newer then her status as widow. Within the few items Clare brought to Havana is a small white box, something that was on Richard when he died, which Clare still hasn’t opened. This item looms large throughout the novel, and operates symbolically as many items in horror films do.

As Clare exists in Havana, living in a room where she found a fingernail in her bedside drawer at the Third Hotel, she keeps asking herself how Richard is here. She attempts to spot him again, purposefully walking past where he was before, spotting nothing. And the nothingness turns up more memories, more thoughts, more questions: “Oh, the thin line between love and exhaustion. The thin line between love and indifference. The thin line between I Am Like a Little Boat Cut Loose in a Storm Without You and You Are Driving Me Rapidly Insane.” Right before her plane takes off, departing from Cuba, Clare decides to stay. She leaves the airport, heads back to the Third Hotel, and again spots Richard, watches him eating a mango, alone. She toys with the idea that this is another Richard life- can/does such a thing exist? Van den Berg never gives us an answer, but she wants us to ask the question.

“Behind every death lay a set of questions. To move on was to agree to not disturb these questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible. So she would not be moving on. She would keep disturbing and disturbing. She imaged herself standing over a grave with a shovel and hacking away at the soil.”

In the midst of Clare’s existential crisis, her mother suffers one similar: Clare’s father’s dive into dementia. Clare juggles her losses, mourning both her husband and her father, unsure how to do either. “She did not know how to grieve her husband’s death or her father’s decline or the choice each day carried her closer to, the choice she was wholly unprepared to make- or would turn out to be more prepared than any person should be.” The third time she sees Richard is at the film festival- it’s also the first time the two communicate, addressing her by name, asking her what she’s doing in Havana. The interaction produces a vomiting reaction from her, and the two separate again.

“There were three sides to a marriage: public and private and who-fucking-knows, one lived and one performed and one a thundering mystery.”

When the detectives had asked Clare to describe her marriage, she had said that she and Richard were happy, though the truth was that she did not think of her marriage as having been happy or unhappy- she thought of it as unfinished. They had dated for two years and then married on a lark. This experiment in living had given way to a decade of feet brushing together in bed and bloodied dental floss in the trash and coffee mugs left in the sink and fucking spontaneously at dawn and then not fucking for a month and the pinch pot on the kitchen counter where they abandoned spare change, their joke about how every marriage needed a tip jar. Of following each other up and down stairwells and through parking lots and doorways and shoes crooked in the hallway and damp bath towels on the bedroom floor and hair on pillowcases and food poisoning in the middle of the night and stirring a saucepan on the stove while saying Why Must You Live the Way You Do? Or I Would Be Like a Little Boat Cut Loose in a Storm Without You. She knew him as well as she had ever known any other person on earth. She knew all. She knew nothing. Her position depended on the hour or the year or the minute. When he ate green apples, his lips tingled. When distressed, he cleaned with a fervor she found frightening. She could go on for infinity, and yet she understood that knowing another person was not a stable condition. Knowing was kinetic, ineffable, and it had limits, but the precise location of those limits, the moment at which the knowing stopped and the not-knowing began, was invisible. You would know you had reached the border only after you had surpassed it.”

“She could go on into infinity, and yet she understood that knowing another person was not a stable condition. Knowing was kinetic, ineffable, and it had limits, but the precise location of those limits, the moment at which the knowing stopped and the not-knowing began, was invisible. You would know you had reached the border only after you had surpassed it.”

Clare’s curiosity over Richard, Richard’s ghost/Richard’s second life, leads her to consult an expert, a university professor fluent in the paranormal. She tells her: “Death could make a person feel righteous in a way they had no right to be. Nothing in the world was less personal and nothing felt more like a poison arrow sent straight for your heart.” Not even the expert can give Clare an answer (is there an answer?) and the desperate feeling the experience gives her takes her back to childhood, to the Seahorse Inn, a bed and breakfast in Florida her parents owned. Clare remembers one instance when a hurricane hit the area, evacuating the hotel except for her and her father and a female guest by the name of Ellis, someone, Clare realizes later, that is not a guest but rather her father’s mistress. This same helplessness, childishness, desperateness, permeates Clare’s distress in Cuba, especially as she takes a train out to a forest hotel, following Richard, sharing a hotel room with this soulmate-turned-stranger.

She had never been drawn to ritual. She had only attended religious services for weddings and funerals. She had skipped her own graduations. Yet she’d permitted herself to imagine that the particular leap of marriage might bring about a sense of completeness, would perhaps even provide an answer to an invisible question, one that she could sense, could almost taste in the back of her mouth, but could not articulate. Of course, marriage had not led her to a sense of completeness. Rather, it introduced different sets of questions, one after another.”

The two share an intimate night in together, a fierce togetherness punctuated and walled by separateness, by unknowing. Richard references grief, and how wounded she must be, and shocks Clare by noting that it was she who was acting weird for the last year of his life, rather than him. Another discrepancy between two who know all there is to know about the other. Clare follows Richard into the forest the following morning, wondering if they’ll continue sharing intimacies. Instead, Richard vanishes into the water, Clare nearly drowning to keep up with him, asking after her father’s notebook, which ends up being in Richard’s final possessions. She wants to know why Richard kept it from her, what it contained.

“She thought about things she had not thought about in a very long time, like her first memory of wonder, which had occurred in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the age of five. She was in the car with her parents. They were winding up a mountainous road, in the early morning. She could not remember their exact destination she remembered only the smoky fog nestled in the ridges, as though the mountains were being consumed by their own breath, and the voice of her father telling her that God did not live in the cosmos, like many people thought, but inside of things, inside trees and mountains; it was, as Clare had thought, breath. Her mother, who was driving, pointed out that the fog came from the atmosphere, not from the earth, and then Clare’s father rolled down the window and told his daughter to smell the air and she did; she craned her neck and sniffed that thing people called air- something that no one could see but that everyone felt all the time- like an eager dog. She remembered smelling pine and tar and salt and animal, but the pine was the strongest, the scent that overlay the other scents, and for every year after she would not be able to smell pine without thinking, fleetingly, about the breath of God.”

In the notebook is the final request, the reminder of Ellis- he wishes to see her once more, wants Clare to be the one to orchestrate his secret life’s culmination before he dies. And she feels guilty, angry, hurt, by the request. But still she returns, spending one solo night in the Seahorse Inn before moving in temporarily with her parents: “When her father blinked and asked his daughter to describe this moon, this evil moon, she would take his hands and the air around her would vibrate, and she would go quiet for a moment because he was listening, he was right here, and she knew this was the last time such a miracle might ever occur.”

Clare doesn’t see Richard again, doesn’t get any answers as to what he is, or where their marriage left off. She’s still a widow, still has to grapple with that truth. But she returns to her parents with the sad acceptance that every person has a secret self, some slightly more destructive than others. She returns knowing that living itself is a miracle, and that the effort of noticing more, of being awake and aware, is worth the effort. And so it is.

 

Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams Book Review

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Novels have been… disappointing me. It’s not that the writing is bad or that the plot is uninteresting; in fact, I find Celeste Ng’s plots fast-paced, unpredictable, and enjoyable. I don’t, however, enjoy her books. Let me rephrase- I won’t reread them. I don’t feel, after I’ve finished books like Little Fires Everywhere or Kushner’s The Mars Room, that I’ve gained anything more about the human condition. I don’t wonder what the novel has taught me, or forced me to reconcile with. I put these books down after and that’s that- I move on to the next. It’s for this reason that lately I’ve been avoiding novels. Short stories and essay collections have been good friends of mine as of late, and I find myself tiring in the midst of novels. Does this really need to be a full length book? Why does this long story need to be told? It’s for this reason too that I gravitate toward writing in short form. But Tell The Machine Goodnight? This is a novel worth being a novel.

Williams’ novel starts with Pearl, the novel’s protagonist, a single mother work-crazed by Apricity, a corporation known for manufacturing happiness machines, products designed to tell users the three things they could do/change in their life to achieve happiness. Pearl operates the Apricity machine, spending time with those who can afford the service, swabbing their cheeks and reading their results back to them. Sometimes these results can seem random and unprecedented, such as one recommendation for a man to cut the tip of his index finger off. Other times, Pearl is forced to lie to users because their happiness has resulted in asterisks, meaning that some kind of violence (which the machine will not repeat) is what will make this particular person happy. Apricity operates as a touchstone throughout the novel, a constant presence that functions on the premise that happiness is the ultimate goal of life. While Pearl assists in facilitating other people’s happiness, she faces her own unhappiness at home. Her son, Rhett, is force-fed protein shakes due to his anorexia, which he has recently been hospitalized for. Pearl encourages Rhett to take the happiness machine test himself but he refuses, mocking the overall premise of Apricity, and calling in to question the main philosophy of the book- is happiness what humans want above all else? Is it what they should want? Eventually, Pearl’s commitment to getting her son healthy leads her to swabbing Rhett’s cheers without his permission in preparation for using Apricity to diagnose what she can do to give him happiness.

This novel is organized into ten long chapters, each in different voices/perspectives. While Pearl remains the protagonist of the novel, Williams gives Rhett, Carter, an executive at Apricity, Elliot, Pearl’s ex-husband and Rhett’s father, Valeria, Elliot’s new wife and past mistress, and Calla, a famous actress who Pearl uses Apricity on, their own voices. Each of them have their own experiences with the happiness machine- while Pearl works with the machine daily, Rhett avoids it, Carter manipulates it to gain power in the company, Elliot uses it for his artwork, Valeria is forced into using it as a sort of therapy, and Calla is asked to be the voice of the machine (which she refuses). This assortment of characters gives life to humanity: Apricity isn’t only a rental service for the wealthy but it is something that has woven itself into the very definition of humanity. It has made what was once ambiguous concrete. Carter, for example, becomes involved with Thomas, a high-level Apricity executive who has assembled a team of engineers to change the happiness machine into the power machine, citing power being the ultimate want of humanity over happiness. While this remains the clearest definition in the novel of what a character’s true motivation is, we can see in each chapter a different motivator outside of the bland word of ‘happiness.’

Because the type of poison doesn’t matter. Not if you already have the antidote.

Rhett’s test results come back with asterisks, something that gives Pearl an unparalleled amount of dread. This seems to be confirmation for what Pearl has always, in a way, known about Rhett: he is inclined to violence. Rather than shrinking away from her son, however, Pearl attempts to give him small accesses to violence. She ultimately decides to buy him a lizard, hoping that feeding the lizard live mice will satisfy whatever ambiguous asterisks are in her son’s consciousness. This is such a strong testament to motherhood- the undying devotion to your child, even in their darkness. Pearl doesn’t give up on her son in the face of this darkness; instead, she embraces it, seeking out small, relatively harmless ways as outlets for Rhett. It’s admirable.

Saff, Rhett’s friend and short-time girlfriend, also experiences trauma due to the happiness machine. When a video surfaces of Saff drugged and eating a bar of soap and then puking with a shaved off eyebrow, Saff recruits Rhett to help her discover who drugged her, and why. At the end of their investigation, the two realize that Saff drugged herself, tested her own cheek swab, and did the opposite of what the machine told her to. Instead of soaking in lemon soap, she ate it; instead of appreciating her beauty, she marred it. And this was an act of retribution, of self-guilt resolution. Saff had bullied a girl relentlessly, and aimed to attack her own happiness in retribution.

Rhett begins gaining weight, begins eating, even during his first year at UC Davis. And the reader isn’t sure if this newfound happiness is due to his mouse-eating lizard or to his new relationship with Saff. Elliot and Pearl, co-parents who remain flirtatious toward one another, revel in their son’s new happiness. Elliot, the charmer, notes: It’s a nice thought, though, isn’t it? That after all we’ve tried, the cure was love.” And Elliot himself had his time with Apricity, with the happiness machine. As an art project, Elliot tested random passerby in the street, noting their results and installing a piece called Midas, which showed Elliot fulfilling these recommendations to their extreme. In one case he ate an exorbitant amount of honey; in another, he wrapped himself insanely in a soft blanket. He seems to be making a strong comment on happiness, on the violent determination to achieve it, despite how senseless it objectively seems. Elliot represents the reported 2% of the population who has blank test results from Apricity, something that never bothers him but which gives readers (and Pearl) insight as to who he is, and what he is motivated by. Do blank results indicate happiness isn’t important? Isn’t possible? Or is it an indication that the happy charisma Elliot surfaces is empty, a blank screen?

Pearl becomes involved with a new project at Apricity, monitoring a famous actress’ happiness recommendations daily. Instead of reporting to Calla, the famous screamer from horror flicks, Pearl is forced to work directly with two of Calla’s managers, who act especially tight-lipped about Calla’s new project. As Pearl lives in Calla’s home, she notices strange behaviors from Calla, including screaming nightmares at night and an overall lack of sleep. Attracted to helping this young woman, as she helped her son, Pearl breaks protocol, following Calla’s team to a shooting location. Although Pearl expects to find another scary movie set, she instead finds Calla being buried alive in a clear coffin by insects. Calla’s screams are palpable, and scientists record her screams from wires coming off her body. The team is now learning to produce the actual adrenaline-like experience of fear- rather than simply watching Calla be afraid, now movie-goers will learn to feel her fear, exactly as she’s experiencing it. Pearl, horrified at what she sees to be a blatant hijacking of a person’s experience, stands to be contradicted; isn’t the company she works for, after all, doing the same thing?

The cover of this novel represents metaphor after metaphor, a beautiful homage to all of the quirky, haunting symbols within the story itself. I love the use of color on the cover, the simplistic lettering and the symmetry of the shapes. It’s a straightforward metaphor, the burning house serving as the physical representation of Valeria’s VR game, a game she and her distant mother played during Valeria’s childhood. In the game, Valeria and her mother discovered a house far away from the main game activity, and here, Valeria’s mother found a sort of peace she didn’t experience in her waking life. While the house blazed in fire, Valeria and her mother smiled at one another in a way they were not able to elsewhere. Later, we find out, Valeria is blamed for her mother actually burning the house down, something Valeria herself can’t remember was suicide or homicide (hence why Valeria serves appointments with the happiness machine). One side of the house is covered in scales, scales that I assume belong to Rhett’s mouse-eating lizard. Rhett and Valeria have a special relationship, one which persists in a mysterious yet worthwhile way after she divorces Elliot, Rhett’s father. The yellow tile of bumblebees represents Elliot’s art project involving puking on too much honey ingestion. Finally, the front-facing side of the burning house is speckled with a blue, cloudy sky. At the end of this novel, Rhett becomes increasingly interested and preoccupied by assisting his college roommate in training for university-level soccer. The two boys use their VR games to train, and Rhett begins eating regularly in order to have the strength to climb VR mountains with his friend. Pearl asks after Rhett’s new peace-laden mountaintop: “‘How’s the view?’ ‘The view from the imaginary mountaintop?’ He was teasing her. ‘Amazing. You can see for imaginary miles and miles.’ He smiled at her. She smiled back. How could she not? ‘And the imaginary sky?’ she asked. ‘Blue.'”

Elliot returns to Pearl after Val leaves him, and even though Pearl is unsure of her ex-husband’s presence, Elliot’s charisma feels unavoidable. Pearl begins talking directly to the machine, though, after Elliot does leave, after Rhett goes to college. It is, she realizes, the first time she’s lived alone. And she takes to talking to her machine, even provides a responsive dialogue in return to her queries. She reasons, though, that her relationship with the machine hasn’t gone overboard- she hasn’t, after all, told the machine goodnight. The machine is so much of a safety blanket that Pearl brings it on a date, the first date she’s been on in years. And there her happiness machine is stolen, hijacked by a man named Mason, who reveals his plans for Apricity: happiness at your fingertips! His idea is even more immediate, even more intrusive than Apricity’s; instead of having a trained employee deliver your test results, Mason’s model inputs the happiness screen into users’ own palms. Pearl doesn’t get her beloved confidante (the machine) back; at work, she offers Carter a contentment report from her broken machine, giving him a different route to happiness than one the machine had been feeding him for years. Pearl’s fabrication seems to make Carter happier, in an ironic twist that was perhaps predictable, but delivered in a perfectly imperfect way, and at the last minute. This isn’t the last image, either; instead, Pearl quits, and finds her son in his VR simulation, a fabrication of happiness itself, but in which still exists blue skies.

“‘Fire was one of the first things.’ ‘We were one of the first things also. Yes?’ ‘Who?’ ‘We. You and me. People. We were one of the first things?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Sure. We were here to say the word.’ ‘We were one of the first things, and we are good, Valeria. We are good.’”

The Incendiaries by RO Kwon Book Review

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How amazing is this book cover? The geometric patterns are, the longer one looks at it, deceiving. Shapes puncture letters, other shapes grow over their brethren. It’s a cacophony of interruptions, which, I think, is a wonderful metaphor for this book.

This is a sparse book- I managed to find a paperback copy in Germany during my travels a few weeks back, which makes the slim novel seem even slimmer. Kwon’s pace throughout The Incendiaries is a constant sprint; some chapters are mere sentences long, while others are pages. And the chapters are not numbered but are rather cataloged by the speaker- Will’s chapters are usually the longest, Phoebe’s are in-between, and John Leal’s chapters are curiously short. These three characters represent a triad of sorts-three entities of faith, one lost, one searching, and one found. Curiously, though, I’m not sure who the one lost or who the one found is- it’s a question the novel keeps open-ended, a fantastic and intellectually subtle exploration of faith, and what it means to believe.

Kwon writes the story not from a present point of view or a past point of view; at times, the voices seem retrospective and even nostalgic, while at other times the voices feel present, unmitigated by hindsight. Will especially dabbles in retrospection, asking himself almost constantly throughout his retelling if what he’s remembering is correct or embellished (or both). As the reader’s main narration, Will provides a concrete yet fuzzy narrative of his intimate experience with Phoebe, his ex-girlfriend at Noxhurst, an elite college where he fudges his identity, foregoing his poverty-stricken bible-thumping past self for a confident polo-wearing partier who belongs in this east coast environment. “In this life of blue honey, I don’t think of the waste. I lap; I crawl. Navel oranges shine from the tiles like medallions. A hired man whistles, fishing out the rot. No one lacks food, or falls ill.” It’s in one such feigned party where Will meets Phoebe, the popular effervescent dancer whom he feels an extravagant attraction to. The two begin dating, and eventually share corners of themselves they hadn’t been used to sharing- Phoebe reveals her childhood spent obsessively playing piano, her single Korean immigrant mother striving for Phoebe to succeed. It is this same mother who dies when Phoebe is 16, killed in a car accident when Phoebe is driving. This, we learn, is the source for Phoebe’s pain; her longing. “I kept listening. Often, at parties, I could be found in the kitchen, a back porch, eliciting still more troubles. If people cried, I held demp hands. With the squash recruit, too; the ball-pit poet, the flautist; Tim, then Phil, it wasn’t lust. Plain lust, I’d have respected. Instead, I craved the postcoital talks, the truths told in bed. I ate pain. I swilled tears. If I could take enough in, I’d have no space left to fit my own. In turn, I couldn’t walk five minutes through Noxhurst without hearing a dozen hellos. Faces lit up if I walked into a room, the liking a light I could refract, giving it back. Phoebe, oh, I love that girl, people said, but it’s possible they all just loved the reflected selves.” 

Phoebe yearns for other pain without confronting her own. And when she does reveal her pain, she learns that Will has been hiding his. He does eventually disclose his true identity, which helps Phoebe place Will: “If I were less selfish, I’d have released the hold I had on him, this love-dazed Will, more child than man. But I wasn’t.  I couldn’t. He took the stairs to my suite at a full run. Bruises formed at the tops of my thighs. If I went to bed after he did, Will turned toward me, still asleep. I might put my head next to his, but he’d clamp his hot legs around mine. He hauled me in. I tried not to pull loose; still, I did. He protested. Insistent, not quite conscious, he reached for me again. I listened to his pulse. His soft, thin hairs, dandelion strands, shifted between my lips. I breathed them in. Here’s a wish, I thought. Don’t let me go. Until Will, I drifted: he attached me to this patch of earth. He clung all night.” The two move in together, spending night after night in one another’s arms, breathing in the luxury of love. Eventually, though, John Leal comes into their lives, a religious, shoeless man who claims to have been prisoner in North Korea before returning as a religious sprite in Noxhurst. John recruits Phoebe, whose father he knows from Christian circles, into attending a gathering at his house. Will attends too, and feels immediately uncomfortable with the group’s cult-like dynamic, a vibe that will prove to be astutely accurate as time goes on. 

While Phoebe ignores the pull of John Leal at first, Will explores (both inwardly and with Phoebe) what it means to have lost his own faith. We learn that Will’s religious conversion occurred due to his familial situation; poor, treated poorly by her husband, and in poor health, Will’s mother abandoned hope for recovery, hope for life. At a loss for what to do, Will turned to religion, expounding his fears into extreme belief and mysticism. He converts his mother, who is eventually baptized, and walks door-to-door in his town attempting to bring the word of God to all. This is an extreme belief, way past the sort of faith most teenage boys have. And maybe that’s because it wasn’t a regurgitated belief, a faith spoon-fed to his consciousness but instead was something fought for, something sought after. Ironically, this sort of searching mirrors Phoebe’s own searching that we see unfolding throughout the novel; her trauma has backed her into a wall of alcohol and sex, and when John Leal offers her an alternative that at least appears to be less dangerous, she accepts. This novel works on so many levels- it shows real intimacy between two young people and the usual ineptitudes that such people bring to relationships. But it also wrestles with faith- what do we do when the one we love walks down a path we cannot follow, one we’ve already cleared and walked away from? And, where is the line in faith? What is religious fervor, religious obsessed, danger, and what is us being selfish, rubbing our own cynical elbows against our partner’s? It’s as Will says: “I’d loved Phoebe’s pagan mind.” Can he not love an altered mind of hers? Is it actually love, then, if he doesn’t?

She turned toward me, still unconscious, wrapping me in limbs and warmth, this bleeding, feverish creature I didn’t know how to stop wanting.”

When Will obtains an internship in Beijing for the summer, he and Phoebe plan on living there together. Will’s assumption that Phoebe will just “hang out” while he works bothers Phoebe; and while the reason she ends up not attending is remedial summer courses, there’s another part of that reason that exists in discord. As Will works long hours and cancels phone calls with Phoebe, she becomes a regular at John Leal’s gatherings. Upon Will’s return we learn that she has become a part of Jejah, John’s group of mostly Korean-Americans set on abolishing abortion. Jejah has allowed Phoebe to reveal her inner-most hurt, and has allowed her to punish herself for it (Will notices lash marks and bruises along her back). The sort of redemption that this group offers appeals to Phoebe, and it’s a freedom that is not inhibited by her lack of belief in the pro-life movement. Kwon gets it right here, the allure of a cult- it’s about belonging, about the belief in belonging, more than anything else. Will, who desperately wants to save Phoebe from what he can clearly see is a cult, pseudo-joins the group as well, marching in a pro-life protest where he makes himself sick with sedatives just to deal with the group. When Phoebe sends him home without her, Will realizes just how much hold John now has over his girlfriend, and how susceptible she really is.

When Phoebe returns home, she and Will argue, leading her to preaching at him and claiming he doesn’t understand. Will’s anger, which we know stems from more than Phoebe but from his disillusionment with faith, leads him to pinning Phoebe on the floor and having sex with her, even after she asks him to stop. She moves out of their apartment after this, allegedly moves in to John’s house. Will loses himself after this, partying and drinking, studying, working, anything to keep busy. And when he comes back in the fall to find Phoebe has not returned, he goes looking for her, desperate, still, to save her. It’s a genuine urge, one not based in possession but in love. A love for Phoebe, with or without Will.

What comes next is what has been alluded to since the beginning of the novel- the bombing of five abortion clinics at the hands of Jejah. Will, who holds a fastidious belief in Phoebe’s goodness, never thinks Phoebe would have assisted with the bombing; we learn, though, that not only did she assist, but she delivered. Her face, it is later revealed, is clearly caught on camera delivering a bomb- the bomb that when detonated, killed 5 teenage girls, cheerleaders practicing their routine in the clinic’s parking lot. Phoebe, then, is on the lamb, and Will is brought in to the FBI for questioning. Their apartment is raided, and Will’s remaining trinkets of his and Phoebe’s love are paraded as evidence. Rumors spread that Phoebe committed suicide, jumping off a bridge and drowning; but Will knows Phoebe’s swimming skills, anticipates that she has faked her death in order to start anew. And he believes he sees her, years later, new and yet the same.

Will ends the novel thinking about Phoebe, and faith, and what an undeterred, reckless belief (belief just to have something) can do to you. He tells her: “Phoebe, I still don’t think He’s real. I believe that we, in the attempt to live, invented Him. But if I could, I’d ask Him to give you everything.” I love these sentences. I love that Kwon has written a novel about love and faith and about the intimate, fragile lines between the two. I love that Kwon makes clear that the division between unbelievers and believers is eerily thin, and that the one between believers and terrorists can be even thinner. I love that Will doesn’t believe in God but believes in love, and comes to find a strange peace with this part of his identity as well as his others.

Bravo for this book. This sparse, weird, quick book- I read it in one sitting in one day. It’s truly devour-able, and I haven’t sped through something like this in months. Kwon- please continue giving us more.

 

 

Book Review; You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

 

Adding to my already extensive list of great short story collections read in 2018, Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It enraptured me completely. I read this book while in Germany, a small town called Wiezenhell- read it overlooking the town on the top of a hill, under the shade of an apple tree as a church bell rang every fifteen minutes. It’s quiet here, and my mind is slower than it’s been in months. LA has no time for the sound of crickets, of wind whistling through the trees. It’s too noisy to be noticed, too noisy for the small white butterflies to visit. It’s been so rejuvenating being here. My reading is undeterred by errands or work, obligations. These stories concern themselves with the present day struggles of an America under Trump and Trumpism, addresses the dichotomy between right and left and the intense divide between the two. The book confronts the fear and impossible reality America finds itself in, and wonders what to do next.

I’d read only one short piece by Sittenfeld before, and it’s the first story in the collection: ‘Gender Studies.’ In this story, Nell, a thirty/forty-something year old woman newly single from her long-term relationship with Henry, attends a work conference in Kansas City. Her scheduled itinerary becomes interrupted, her mourning of her relationship besieged by a strange interaction with a young bus driver, a man named Luke. She resists Luke, dislikes his general demeanor, his abrupt and unobstructed views of Trump- Luke admits to Nell, proudly, that he voted for the first time he ever voted in support of Trump; Nell cringes, feels compelled to end the conversation or curse him out, dismiss him for the bigot or ignorant man he seems to be. Nell labels herself an English professor instead of a Gender Studies professor, realizing the small scope of her professional life, the largeness of her days compared to the smallness of an individual life amongst the rest of the world. Despite her dislike of Luke, she feels an unparallelled attraction to him, hopes he hits on her, desires a confirmation of her beauty and intellect from a man lesser than her, lesser than Henry, who has recently gotten engaged to a young busty graduate student after not marrying Nell for years. Later, in her hotel room, Nell calls Luke, desperate to get her lost license back, which she thinks she left in Luke’s bus. Luke comes to her hotel, and the two flirtatiously grab a drink, start making out, against Nell’s conscious judgement of negativity. Luke goes down on her, and before she goes down on him, she asks for her license back- Luke admits he doesn’t have it, has never had it. And more than that, he insists Nell has forged losing her license in order to cultivate a hookup between the two of them. Astonished and ashamed, Nell asks Luke to leave, which he does. Later, Nell finds her license in the broken pocket of her jacket, and wonders if Luke may have been right, if Nell may have subconsciously willed the situation of Luke in her bed. “Sometimes, when she’s half asleep, she remembers Luke saying ‘You’re pretty,’ how serious and sincere his voice was. She remembers when his face was between her legs, and she feels shame and desire. But by daylight it’s hard not to mock her own overblown emotions. He didn’t have anything to do with her losing the license, no, but it’s his fault that she thought he did. Besides, he was a Trump supporter.” This urge to dismiss Luke, to write him off because of his flinching and impossible love for Trump, resonates strongly. How many times have I done this after a negative interaction at home in Ohio, assuming one’s voting patterns? And is it wrong? Would Luke have understood and/or respected Nell’s real identity as a Gender Studies professor? Probably not. Human attraction may work inside of boundaries and outside of them, too.

Next, in what may be my favorite story of the collection called ‘The World Has Many Butterflies,’ Julie, a married mother of two, fields her undeniable and strong attraction for Graham, a married man in Julie’s adult group of friends. The two find themselves together often, obligatory school functions bringing them together over and over again. At school events, Julie and Graham take to playing a game of their own making together, called I’ll think it, you say it (the title of the collection!). This game involves the two guessing what the other is thinking about another adult in the room, usually a guess at the other’s internal misery. Julie doesn’t feel a lack of love or happiness with her husband Keith, but she does feel an undeniable energetic lust for Graham, blazed over and over again by the seemingly romantic game the two share in social settings. Julie soon learns, as she attempts to discern her attraction for Graham, that he and his wife Gayle are prepping for divorce, a fact that elicits an unpredictably action-packed reaction in Julie, who has expected the attraction to go unnoticed and forgotten. Julie apologizes to Graham for his upcoming divorce, to which Graham illustrates how unhappy his marriage truly was; “Thank you for existing in this cosmos with me,” he tells Julie, confirming her decision to move forward with an affair with Graham in the new year. She feels totally sure that the two have a connection that cannot be unconsummated, and preps herself for corruption. In the new year, Julie schedules a lunch with Graham in which she plans to begin their affair; instead, after an embarrassingly clumsy intro into the potentiality, Graham tells Julie that she has misunderstood his interaction with her, and that he has never been romantically interested in her. He says, too, that her marriage is too good to toss aside. And while Julie suffers her shame in knowing the truth of this statement, she chaperones a school field trip in partnership with Gayle, Graham’s soon-to-be ex-wife. It’s only been a month since Julie attempted the affair, and already, she learns, Graham has moved along with a woman, someone he was allegedly with during his marriage. Julie takes in this sad, weird fact as she walks through the butterfly exhibit, the site of the students’ school field trip. A butterfly lands on Julie at the last minute- “Gayle, who was nearby, said ‘that’s good luck, Julie. You should go buy a lottery ticket.’ If there was a kind of person who believed in the magic of butterflies, Julie was not one of them. She had no use for this small moment of ostensible enchantment. ‘Or maybe it’s that you get to make a wish,’ Gayle said. It was rude to stare, Julie knew, but for many seconds, she stared at Gayle anyway, wondering just what it was the other woman imagined she would wish for.” I love this story- the simplicity of parents thrown together in parental obligations, their individual lives reduced, temporarily and completely, to elementary parties, carpool pickups. I love the strange setting of a butterfly exhibit, the enchantment the second graders feel that Julie, besieged and hurt and embarrassed by her unrequited love affair, can’t seem to force herself to feel. Julie no longer believes in the power of magic, in the lore of wish-making- the last time she’d made such a romantic allegiance, after all, she learned she’d been mistaken. Adult life comes in waves of magic and of misery- a mountaintop of wonder, a canyon of disinterest.

 

The third story, ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto,’ experiences nostalgia in a visceral way. In a first person point of view, a narrator remembers an old friend, Rae Sullivan, a woman at Dartmouth that the narrator felt an odd obsession with, a sensational desire to have in her circle of friends. The narrator, a lonely freshman, rarely experiences friendship, until, after a language class, Rae asks her and Isaac, a fellow student, to share a joint with her. This cements a new stage of socialization and love for the narrator, who believes Rae to be worth much more than Noah, the high school boy she chooses to date. Once, during their sophomore year at Dartmouth, the narrator remembers, Rae and she visit Noah in Exeter, a visit that fails when Rae forgets marijuana for she and Noah to smoke. Rae leaves the narrator in a town unknown to her, alone with the only person she knows slightly: Noah. And, eager to use her newly purchased condoms, eager to finish this odd step of adulthood, the narrator kisses Noah, knowing he will fulfill her desire to fuck- and they do, in a gym of his boarding school until Rae retrieves her. The narrator and Rae never talk about what happened, and when Noah and Rae breakup, she drops out of Dartmouth, leaving Rae to finish her undergraduate career, then graduate school, where she gets back in touch with Isaac, her old friend she mistook to be gay. The two share breakfast together, discuss Rae, and fall in love. “In the diner, I wished I could increase the speed of my conversation with Isaac, not because I wanted to get it over with but because I wanted both of us to cram in the maximum amount of words before I started my shift, because I felt we had such an enormous amount to say to each other. The great luck of my entire life is that twelve years have passed since Isaac and I had breakfast, and I still feel that way. We live outside Columbus, Ohio, where is an English professor and I practice internal medicine at a clinic that serves uninsured immigrants. We have a daughter who is now ten and a son who’s seven. When we can, we like to go for family walks after dinner in our suburban neighborhood; often our children dart ahead of us, or discuss their own matters with each other, and when Isaac and I chat about our days, or the news, or movies we probably won’t end up seeing, I am filled with gratitude at the astonishing fact of being married to someone I enjoy talking to, someone with whom I can’t imagine ever running out of things to say.” The story ends with the narrator continuing to think about Rae, inventing a story for her in which Rae barely remembers Isaac or the narrator. The nostalgia of this story hits in less common places than the typical descent into nostalgia. It pangs in different, forgotten places- “I had no idea, of course, that of all the feelings of my youth that would pass, it was this one, of an abundance of time so great as to routinely be unfillable, that would vanish with the least ceremony.” I miss that. I didn’t know I missed that.

 

Next, in ‘Bad Latch,’ a woman attends a pre-natal yoga class. As the second most pregnant woman in attendance, the narrator experiences a strange envy and dislike for Gretchen, the woman most pregnant and most pretentious about her pregnancy and delivery plans (all natural, with a midwife, etc.). The narrator gives birth to Sadie, a good baby, and meets Gretchen again at a breastfeeding class, again experiences her insufferable characteristics. And, again, the two meet at an infant swimming class, although Gretchen doesn’t acknowledge that she knows the narrator (which gnaws the narrator’s dislike even further. The next and final place the two women meet as less than friends is outside of a daycare center, where the narrator has had to take Sadie, against her wishes. As she cries pathetically outside of the daycare center, the narrator feels a womanly arm wrap around her body, and looks up to see Gretchen, who asks if the narrator recognizes her. Gretchen encourages the narrator, tells her how great the daycare center is, a fact that surprises the narrator because of Gretchen’s plans to be a stay-at-home mother. Gretchen then admits that her husband had left her, that she’d had to get a job, that she was now a single parent. With the same level of nostalgia as the previous story, the narrator gently pushes the reader forward in the blossoming friendship between the two women, who stay friends as their two daughters age and grow sick and grow old. “That morning in the parking lot, I sniffled once more, then extended my hand to Gretchen. ‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Rachel.’ It’s a tremendous way to tell a story- we learn the narrator’s name as Gretchen does, welcoming us into a motherly friendship along with Gretchen. Sittenfeld showcases the bonds of motherhood, the patheticness and exhaustion of the job… and how crucial it is to learn from one another, in the midst of all the unknown love and hate.

 

In the first story of the collection told in a man’s point of view, ‘Plausible Deniability’ tells the story of two brothers, one the first person narrator of the story and one named Mark, a man married for years to a woman named Libby, who has, understandably, become too comfortable in her marriage. She’s taken to wearing a poop shirt, to getting Mark off as quickly as possible as if it’s a job. And Mark complains about these things to his brother, implies that he may cheat, acts as if her behavior gives him no other option. The narrator continues to tell him not to cheat, urges him to remember the goodness of marriage and the family the two have created. As the story unfolds, conversations via email are revealed regarding classical music; although it’s unclear who the emails are between, we infer that the narrator has something to do with this, and question if his receiver is Libby, the woman his brother has reduced to her pink poop shirt but who, it seems, owns an intensely active intelligence. When Libby becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she writes to the narrator (we know at this point that what we expected is true) that they cannot continue their communication, that it verges on the edge of an emotional affair that is unfair to Mark (ironic given what we know about Mark’s desires earlier in the story). At the end of the story, the narrator visits Mark and Libby again, their family continuing to grow. The new pregnancy seems to have renewed Mark’s love for his wife, if only temporarily and half-heartedly. “Oh, our private habits, our private selves- how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.” It’s disgusting how well we can know another person- how familiar we can be with our partner’s toenail picking or scent of sweat. And how appealing these same people seemed to us before, how attractive they could be to another. It’s a bit scary, isn’t it, the romantic pursuit followed by the unromantic afterward?

 

My other favorite story in the collection is ‘A Regular Couple,’ a story about Maggie, first person narrator, and her new husband Jason. The two, on their honeymoon, run into an old high school frenemy of Maggie’s. Ashley, it turns out, is also on her honeymoon with her new husband. Ashley, an old mean girl of the high school, now seems to envy Maggie, telling her she’s watched her on TV, hinting at Maggie’s success and celebrity. After sharing lunch with the couple, Jason makes the mistake of planning further events with the couple, which Maggie hates him for. Jason, who is revealed to be slightly inattentive and a bit needy, may have induced this scenario to make his wife seem uncomfortable. This doesn’t seem odd for Jason, the husband who lives in the wake of his wife’s success. We learn that Maggie’s legal success came from making partner at a famous firm at a very young age, a firm that represented an athlete accused of rape. This highly televised case decided in favor of the athlete, whom Maggie was representing, contrary to the wishes of many feminists who claimed Maggie to be a traitor. Readers can sense Maggie’s own discomfort with her decision to support this athlete, feel her insecurity mixed with her appreciation of money and success; and, mostly, we feel her questioning her relationship. She wants, more than she likes to admit, to be a ‘regular couple,’ one that doesn’t become engaged without a ring (which they did), one who involves themselves in silly traditions such as diamond engagement rings (which Maggie has to buy for herself). She seeks some kind of proof of Jason’s love- she wants it defined to her, wants to understand his choosing of her. As Maggie and Jason hike with Ashley and Ed, Maggie recalls her least favorite memory of Ashley- in the high school gym, Ashley made Maggie tie her tennis shoe, an act so patronizing and so humiliating that Maggie hasn’t forgotten. Against Maggie’s wishes, the couples continue hanging out, night after night, ending up drunk at a bar together, where Ashley and Jason dance and Maggie leaves after becoming enraged at Ashley’s discussion of the televised criminal case, at her announcement for Maggie to be less uptight. Jason returns to the room and he and Maggie experience the beginning stages of their arguments before the two cut it short and go to bed. As a final goodbye, Maggie and Ashley depart, and Maggie asks Ashley to tie her shoe. Ashley effortlessly acquises, forgetting the high school moment in totality. And, after winning the cool girl competition, finally, after proving herself despite her insecurities, despite the self-purchased ring and the flaky husband, she reaches in to hug Ashley, an inward stretch forward.

 

Another feminine and motherly story, ‘Off the Record,’ Nina, a new single mother, flies from Indianapolis to LA with her newborn baby girl Zoe. Her recently stalled journalism career with a woman’s magazine has come back to her when a celebrity, Kelsey, requests that Nina interview her instead of one of the other journalists. Kelsey, a now famous Oscar-nominated actress, interviewed with Nina before her celebrity, and felt a true friendliness between the two; Nina feels surprised that Kelsey felt such a kinship, but agrees because of the promised money. Nina’s editor pushes Nina to find out news about Kelsey’s recent breakup, a money-grabbing technique sure to lure in subscribers. But Nina doesn’t have to pry; Kelsey offers up the story without prompt, revealing that she suffered a miscarriage with her boyfriend Scott, who left her immediately afterward. Kelsey cries, unperturbed by the journalistic nature of her conversation with Nina, exhibiting a kind of trust that Nina cannot seem to understand. Nina receives notifications on her phone from her babysitter, someone who can’t seem to get Zoe to stop crying. Nina forces herself to end her interview with Kelsey, admitting that she has to return to her hotel room for the health of her baby. Kelsey, shocked that Nina hasn’t told her of her new baby, suddenly realizes that Nina may be a journalist after all, instead of a friend. She bristles. She says, coldly, ‘Did you think I’d be jealous? Of you?’ Sittenfeld seems to understand celebrity and motherhood and female friendships in an intimate way- all of these involve envy and ugliness, hurt and desire. They each feel incomplete and humbling. Heartache, always oscillating, seeming to jump from woman to woman as if a curse, can only be trumped by love- the love that Nina experiences holding her crying, stubborn baby girl.

 

In ‘The Prairie Wife,’ a married woman, Kirsten, and her wife Casey, experience their routined lives with their children while watching Lucy, an old acquaintance of Kirsten’s, become famous for a southern-based cooking show. Kirsten obsessively patrols Lucy’s social media accounts, calling her a hypocrite for her Christian leanings and advocacies, for her rehearsed Southern-bell dramatics, waits for Lucy’s true identity to be exposed. Kirsten herself feels the need to tell what she knows of Lucy, which she does to her coworker Frank, a lover of such gossip. We learn that in adolescence, Kirsten and Lucy worked together at a summer camp. Here, Lucy asserted herself as a lesbian, someone who never even kissed a boy; and while Kirsten refused, at this stage, to admit her attraction to females, even after and during her continued hookups with Lucy throughout the summer, Lucy’s teachings of sex and adoration stayed with Kirsten. Kirsten is, after all, married to a woman. As Kirsten watches Lucy, she sees Lucy come out publicly on a TV show, labeling herself bi-polar. Amazed, Frank and Kirsten watch Lucy, label her as brave; and later, when Kirsten attempts to discuss her complicated emotions regarding Lucy with Casey, Casey can’t seem to give her wife a correct response. “‘I don’t blame you for not finding me exciting,’ Kirsten says. ‘Why would you?’ ‘We have full time jobs and young kids,’ Casey says. ‘This is what this stage is like.’ ‘But do you ever feel like you’ll spend every day slicing cucumbers for lunch boxes and going to work and driving to Little League on the weekend and then you’ll look up and twenty years will have passed?’ ‘God willing,’ Casey says. She moves both her arms up so she’s cupping Kirsten’s breasts over her pajama top. They’re both quiet, and, weirdly, this is where the conversation ends, or maybe, given that it’s past eleven and Casey’s alarm is set for six-fifteen or possibly for six, it isn’t weird at all. They don’t have sex. They don’t reach any resolutions. But, for the first time in a while, Kirsten falls asleep with her wife’s arms around her.” This is a quiet story, one again of nostalgia and a leap forward, an admittance of not quite unhappiness but of feeling as if something is incomplete, missing. There’s no way for Casey to understand the intimacy of Kirsten’s first love- no way for her to invigorate their motherhoods and marriage into that first kiss behind a camp shed. But there’s a bed they share, an alarm they wake up to. Less romantic. But maybe… not.

 

In the penultimate story of the collection, ‘Volunteers are Shining Stars,’ a young female volunteer encounters a new volunteer, Alaina, who becomes a new favorite in the temporary home for poor mothers and their children. Alaina, with new ideas, seems not to understand her demographic (poor, single, mostly black mothers) the way the young narrator does, and the narrator feels an odd resentment and embarrassment toward her, especially in the two’s relationship with Derek, one of the children in the home that both women adore. A strange competition ensues between them, one fought in silence and secret, one that may be one-sided on the narrator’s part. Eventually, the tightness between the two women culminates in the narrator accosting Alaina, and choking her out when Alaina oversteps and attempts to define the narrator’s attention to minute details and rules as an OCD tick.  I found this story to be the least interesting in the collection, but engaging on a feminine level- competition can be volatile, especially in an environment away from home, one that intersects motherhood, femininity, friendship, and envy.

 

The last story in the collection is titled ‘Do-Over,’ a self-defining title that gives the third-person narrator, Clay, a role immediately. Sittenfeld again takes a male perspective, this time including a man’s view on the election of Donald Trump. Clay, a divorced father of a teenage girl, begins the story ruminating on what this election means, especially for his young daughter. This prompts a bout of nostalgia in Clay, an opportunity to reflect on his past boyhood, marked with unfair advantages against women; this comes to a head when an old private school classmate, Sylvia, reaches out to Clay, asking to go to dinner when she’s in town. Having not seen Sylvia since high school, Clay thinks back on their school experience, and their joint roles of president and assistant president of their high school class; because the votes were tied, school administrators elected Clay, and put Sylvia in a sort of demoralizing half-role. Clay, now ashamed of this male privilege, discusses this with Sylvia, who asks him, very directly, if he is only now aware of his privilege, his advantages, because of how obvious the new president is. Sylvia reaches into Clay’s past, thus far ignored and patched over, and relatively innocent. Clay, like many men, experienced slight advantages without thinking of them; Sylvia, on the other hand, faced slight disadvantages, and felt the burn all of her life, not only when Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy’ comment was made. Oddly, the conversation flips to Sylvia’s purpose of visiting Clay- she reveals that she was thinking of having an affair with Clay due to her bored marriage and motherhood. Clay, though, half-way enraged at the trail their meeting has gone down, recognizes that Sylvia may not want to have an affair but rather to make a shout into the void. Sylvia admits that she had a crush on Clay during their elected roles, which made the slight advantage he held over her that much more deafening. “‘For the record, I really had no idea, none at all, that you were interested in me at Bishop. Maybe part of getting what you want is asking for it.’ ‘Said like a man.’ ‘That doesn’t make it wrong.’” The two strangers, brought unpredictably together again through the strange passage of time, settle on a new friendship with one another, predicated on the confrontation of privilege years after the fact. They discuss marriage, divorce, aging bodies and anal fissures, normal conversations in the face of the abnormal, in the face of America 2018. Like Sylvia, lately I’ve wanted to reach out to the men, old friends and not, who experienced gender-based privilege over me, more than ever. I’ve wanted to explain situations long past, express the vulgarity of the slight, and what it did to my psyche, to my confidence. I want to call the man who sort-of fucked me when I didn’t want to be fucked (multiple men, actually), and tell them they should have known Trump’s misogyny existed in the world before he moved to Washington. They should have known it then. Knowing it now… it may not be enough.

 

You Think It, I’ll Say It is a powerful story collection, detailing the 2018 political and social landscape in the US. Unlike many who feel incapable of addressing the polarization of the right and the left, or the horror that is Trump’s racism/misogyny, Sittenfeld walks into it, with a slightly critical light to all. She exposes the holes in our (and the our, the human in Sittenfeld’s stories, are good) thinking, in our kindness, in our daily hubris- and, more than that, she gives us a few possible answers, a few steps as to what to do next. Most of these steps include arms around another person, phone calls to someone you’ve had something to say to- perhaps what we think doesn’t always need to be said. Or, perhaps it does. And perhaps Sittenfeld is writing what we’ve all been thinking. We need some fucking empathy, some love. We need to be humans again.

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt Book Review

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Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark tells stories of change; sometimes warped, sometimes traumatic, always ethereal metamorphosis. The ink blot on the cover, dark and oddly shaped, imperfect, welcomes us in to the dark, asks us to look inside for the things that are hiding (we see a deer- what else could there be?). And this is what Hunt’s characters do, too- they look into the dark, willing or unwilling, by force or by curiosity, they stare into the dark dark dread. This collection is precisely what I look for in a work of literature- it’s why I love Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Ramona Ausubel’s Awayland, Lauren Groff’s Florida… all of these works explore the limitations of women’s roles (as mothers, wives, artists), and what happens when women rub against them, refusing to not transcend.

The first story, ‘The Story Of,’ Norma walks through a normal day in her life, getting lunch with her sister-in-law, taking the long way home, sifting through online chatrooms for women who can’t get pregnant. There are multiple levels of entrapment in this story; Norma and her husband Ted even live in a gated housing area, something Norma feels contempt for each time she enters her community. She’s trapped too by her desire and inability to become pregnant, something she’s become embarrassingly desperate for; and she’s trapped, most of all, by her desire to make sense of this lack of ability. She believes Ted must be having an affair, thus making them unable to conceive. And I do this, too- look for an answer to the most heartbreaking human truths; otherwise, how do we move forward? When she does return home, Norma happens upon a hawk, and decides it must be a metaphor. She calls Ted at work and tells him the good news, explaining she must be getting pregnant soon- “Take a bit of good news and Norma will always spread it out thin over the telephone lines, until all she has left is a small smudge, a quickly fading memory of the color yellow and the white-speckled feathers.” A woman follows Norma to her house, a lime green BMX bicycle coming with her. The woman becomes known as ‘Dirty Norma’ since the two women have the same name, and she is later revealed to be Ted’s sister. This unknown becomes interesting to Norma, and she ruminates on marriage, on how surprising it can be to learn something new of one’s partner: “She gives Ted back dimensions he once had. Maybe he still has them. The possibility he might have a secret, be a secret. The possibility of kindness and depth, wonder, and maybe even grief.” Norma once again gets her period, and learns that Dirty Norma is pregnant. The slap-in-the-face fact plummets Norma again, leaves her digging furiously in her back yard- “Sometimes it is easy to hear what the grass is saying.To hear the message in the humming engine of the never-ceasing lawn mower five houses down.” Norma allows herself a long moment in the rage. “All around them are the small sounds of nature. Heat meeting green leaves, the sprinkler, the invisible bugs who are doing it in the grass, resilient now to pesticides, making babies in the yard. Norma tightens her grip on the spade’s wooden handle. That dark head. The shovel’s blade would lodge into the skull, then Norma would probably have to wiggle it free to take a second whack. In that moment of true horror, of committing true harm to another human’s body, something would be exchanged, mingled, met. Something would be compensated. She’d give the world a reason for being so cruel to her. Norma still might never get a baby but at least she’d know why, and a reason would be something she could hold on to at night.” How extraordinaringly terrifying that Norma can so easily think of not only murder, but pre-meditated murder, a clear and step-by-step how-to. Envy reeks into the soil she is digging in, and she lets it drip before she tills the soil again, burying what has been lost.

The next story, ‘All Hands,’ alternates between two perspectives, one male and one female. The man is a Coast Guard worker, someone on night shift who inspects docked ships. He references, in vague and weary tones, a young girl (hence the mention of the school backpack and her memorization of presidents) who he’d slept with, who’d insisted on him not wearing a condom, who seemed to want “it to work.” There’s a few more references to the girl and their sex while he flails in the dark water, trying to fix a ship but instead becoming victim to the violent water. He’s thinking of the girl and her history paper as he drowns. The perspective moves then to a first-person narrator, a counselor who works at a high school where thirteen young girls are pregnant. The principal of the school, a man named Caplan, is flabbergasted by this feat of events, which, of course, has been blown up all over the country. He becomes exasperated by the unknowns- “He doesn’t deserve to lose his job. It’s not his fault alone. Adolescent girls can be hard to understand. They are like an uncontacted tribe of humans. And maybe they should remain that way. Maybe we should collect all the adolescent girls in America and send them out to sea together. Eventually the rest of us would miss them so much we’d try harder to understand why they are the way they are and why we think such awful things about them. We’d realize how scared and wrong we’d been to think girls are made only of light things.” That last FUCKING LINE. The most confused I’d made other people was in my young teenage years- the most I confused myself was also then. And I wasn’t all light, not at all. I wanted to give handjobs in public places at age 13, wanted to give power to the body I only recently felt. “When I was a girl I pretended my pillow was a different man each night. And the pillow men would take me here, or there, out into life, to a Bee Gees concert maybe. That seemed like an adult thing to do. Men made the weather and I loved them for it. Then I got pregnant, then the real men disappeared, and I made my own weather. Storms. Sunshine. Storms.” I loved the power of my sexuality before it was taken from me by men. I loved the innocent explorations of my own hands inside of my own self, the cell-phone vibrations that made me come in my backyard when no one was home. I craved to be on top of my young boyfriend at age 13, loved rocking my body against his until a wet spot appeared on his pants. But, like in the above quotation, this disappeared. My sexuality became not only mine but their’s, the men who grabbed me in crowded places, who reached in my pants even when I said no, the men who’d pushed the back of my head further down onto their penis, the man who inserted himself inside me unexpectedly in the shower… It wasn’t fun anymore. And maybe these young pregnant girls know that- maybe they want the innocent ownership of their sexuality forever, want a marker of what they’ve achieved in the form of a child. I’d give a lot to experience my sexuality again without the scars of men’s unwanted and untrue ownership. The story introduces the two narrators to one another- the woman goes to the Coast Guard base to visit a man she routinely fucks and finds the man from before dripping wet, looking terrified. She mentions the pregnant girls at the school, and we see the man flinch, the alleged perpetrator. The two characters bask together in their unknowingness; they offer no answers but instead stare at the dark water, trying (but not forcing) to see what’s inside.

‘Beast’ is one of my favorite stories in the collection. A first-person narrator, again female, again a wife full of indefinable dread, lays in bed paranoid of Lyme disease. She asks her husband to search her body for tics, although they live in California and tics are rare. Routine seems important to her, as she asks him to get naked, too, a sort of protective spell she can cast over herself as she sleeps. We learn she lost a brother to suicide, an act motivated by a single line: “He couldn’t move forward because he couldn’t see the point of it. ‘Don’t you know where forward is headed?'” This question plagues the narrator silently, keeps her up at night, makes the dread surrounding their life large and inhospitable. At night, she has been transforming into a deer. While her husband sleeps, her body morphs, gaining hooves and a slender, soft body. The story shows her working up the courage to tell her husband- “When I tell my husband what is happening to me at night, which I’m going to do, very soon now, he’ll want to know how, and then, after that, he’ll want to know why I am becoming a deer. That’s the most troubling part and the reason I’m having trouble telling him.” Like in ‘The Story Of,’ Hunt writes from the perspective of a female looking for reasons. She wants there to be a snug corner, an easy answer for the blame, for the shame. And she finds it in her affair, the accidental night in a club bathroom with a stranger that has turned into ongoing phone calls and an extreme desire, an extreme sadness.”Lust makes room, the way a bomb exploding makes room, clearing things out of the way.” She finally does tell her husband about the transformation, and instructs him to stay awake until it happens. And, while she transforms, he does too, a buck beside her- “I follow him into our living room. ‘How?’ I want to ask him, but we are both deer now and deer cannot speak.” The two walk into the dark night, a group of deer with them and all around them. “he urges me forward, as if that is where we both belong, as if that is where we’ve both always been. I know where forward is headed. What do the deer mean? That is a good question. That is the best question. I think the answer is somewhere nearby. I can smell it. I think I could almost say what the answer is but I am a deer now and deer can’t talk. My husband steps forward again and I follow him right up to the edge of the deer. His antlers have eight points. I tell myself I’ll remember. I’ll find him or hope he will find me, or maybe being found won’t matter when we are animals. I step forward and then I step forward again, closer to the deer. I feel the warmth of that many living things. I feel their plainness rising up to swallow me. I step forward into the stream of beasts.” I love the surrender here- throughout the story we watch as this woman struggles to define her transformation, and, more importantly, her mistake. We see her unable to sleep, haunted by the love she has for her husband and the hurt she has caused in her affair. But in the dark, shame and blame cannot be understood- in fact, she can barely think of these emotions in her life as a deer. She can only feel warmth. This is a story about essence- about that one central question of the human existence- is it worth it? And it’s also a story that says no one fucking knows. There isn’t an answer to the forward march- there’s just these people, these deer here with you, also marching.

In ‘Yellow,’ Hunt plays again with the two perspective model. The story opens with Roy, a 40-something year old man unemployed and living with his parents, ruminating on his failures. He drives through his community, anger and resentment inside of him, and he hits a dog, killing it instantly. Roy carries the dead thing in his arms, unsure of what to do. Eventually, he rings Susanne’s doorbell, a wife and mother alone in the house, the caretaker of Curtains, the dog Roy has just killed. Roy comes into her home, deposits the carcass on her living room floor, and the two almost instantly make love. The confusing situation reads like a bit of an alternate universe, one that has aligned its stars perfectly to free Susanne of her children and husband for exactly this opportunity, this ethereal thing. “People pretend the world is ordinary every day. Because they have to.” After they have finished and Roy gets up to leave, the dog comes back to life, licking and pawing his way throughout the house as if he was never dead. Perplexed, Roy and Susanne become scared, realizing the magnitude of the lust they have just given themselves into. The death of the dog somehow permitted the sex in Susanne’s mind- it had ‘made way for this bit of living,’ and therefore excused the shame such an act carries. But the dog is alive, and thus so is the shame. Susanne instructs Roy to kill the dog, a desperate idea to make the stars align once again. He doesn’t kill the dog; instead, the dog returns to its family, as does Susanne’s husband and children. “By the light of day, under the huge yellow, optimistic sun, Susanne would find it easy to convince herself of anything: marriage is easy, motherhood a snap, and death uncomplicated. But in the dark it was clear to Roy. Susanne sat on the couch, surrounded by her family, while out in the night, partner to the extraordinary, Roy held a shovel made for digging deeper into the dirt.” The line ‘partner to the extraordinary’ turns my blood I love it so much. The dark transforms us, reveals our darkest selves, the ones we hush in the light of the sun.

Another of my favorite stories in the collection, ‘Cortes the Killer,’ shows another woman in the midst of transformation. Beatrice returns to her family home in Pennsylvania, home to her mother and stoner brother Clement (Clem). The family is reunited for Thanksgiving, Beatrice being the one who got away, Clem being the one who stayed. Their mother is a widow, one who confesses to Beatrice for the first time that it was she who decided to pull the plug on the father when he was in the hospital. Beatrice experiences rage against this fact, against her mother, an unexplainable reaction to her mother’s sustained existence: “Beatrice looks away. It is difficult for Beatrice to think of her mother as someone who might have thoughts and desires, as someone who keeps a vibrator in her bedside drawer the way Beatrice does, as someone who might dream about a tremendous ice cube, the size of a sofa, melting in the middle of a hot desert, and wake up having absolutely no idea what the dream means.” Hunt loves this kind of abstraction in her writing- a dream about an ice cube, undefined, defines the story as a whole, each woman experiencing the melting, unsure of what it means. Beatrice’s mother holds an abstract job as well, a sort of marketing agency that utilizes old myths and legends to sell business ideas (hence the story’s title, Cortes being one such myth that the mother gravitates to especially). The family home is on a farm, something Beatrice’s father maintained and that Clem has felt inclined to stay representing. After Thanksgiving dinner, Beatrice and Clem hang out in the barn, a makeshift apartment for Clem, who smokes, plays videogames, and mourns his breakup. Beatrice, a bit drunk, plays Clem’s videogame, the intimacy of childhood attempting to breakthrough these adults. She recommends that the two take Humbletonian, the horse, for a ride in the cold weather. With Clem behind her, Beatrice rides the horse into town, stopping at a Wal-Mart. After brother and sister walk around, they lose the horse, and call after it around the massive Wal-Mart building. At the back, Beatrice finds a huge hole in the pavement, covered by ice and melting ice. The horse attempts to walk over it, finding its way back to the siblings. “She notices the gorgeous ice and dirt and the lovely darkness, thick as felt, existing in this ugly place. She can hear each hoof as it falls against the ice. Beauty stands nearby, a shadowy person whose exhales become Beatrice’s inhales, warming her up. This moment of warmth, this beautiful horse. A jealous hole cracks open in the ice, swallowing the back legs and hindquarters of Humbletonian faster than thought.” Describing this cavity as a ‘jealous hole’ echoes the theme of the story, the overwhelming familiarity that siblings can bring to one another, the awkward reunion of two people so different, yet always the same in the eternity that is childhood. Clem attempts to rescue the horse as it sinks unbelievably lower into the hole, and Beatrice stops him, the insane situation prompting Beatrice to show her rage at her mother: “‘She gave the doctor permission to kill Dad.’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ ‘You know?’ ‘She asked me what I thought before she did it.’ No one asked Beatrice. She sat by her father’s hospital bed for days, rubbing lotion into the dry skin of his calves and feet, and no one said anything to her. ‘No one asked me.’ ‘We already knew what you’d say.’ Since her father’s death, Beatrice’s parents have been two-dimensional pieces of paper she folds up, tucks into her back pocket, and forgets about when she does her laundry, fishing them out of the lint trap later: her mother all things bad, her father all things good. But Clem ruins it every time. There’s Clem, sitting on the ice, shaking his head, saying, ‘It’s no one’s fault, Bea.’ But Beatrice would like to find someone to blame.” I love this story- I love the strange, forced, wanted intimacy of two adult siblings bubbling with trauma and the inability to discuss it. I love the rust-belt cold and the Wal-Mart vibe. This is home for me- it’s me and my younger brother, playing Snowboard Kids on the N64 instead of talking. And again, as in the other stories, there is blame, a heavy weight waiting to be reckoned. An inability to cope with an unreckoning. “Even with the static, she sees a map in front of her, a map of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. She sees that they arrived here at this future rather than a different one. One with horses. Maybe that future would have been better. But they had arrived here to a time when their farm is dead, when Beatrice has moved away to the city, when Clem is stuck in place, and when, most nights, her mother walks down to the end of the driveway, out to meet the incoming tide in Pennsylvania.” The story ends with Bea reaching for the horse, with her brother telling her not to go any farther; “Beatrice dips her hand inside the hole, into a land that is already lost.” Childhood is lost. But we keep coming back to it, keep dipping our greedy, sad hands into it. What else can we do?

In the next story, ‘The House Began to Pitch,’ a third person female narrator, Ada, originally from Rhode Island and now living in Florida, prepares for her first Florida storm. Her neighbor Chuck, a conspiracy theorist, advises her to board her windows, recommending that if she doesn’t leave as the officials have instructed, that she board herself against the water. “If Ada met Chuck up north she would have mistaken him for someone whose favorite book is Helter Skelter, someone who listens to hair metal bands. She would have thought he was someone who wouldn’t care if a bit of scrambled egg fell between the stove and the cabinet. He’d leave it there for years. But here, she likes him. ‘How come people aren’t catatonic with wonder?’ he asked her once when a scarlet ibis walked through the yard on long yellow backward-bent legs.” Ada and Chuck, both middle-aged and alone, sleep together once, something Ada establishes as a mistake. We learn that Ada moved to Florida after the death of her fiance, something that becomes dubious the further into the story we get. A friend calls from Rhode Island, alerting Ada that Henry’s wife is pregnant, and that she didn’t want Ada to hear it from anyone else; who is Henry? Why is he important? As the storm hits, Chuck fights the wind and comes into Ada’s house, angry that she hasn’t evacuated or boarded up. Here Ada lies to Chuck, telling him her fiance was killed by terrorists- it launches Chuck into a tirade, launches Ada into bed with Chuck. “Two people who live their lives alone in rooms doing strange, gentle things can sometimes be together in the middle of a dangerous storm in a house made of glass.” After Ada’s sex, Hunt directs readers to a flashback- an ultrasound of Ada’s blossoming baby, before unknown to us. Ada locks Chuck in her bedroom, tells him through the door that terrorists didn’t kill Henry, but that she did (although we know Henry to be alive from the voicemail). Ada thinks about 9/11, the date she suffered a miscarriage, her own little death, amongst the massive deaths outside. Her small grief went unnoticed- a girl pregnant with a married man who didn’t want her baby. There is deep trauma there, a personal trauma ignored because a deeper, bigger trauma took precedent. “I was her mother,” Ada whispered as the hospital panicked, forgetting her blood and her tears as they watched planes crash into NYC. Back in the storm, with chuck in the bedroom, Ada enters the outside storming world. “The water covers her feet, creeps up her shins. The hurricane above her, big as night. The ground shifting below, Ada stands in the storm. One by one, millions of miniature universes pass her by in the flood, remnants of time and shell and silica. They disappear underneath the house in Florida, no us, no them, but all, each one, going down together.” The togetherness of this ending shows that Ada has, in a way, surrendered to what has happened. She releases her identity, her personal grief- she foregoes the us vs them, the me vs yours, and sees only grief for what grief is, the emotion a downpour, impossible to ignore.

‘Love Machine,’ a sci-fi story, opens with two men, Wayne and Dwight, living in a bunker. These two are in control of releasing nuclear missiles, their fingers always hovering near the button to end the world. The two never do push the button, and Wayne returns to Montana, an old police chief mocked by his younger officers. He’s on the tracks of a murderer, though, a case he hopes will give him credibility. As he watches the woods where he believes the murderer is, Wayne brings a ‘small swatch’ to his nose and inhales, referencing a mysterious ‘her’ who has a battery, who he has made to be a ‘perfect soldier.’ The perspective switches then to Ted, the man living in the woods, the one Wayne suspects to be the murderer. At the door is the ‘she’ Wayne created, a robot full of explosives, ready to go, that appears interested in Ted, asks him questions that a lonely man has never been asked- “he’s surprised and a bit winded by really how few details it can take to make a life and how difficult it is for him, at this minute, to recall how he’s spent his years so far.” Instead of detonating the robot inside of Ted’s home, though, Wayne welcomes her back to his van, instructs her to hold him as she explodes. This is the oddest story to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I think I need a few rereads here.

‘A Love Story’ by Hunt may be my new favorite story… ever. It hit me hard. I’m forcing everyone I love to read it. It’s a graceful, calculated story, one that offers insight and question into marriage, into long-term love. A married couple, the wife being the first-person narrator of the story, discuss the threat of coyotes nearby. “My uncle’s so good at imagining things, like a wild dog with a tender baby in its jaws disappearing into the redwoods forever, he makes the imagined things real. ‘It’s what he does, a habit.’ ‘I don’t get it,’ my husband says. But I do. Every real thing started life as an idea. I’ve imagined objects and moments into existence. I’ve made humans. I’ve made things up. I tip taxi drivers ten, twenty dollars every time they don’t rape me.” This last sentence hit me so hard. It still does, each time I think about it. I’ve never read something that so accurately described what it feels like to be a woman living in a rape-cultured world, a woman who is consistently aware of men and their hands, their eyes; women think of rape not secondhand but firsthand, a survival tactic always in the works. Men cannot possibly understand how true that sentence is. Perhaps it even reads as perpetuating rape culture. I don’t know. I just know it’s accurate. The woman, a writer/drug-dealer, a mother, a wife, struggles with unexpressed dread, a dread that spreads from the question(s) of identity. Again Hunt invokes the lyme disease tic-searching storyline for her characters, referencing the narrator’s desire to be touched. “Most men I know speak about sex as if their needs are more intense or deeper than women’s needs. like their penises are on fire and they will die if they can’t extinguish the flames in some damp, tight hole. When I was younger I believed men when they said their desires were more intense than mine because they talked about sex so much through high school and college. I didn’t recognize this talk as a prop of false identity. The men developed entire industries devoted to this desire, this identity. The aches! The suffering of the boys! The shame and mutual responsibility for blue balls.  The suffering of the boys. Poor boys, I thought. Poor boys, as if being called upon to serve in a war effort, the war against boys and not getting any. Why do people act like boys can’t be human?” A-fucking-men. Rape Culture, again, defined. Maybe every man who doesn’t understand rape culture should read this story- should have the human identity of humanity spelled out, entitlement not being a part of it. The narrator and her husband haven’t had sex in months, a fact she thinks about often, wondering what the reason could be. She notes: “the first reason, the wildest, craziest reason, is that maybe my husband is just gone. Maybe one night a while back I kicked him out after a fight and maybe, even if I didn’t mean everything I said, maybe he went away and hasn’t come back yet. That would certainly explain why we don’t have sex. Maybe I’m just imagining him here still. It can be hard to tell with men, whether they are actually here or not.” This story is forceful, but not in plot; not much happens. In the first half, the narrator thinks about her roles as a mother and a wife; “We moved out of the city because there’s no room for non-millionaires there anymore. In the country, life is more spacious. We bought a king-sized bed. Some nights we snuggle like people in an igloo, all five of us. Those nights, our giant bed is the center of the universe, the mother ship of bacterial culture. It is populated with blood, breast milk, baby urine, a petri dish of life forms like some hogan of old. Those nights I know we are safe. But when our children sleep in their own room my husband and I are left alone on the vast plain of this oversized bed feeling separate, feeling like ugly Americans who have eaten too much, again.” There is a deep paranoia throughout this story. The woman experiences inability, an inaptitude to protect against the darkness that is human experience in the 21st century. This dread is present in other writers I love, most recently Groff. The narrator continues: “I glimpsed a huge beyond when I became a mother, the enormity of an abyss or the opposite of an abyss, the idea of complete fullness, the anti-death, tiny gods everywhere. But now all that the world wants to hear from me is how I juggle children and career, how I manage to get the kids to eat their veggies, how I lost the weight. I will never lose this weight. When one encounters a mother doing too many things perfectly, smiling as if it is all so easy, so natural, we should feel a civic responsibility to slap her hard across the face, to scream the word ‘Stop! Stop!’ so many times the woman begins to chant or whimper the word along with us. Once she has been broken, take her in your arms until the trembling and self-hatred leave her body. It is our duty. I used to think it was motherhood that loosens a woman’s grasp on sanity. Now I see it is the surplus and affluence of America. Plus something else, something toxic, leaking poison, fear. Something we can’t yet see.”  The narrator attempts to discuss this emptiness of womanhood, of society’s inability to understand the multiple identities mothers possess, even after centuries of mothers existing, with Sam, her husband, but nothing ever seems to get through. “‘I think I’m dying.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘Uh-huh,’ and went back to sleep. Presumably my husband likes stinky cheese and the challenge of living near my hormones. Presumably that’s what love is.” We see the narrator employing her ‘search me for ticks’ trick, feels gratitude as her husband touches her: “Sam switches on a light, picks me over, stopping at each freckle. How lucky am I to know such love, to momentarily remember what it means to have the body of a child, ignorant of age’s humiliation.” As the two lay in bed together (a reoccurring setting in Hunt’s stories), the narrator hears a man coughing outside and becomes frightened. She sends Sam out to inspect, and stays under the covers, afraid. “The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of each Jaws movie. Innocent, tender, and delicious. Our legs tread water, buoyed by all that is right and good and deserved in this world, a house, healthy children, clean food to eat, love. While that animatronic shark, a beast without mercy, catches the scent of blood and locks in on his target.” What a perfect description of dread, of paranoia; of the incredible responsibility women (especially as mothers) feel for the ugliness of the world. “I hold the night the way I would a child who finally fell asleep. Like I’m frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am always scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper, to not shift at all, to not breathe, but no matter how still I stay there’s no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? Maybe choked by a small rope around the neck? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me? Part of me knows he is. Part of me knows he always is and always will be.” Hunt is an expert at describing dread, that unexplainable feeing of darkness that lingers- but she’s also an expert at distinguishing between human dread and a woman’s dread, that specific darkness that women only are privy to, one that lives in the ovaries, in the after-birth. What comes next is the narrator’s deep interior questioning of her own identity, explorations of other women she might have been, other stories she’s told about herself. “The bedcovers look gray in the dim light of modems and laptops and phones scattered around our bedroom. In this ghost light I am alone. The night asks again, Who are you? Who will you be when everyone who needs you is gone? My children are growing, and when they are done with that I’ll have to become a human again instead of a mother. That is like spirit becoming stone, like a butterfly going to a caterpillar. I’m not looking forward to that. Who are you? The answer is easy in daylight. But the night’s untethering almost always turns me into someone I’m not. I sift through the different women I become in the dark, my own private Greek chorus whispers, shrieks. Where do I keep all these women when the sun is up? Where do they hide, the women who have breached the sanctity of my home, who know things about me so secret even I don’t know these things? Maybe they are in the closet. Maybe they are hiding inside me. Maybe they are me trapped somewhere I can’t get to, like in the DNA markers of my hormones, those mysterious proteins that make me a woman instead of something else, those mysterious proteins no one seems to understand. You may ask, Are these women who bombard me at night real or do I imagine them? You may eventually realize that is a stupid question. I think about fidelity. To Sam, to myself. The light is still gray. The night is still so quiet. I let the women in, an entire parade of them, the whole catalog, spread out on the bed before me. Sam is gone and these women keep me company. These women are women I need to reckon with, even if some of them terrify me. The light is gray and the night is quiet. I let the other women in.” And thus comes the other women, a parade, much like the warm parade of deer from ‘Beast.’ The narrator gives each of them space, each of them a story. Maybe this is a metaphor for womanhood in general, for all of the ways womanhood can be experienced; or maybe it is one woman’s life, spread across the years like a rainbow of paint unnoticed in some back alley. After she tells each of these different stories, she questions again why her husband hasn’t come back to bed. We learn, at the end of the story, that her original guess as to why the two have stopped fucking is actually correct- Sam hasn’t been around. The two have been separated. “Sam’s the man who’s come to chop us up to bits. No wonder I kicked him out. No wonder I changed the locks. If he cannot stop death, what good is he? ‘Open the door. Please. I’m so tired,’ he says. I look at the night that absorbed my life. How am I supposed to know what’s love, what’s fear? ‘If you’re Sam who am I?’ ‘I know who you are.’ ‘You do?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Who?’ Don’t say wife, I think. Don’t say mother. I put my face to the glass, but it’s dark. I don’t reflect. Sam and I watch each other through the window of the kitchen door. He coughs some more. ‘I want to come home,’ he says. ‘I want us to be okay. That’s it. Simple. I want to come home and be a family.’ ‘But I am not simple.’ My body’s coursing with secret genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how. There’s nothing simple about eyeballs. My body made food to feed those eyeballs. How? And how can I not know or understand the things that happen inside my body? That seems very dangerous. There’s nothing simple here. I’m ruled by elixirs and compounds. I am a chemistry project conducted by a wild child. I am potentially explosive. Maybe I love Sam because hormones say I need a man to kill the coyotes at night, to bring my babies meat. But I don’t want caveman love. I want love that lives outside the body. I want love that lives.” Yes, that desire to be loved, to love not because it’s necessary, not because one must, but because one wants. The narrator hesitates to open the door, paranoid of the darkness, of the dread, of the possible ways her love can fail, the ways she might be abandoned, let down- “‘In what ways are you not simple?’ I think of the women I collected upstairs. They’re inside me. And they are only a small fraction of the catalog. I think of molds, of the sea, the biodiversity of plankton. I think of my dad when he was a boy, when he was a tree bud. ‘It’s complicated,’ I say, and then the things I don’t say yet. Words aren’t going to be the best way here. How to explain something that’s coming into existence? ‘I get that now.’ His shoulders tremble some. They jerk. He coughs. I have infected him. ‘Sam.’ We see each other through the glass. We witness each other. That’s something, to be seen by another human, to be seen over all the years. That’s something, too. Love plus time. Love that’s movable, invisible as a liquid or gas, love that finds a way in. Love that leaks. ‘Unlock the door,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to love you because I’m scared.’ ‘So you imagine bad things about me. You imagine me doing things I’ve never done to get rid of me. Kick me out so you won’t have to worry about me leaving?’ ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Right.’ And I’m glad he gets that. Sam cocks his head the same way a coyote might, a coyote who’s been temporarily confused by a question of biology versus mortality. What’s the difference between living and imagining? What’s the difference between love and security? Coyotes are not moral. ‘Unlock the door?’ he asks. This family is an experiment, the biggest I’ve ever been part of, an experiment called: How do you let someone in? ‘Unlock the door,’ he says again. ‘Please.’ I release the lock. I open the door. That’s the best definition of love. Sam comes inside. He turns to shut the door, then stops himself. He stares out into the darkness where he came from. What does he think is out there? What does he know? Or is he scared I’ll kick him out again? That is scary. ‘What if we just left the door open?’ he asks. ‘Open.’ And more, more things I don’ts say about the bodies of women. ‘Yeah.’ ‘What about skunks?’ I mean burglars, gangs, evil. We both peer out into the dark, looking for thees scary things. We watch a long while. The night does nothing. ‘We could let them in if they want in,’ he says, but seems uncertain still. ‘Really?’ He draws the door open wider and we leave it that way, looking out at what we can’t see. Unguarded, unafraid, love and loved. We keep the door open as if there are no doors, no walls, no skin, no houses, no difference between us and all the things we think of as the night.” There’s that conclusion again- the surrendering to the Dark Dark, to the unknown and sad and the rage. We open the door even when we’re not sure we want to, not sure if we should. And maybe we should leave it the fuck open- don’t we by now know the darkness will get in anyway?

The collection rounds out with two more stories, which, I admit, I didn’t pay much attention to. Perhaps Hunt didn’t know how effective ‘A Love Story was,’ but I couldn’t focus on anything else afterward. It was too all-encompassing of everything she’d been trying to do in the collection. It’s a powerful finisher. ‘Wampum’ explores youth and sexuality again. ‘The Story Of Of,’ the final story in the collection, is very, very interesting from a craft perspective. Hunt uses the first story from the collection, the one about Norma, and adds further elements, offering different outcomes, a creator showing all of the crossings in and outs, the drafts. Each iteration of the story becomes smaller on the page, sectioned by indentation, like poetry. Again, I’m not sure what this story is doing at the end of the collection, but I found it fascinating and experimental. Maybe I’ll find more to say after my heart calms down over ‘A Love Story.’

I fucking love stories told by women. I love exploring the unanswerable questions, the ones that have been ignored by us for so long- the ones that have been asked in the dark, suffered alone, under the covers, after men have fallen asleep. I want to bask in these stories. And I want to live according to them- not ignoring the darkness but talking to it, questioning it, and sometimes running along beside it.

What It’s Like to Love

I’ve written so much about the beginnings of love- what it’s like to hurt over unrequited feelings or bad timing. I’ve written about the first nights in a partner’s bed, the first few pangs of ‘this-might-be-love.’ I’ve memorized, by now, the ache of love lost-  the thinly veiled messages of afterward, the hope and thought of ‘what if.’ There are memoir-length ruminations saved in many folders- essays saved under the titles of lovers’ initials, men whose personal details I’ve forgotten but who delivered the romantic tragedy I needed to elevate my heartbreak to Shakespearean heights. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of material on what it’s like to love and then lose. But I have none on what it’s like to love, and to keep loving.

And that’s because I’ve never done it before. I’ve never had the chance to. Do you know how grateful I am to be partner in a love that has no bookends? It’s a surreal experience for me, one that sometimes leaves me nostalgic for the pangs of heartache because I’m quite confident I’ll never experience it again (she says, crossing her fingers). I don’t miss getting hurt, but there’s something romantic in the healing process, the renewal that comes from a breakage. It’s a nostalgia that is so glossed with falsity and the distance of time that it’s laughable. You know what’s more romantic? Getting farted on by your boyfriend first thing in the morning before either of you speak.

I’m partly joking about that, but mostly not. The level of comfort that can be reached between two lovers perplexes me. I met a stranger almost two years ago, and now we can communicate via a glance over a friends’ dinner table. I met a stranger who loved Kanye West and anime and now I watch Dragon Ball Z on the couch with or without him. There are moments we share, daily, the small, gross, disgusting moments (in dirty underwear, unwashed hair, whatever) that I often try to see as if from above. It is so pure, this being together. This togetherness. It isn’t the romance that surprises me- it’s the carrying on, the being together and moving forward after the love has grown roots. I find it so odd that there is no longer a need to fight to be together- what do I do now that I don’t have to withstand distance or battle my own paranoia about the ‘what ifs’ of our possible demise? I truly sometimes don’t know how to function in this confidence- which, I admit, does falter. And I know it falters for him, too- maybe because the confidence is a weird place for him too? One of the main reasons we connected, in the beginning, was  because of our shared losses, our shared hurts. I recognized that he knew heartache too, the kind laced with depression that transforms a break-up into an orbit-altering catastrophe. I know that he hasn’t experienced this sort of confidence, this sort of ease (the one where we make soap beards on each other in the shower instead of fuck) before either. I can’t speak for him, but I know that for me, if I start to think about this too much, I get nervous- am I too dependent on this person? And that thought leads to a thorny rosebush of breakup scenarios. It’s messy.

No one told me this would be a stage. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. I was so transfixed, so laser-focused on reaching the stage of equal, settled love that I hadn’t thought of what came next. What it takes to carry on, that love already established and hand-in-hand with you moving forward. What to do when you no longer have to win someone over with carefully constructed paragraphs or surprise lingerie (which, I confess, I should probably do more of lol) but instead have to repress the sighs you want to let go when he doesn’t wipe his toothpaste spit off the bathroom sink. There’s a weird, petty lesson in learning which battles to fight- when to shake your head in your alone time in the shower and when to approach my partner with a serious grievance. It’s an adjustment, living together- there’s almost no reprieve, no corner of the place you  inhabit that is truly just yours. I love that, love it so embarrassingly much, because it symbolizes this commitment the two of us are choosing to make, day after day. I love that we have matching bedside tables and specific sides of the bed. I love this stupid domesticity we have, even the moronic baby-voice we use with our cat. But sometimes, I know, it might seem claustrophobic. Too surreal or something. I don’t know. I have never not wanted it. And even when it does feel claustrophobic, it’s a cozy closing in, a snuggly one, instead of a constricting one.

I guess the idea for long-term monogamy is to constantly support your partner. It’s easy, once we’re in this domestic, every day thing, to forget to check in. To continue with a routine (Adventure Time on the couch with a weed pen) instead of refreshing nights and weekends to reinvigorate the romance. It’s SO easy to take one another for granted- to be ugly toward one another when you’re agitated. There’s an urge, sometimes, to unleash the messiness onto your partner- and this, this is what has been the hardest for me. For my relationship. We still sometimes spiral into our badness, choosing to dive headfirst into selfish, egotistical arguing rather than breathing through it and coming back to our comfortable couch, without pants, with churros in hand, and talking it through. Or not talking it through, whatever we need. Shit is harder than it seems. And I know, even now, in the safest and best and happiest love, that it’s very easy for two people to lose one another. Emotions are fiery, especially between two people such as him and I, and we tread dangerous ground when we indulge in our lesser selves. To be quite frank, we sacrifice the goodness that we’ve cultivated by letting our impulses, our dark corners of our brains, win. How stupid that an unclean stove or indecision at the grocery store can lead to such panicked and enraged fighting. But fuck is it easy for that to happen. A lot easier than I expected it to be. It’s weird that the work is no longer in loving one another but in correctly disliking one another.

My partner truly is my better half. He is good in all of the places I am bad. And vice versa. It’s a gift to have met him- to have fallen in love with him, to have worked to get to where we are now. And now it’s a gift, every day, to choose love over frustration, to choose laughter over yelling. This is the love I was pining for, year after year, heartbreak after heartbreak, disillusioned fantasy after disillusioned fantasy. It’s the one I choose, every day, to be here for.

My Kanye West Dilemma

Oh, Kanye *sighs*.

Two years ago, I met my boyfriend. On our first date, after some successfully flirty Bumble conversations, he and I argued over Taylor Swift and Kanye West. I knew nothing of this man- he had a cool car, decent clothes, played Arctic Monkeys as we drove through downtown Jacksonville. There was potential. But when Kanye West came up, tension arose.

It was surprising to me then (and has remained surprising ever since) that this man had such a passion for Kanye West, the sort of aggressive love and appreciation that led him to argue with me on a wobbly, unsure first date. He argued then that Kanye’s music was timeless- that people would be discussing Kanye’s influence long after he was dead. To be honest, the conversation put me off; I didn’t care one way or the other about Kanye. I only knew that he seemed like a jerk, and that the few songs I’d heard were hypnotically rythmatic. I wrote the conversation off, and decided that maybe the person I’d been entranced by via message was not as great in person (lol, sorry babe).

As I fell in love with this same person, months later, I learned heavy truths. We tried and failed to communicate, the typical pitfalls of learning one another’s ticks, displays of affection. Love languages were exchanged and meditated upon. This man was quiet in his love for me. I had to adjust. It seemed odd, wrong, in a way, that he was more vocal, more emotional when he was annoyed or frustrated with me than when he was feeling love for me. We got more serious, committing to doing long distance when he moved after only knowing one another for 8 months. Fights increased, anxieties and frustrations and rage thrown against iPhone conversation blocks… sometimes, things got messy. And when I decided to move to be with him, start a new job in a new, expensive city, things got messy too. It was a low-point of our relationship, perhaps the lowest. Dark arguments were had, and I noticed an overwhelmingly troubling pattern in his reactions. We’ve learned, in recent months, to describe our fighting cycles as this: me, relentlessly beating him over the head with a bat, and him, stabbing me in the gut with a ferocious and quick jolt. I text a lot, say a lot, can’t stand silence, want things fixed immediately. And he needs space, and sometimes an unpleasant moment for him to unleash something terrible. Communication is never a once-learned lesson. We have both, over the past two years, learned our own faults, and work consistently on being better. We somehow remain patient, even in the midst of the impatient feelings of anger and desperation. We return home, to our love-laced mattress and shared parking space.

The first album of Kanye’s that I listened to with attention was ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.’ My boyfriend introduced me to Dissect, a music theory podcast that analyzed this album in episodic form. Together, while doing distance, we’d listen to the episodes, always three hours apart, and talk about them afterward. It felt good to glimpse a part of him that I rarely got to see- an emotional, vulnerable part that was formed well before he and I met. When I listened to ‘Runaway’ for the first time (and then repeatedly afterward), I felt as if I’d unlocked a secret chamber to my boyfriend’s psyche. It provided evidence for me, an explanation; the self-deprecation, the self-blame, and the overall shrug attitude of it all mixed with an epic sadness was something I so recognized within the person I loved. It became clear to me then why he’d brought up Kanye West on the first date: those lyrics of manic breakdowns, of the insincere paired with the sincerest, were beacons of light into the person he was, and the person he was working on. It seems almost like a warning sign to me now- an admittance of fault, of deep, long-repressed darkness that he was now, with the help of Kanye, coming to terms with. “And I always find, yeah I always find somethin’ wrong/ You been puttin’ up wit’ my shit just way too long/ I’m so gifted at findin’ what I don’t like the most” … sounds familiar to the person I’d come to know. The nights that I spent crying because it felt like he knew only my faults, was more annoyed by me than entranced… here was an explanation, even if the explanation wasn’t an answer but rather a recognition.

On the drive from Florida to California, we listened to the entire discography of Taylor Swift and Kanye West. What started as a joke became, in my mind, an important experience for me to better understand the man I was starting a life with. I tended not to care about the Swift albums (which I do enjoy, but not in the same sentient way he does with Kanye), and grew increasingly curious of which albums especially spoke to Hans, and why. I paid attention to the lyrics, looking out the window on Texan roads as he slept. I think I fell more in love with him with each song. When I listen to Runaway even now, I feel the sort of exhilarating, heart-breaking recognition of tenderness that comes with loving a flawed human being. It gives me so many glimpses of who he was when he first fell in love, and who he has become with each heartbreak, each disappointment. I don’t know if anything has given me such enlightenment into another human being’s inner life, and it has been incredibly helpful in learning how to communicate with him. It is truly a gift.

So, I guess I became a Kanye fan. But it was more of an extension of my love for my partner than anything else. I hadn’t had a personal cathartic experience with Kanye outside of Hans. That is, until, I listened to ‘ye’ and ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS’ all the way through.

The recent Kanye on Twitter is… abhorrent. I’d had many conversations with Hans before the albums released about the problems of Kanye’s erratic behavior, conversations that always felt on the verge of tension. It was difficult, for him, to reconcile the Kanye that had helped him through music with the Kanye that was spouting despicable ideas that were so against Hans’ moral core. He told me, a few months ago, that this was the first time he truly doubted Kanye’s genius, wondered if he’d inflated the influence he’d thought Kanye had given him beyond the reality. And I settled squarely in the ‘what the fuck Kanye’ camp. It felt strange for me, and maybe more than strange for Hans, for all of the fans that had invested in Kanye’s music for so long.

I stayed away from ‘ye’ and ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS’ but my curiosity got the best of me. And I know, from Twitter and from conversations with my beloved friends, that listening was perhaps a mistake I made. Perhaps I shouldn’t have listened until (and only if) Kanye apologized, recognized his problematic behavior. But the truth is, I didn’t. I got home one day from work and put ‘ye’ on as I cleaned the house and smoked a joint. I stared at the album cover (which I love), and felt myself tearing up as the first track played, a confessional of sorts, an unabashed admittance of Kanye’s darkest, most violent thoughts. ‘I hate being bipilor/it’s awesome.’ What better way to describe that diagnosis? Kanye later describes bipolar disorder as a superpower instead of a hindrance. The light and the dark, but not just that: the lightEST and the darkEST. It has to be extremes. “The most beautiful thoughts are always inside the darkest/ Just say it out loud to see how it feels/ People say, “Don’t say this, don’t say that.”/Just say it out loud, just to see how it feels.” What if this epic creativity, the genuine, honest, raw lyrics are a by-product of this shitty, terrible Twitter Kanye?

Let me make something clear- we cannot forgive Kanye or give him a pass because of his mental health condition. I also am confused at Kanye and Kim’s insistence that his current erratic behavior is not a symptom of his mental health, that he’s not in a bout of mania. But I also can’t pretend to know Bipolar Disorder (and, truthfully, neither can Kim, who, I think, is just doing what she can to be a supportive wife to a man who is deeply confusing and lovable). I do wonder if Kanye’s art, his birthing of these lyrics and these beats that have truthfully changed people, have to come from epic behavior, good or bad. I see Hans’ Bipolar Disorder in action, his inability, at times, to feel anything in the middle of the emotional spectrum- and I wonder what this looks like in fame. Do you need bigger reactions, bigger actions to feel something? Do you need the red MAGA hat?

I don’t know. I don’t. I don’t aim to justify Kanye because, as I said, his comments are absolutely disgusting. I can’t imagine what the black community felt when Kanye asserted that slavery was a choice; nor can I imagine how this can be forgotten or not taken into consideration when we listen to his music from here on out. What I do know is that I had an experience listening to ‘ye’ and ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS’ that I’ve had so few times in my life. Granted, I had smoked a bit too much (to the nice, psychedelic level), but by the fourth song in ‘ye,’ I was lying on my back in my living room, windows open, phone off, eyes closed. Doing nothing. Bathing myself in the sounds. In the track ‘Wouldn’t Leave,’ Kanye references his slavery comment, noting that he has said much worse on more manic days, referencing Kim’s phone call crying. He tells her, in a callous way I so recognize and have heard in my own relationship, that she can leave him. There’s something about Bipolar Disorder that produces this hardened response, this shrugging off of responsiblity; later in the song, Kanye says Even if, publicly, I lack the empathy/I ain’t finna talk about it, ‘nother four centuries/One and one is two, but me and you, that’s infinity.’ Lack of empathy. The inability to recognize what the stabs, the jolts of pain you’ve spewed, have done to people- and then, the shame, the hiding from the truth for ‘centuries.’

The first song I listened to, outside of this special listening experience, was ‘Ghost Town,’ Hans’ favorite track of the album, something he espoused to be the second coming to ‘Runaway.’ He told me he’d listened to the song late at night after I’d fallen asleep, silent tears rolling down his face. And I know why- those last repeating lines, the slow beat- And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free/We’re still the kids we used to be, yeah, yeah/I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed. There it is again, the inability to feel unless one goes to one edge or the other. There’s the conclusion, that I know Hans has had before me, that not caring is a power to take advantage of, to use against those who have hurt you. The lack of freedom that comes from falling in love, for showing up for your partner and your relationship even when it’s easier not to, had to be tough. I lied on the floor as this song played and I cried, watching a green hummingbird land on the palm leaf outside of my window. The final song on ‘ye,’ ‘Violent Crimes,’ addresses Kanye’s role as a father to North, a girl who will grow up to be a woman in a world of problematic men (which, he admits, he is as well). I know this song is also problematic, illuminating the issue of our society that men cannot treat women well until their daughter is in question. The constant need to say ‘what if this was YOUR daughter’ infuriates me, as it does most feminists in 2018. Why does the role of daughter supersede that of human? Why does the relation to the man matter more than the woman herself? I don’t know. I also HATE the ‘me too’ references in ‘Yikes-‘ Kanye alludes that men fall victim to the me too movement instead of taking responsibility for it. -_____-. But I do appreciate the flawed ways Kanye is grappling with what being a father means, what raising a daughter means. It shows some kind of growth, of recognition.

‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS’ opens with ‘Feel the Love,’ a bombastic track that feels aggressive and loud, a sort of call to march. This album, surprisingly, resonates more on a beat/rhythm level than a lyrical level. The sounds made me cry instead of the lyrics, whereas in ‘ye’ it was the opposite. ‘Reborn’ does have some emotional lyrics: I was off the chain, I was often drained/I was off the meds, I was called insane/What a awesome thing, engulfed in shame/I want all the rain, I want all the pain. This references Kanye’s experience with antibiotics, and how difficult finding the right prescription and dosage can be. It’s a tumultuous and frustrating time, full of lethargy, sleeplessness, and anxiety. To want the rain, the pain, even after these experiences reveal more of Kanye’s manic behavior- give me all of the pain so there is at least some feeling. The title track, Kids See Ghosts, references Bipolar Disorder again: Got a Bible by my bed, oh yes, I’m very Christian/Constantly repentin’, ’cause, yes, I never listen/Don’t like bein’ questioned and don’t like bein’ less than/Any a competition in any of my professions/So I gotta guess then, I gotta stay the best man/What else you expect from, uh, Mr. West, man. There’s a perfectionism within Kanye, a desire to produce the best music, which seems to be fueled only by erratic behavior. Surprisingly, ‘ye’ had more of an emotional impact on me than ‘KIDS SEE GHOSTS,’ although listening to the two together made for a wonderfully euphoric listening experience.

The first time I remember sinking into an album like this in absolute joy was with Dashboard Confessional’s ‘Dusk and Summer’ (*facepalm*). Teenage me sat on my twin-sized bed in the Ohio summer heat and cried as that CD became scratched with overplaying. I felt this again in Ireland, on a trip I was meant to go on with my boyfriend who ended our relationship two months before departing. I went instead with a friend, lonely and heartsick, driving on the unfamiliar side of the road through fog and rain and cobbled streets while Father John Misty’s ‘I Love You Honeybear’ album played constantly. I memorized the words, the proclamations of love, as I veered upwards to the Cliffs of Moher, as I walked the castle’s halls at night and cried in each luxurious, beautiful room. It was such an odd experience, falling in love with an album about being in love while I was trying to fall out of it. To bounce back from it. I sat in the gardens one cold November morning and promised myself to find and pursue only the loves that were worth it from then on- the ones that made me feel the coziness that ‘Chateau Lobby #4’ did. And, a few months later, after I met Hans, I had this same euphoric listening experience in bed, naked, for an entire weekend straight. We had ‘Blonde’ by Frank Ocean on the literal entire weekend, high and exhausted from sex, sleeping every other hour, waking and going under to the sounds of this genius album. It was one of the best weekends of my life- so simple, so full of love. And now, I’ve had this- this surprising and mostly unwanted experience with Kanye West’s new music. I can’t imagine the goodness of this experience had Kanye not been such a menace lately. I resisted the trance of euphoria ‘ye’ was putting me under. I did. But. I really, really love Kanye’s new music. I SAID IT.

Are we allowed to appreciate Kanye’s music still? How can a person be simultaneously the worst and the best? How can someone’s artistic creations be elementally genius and life-changing while they represent vileness? He’s definitely not the first- Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, and so many more (mainly male) artists have given the world truly transformative material while representing the negative, the dark side of humanity. I’m not the genius to speak on this, to give a definitive line as to what is acceptable and what’s not- to define the line between the artist and the creation. I don’t know the limits to our adoration of art when its creator is problematic. I do know that I’m about to make a ridiculous Adventure Time reference because those seem to be the only ones I can make- Kanye West reminds me of Magic Man, a character who becomes more of a presence in the later seasons of Adventure Time. Eventually, viewers learn that Magic Man, originally from Mars, was banished to Earth after his magic (reputedly the strongest and best in the land) was used to defeat a demon from taking over Mars. Although his magic succeeded, Magic Man lost his wife, and afterwards went dark, becoming a sort of symbol for Bipolar Disorder. In Ooo, Magic Man shows up to wreak havoc on Jake and Finn; in fact, his first appearance ends with Finn calling the Magic Man ‘a jerk for no reason’ and the Magic Man saying ‘THANK YOU!’ and releasing the boys from his antics, almost as if he wanted the recognition of being a jerk. Later, when Finn and Jake and the land of Ooo desperately need magical protection that only Magic Man is capable of giving, he seems not to care, absent of empathy and acting out in manic fits that no one can understand. Later, when another character learns that she must absorb magical abilities similar to that of Magic Man’s, she experiences the realization that in order to produce such beautiful magic, she must descend into the hated, into the unexplainable. That self-awareness slips away, and she, too, becomes another asshole magician with beautiful lessons to teach and fucked up ways of delivering those lessons.

My love affair is with my partner, with all of the chambers of his heart and his mind- the ones I know, and the ones I don’t. The ones I find exhilarating and full of joy and the ones I’m still scared of. And I loved this listening experience- I keep having it with these albums. I think that’s something to cherish. Something to know in the aftermath of Erika/Hans fights- that this music has helped me be a better person, a better partner. That it has given me a better, more self-aware love. We’re still the kids we used to be, back before we knew heartbreak, back before we knew the ugly things about one another and about ourselves, before the red hats and the tweets and the monotony and the self-loathing. We’re still those kids, looking for love, looking for someone to stay. And fuck, I think we might have found it.

Florida by Lauren Groff book review

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I’ve been anticipating this release for months- Groff’s Fates and Furies remains one of my favorite books I’ve read to date (an extremely tall order); her writing, poetic and magnetic, carries readers page to page, ending in odd, perfect places. I’ve read many of her stories, too, either in her past story collection Delicate Edible Birds or in editions of America’s Best Short Stories (which she absolutely belongs in for nearly every story she writes).

In this collection, Groff weaves the tropical, hot, extraterrestrial stories of the state of Florida into an intimate book, one that pins families and the self against the backdrop of an inordinate, muggy, scary land. The collection opens with ‘Ghosts and Empties,’ a perfect opening tale for this book. The first person narrator, a woman walking the streets of her increasingly-violent neighborhood at night instead of spending time with her husband and sons, observes the land of Florida while contemplating her own inner rage and worry. She lives two parallel lives- one centered on domestic life with her children’s legos, gossip about neighbors, Spanish moss decorating the backyard… and another more mysterious life, one punctuated with anger and ineptitude. “It’s too much, it’s too much, I shout at my husband some nights when I come home, and he looks at me, afraid, this giant gentle man, and sits up in bed over his computer and says, softly, I don’t think you’ve walked it off yet, sweets, you may want to take one more loop. I go out again, furious, because the streets become more dangerous this late at night, and how dare he suggest risk like this to me, when I have proved myself vulnerable; ut then again, perhaps my warm house has become more dangerous as well. During the day, while my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disaster of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of specie, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could somehow sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it.” There’s a macro-level grief and sadness punctuated throughout not only this story but Florida in general, a sort of inescapable plague of worry and sadness for what has been lost, for the inevitable end of times. As the narrator contemplates the world’s end, she notices smaller micro-level changes in her own neighborhood: a further descent into crime, old-style houses converted to modern bungalows. And she notices, too, good changes, fewer but still present: “I yelp aloud because of the swiftness of youth, these gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” This sentiment is what propels the narrator back to her husband, back to her children- love amongst the decaying birds of paradise. “I hope they understand, my sons, both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep, usually before eight pm, and that I touched this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much, touched him on the pulse in his temple and felt his dreams, which are too distant for the likes of me; and I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split in two, and heading into the boys’ separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out. Every pause between the end of one breath and the beginning of the next is long; then again, nothing is not always in transition. Soon, tomorrow, the boys will be men, then the men will leave the house, and my husband and I will look at each other crouching under the weight of all that we wouldn’t, or couldn’t yell, as well as all those hours outside walking together, my body, my shadow, and the moon. It is terribly true, even if the truth does not comfort, that if you look at the moon for long enough night after night, as I have, you will see that the old cartoons are correct, that the moon is, in fact, laughing. But it is not laughing at us, we lonely humans, who are far too small and our lives far too fleeting for it to give us any notice at all.” This is a story about time; about motherhood; about death. It takes on the impossible task of motherhood in the face of extinction (climate change, the world’s increasing violence) and asks us to love anyway, to take our solo walks but to always come back with the delicate, intimate breaths of your family.

The next story is one of my favorites in the collection. Even the title soaks itself in gorgeous language: “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” This is a sweeping story, one that begins at Jude (the third person narrator)’s childhood before WW2. As he grows in his country house in Florida beside his loving mother and mysterious father, Jude watches his father collect snakes and other reptiles for study. When the father leaves, called away for war or leaving on his own accord for snake studies, the mother rids the house of all reptiles; unfortunately, this blissful period comes to an end when Jude’s father returns, takes the boy as his own, and the mother flees. The house becomes again heavily populated with reptiles, and a teenage Jude becomes equipped to take care of himself as his father leaves frequently for university-sponsored reptile trips. Eventually, Jude’s father is killed by a snake bite: “and Jude understood then how even the things you loved most could kill you. He stored this knowledge in his bones and thought of it with every decision he made from then on.” He attends college in Boston, spends his mother’s remaining years with her until she too dies- he becomes more enamored with numbers, math. And he meets his future wife in a street’s intersection, where he is hit by a car and carried to the hospital by this strange woman. “He would never know her; knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud. He would never begin to hold another in his mind like an equation, pure and entire. He focused on the part of her thin hair, which in the darkness and closeness looked like inept stitches in white wax. He stared at the part until the horror faded, until her smell, the bitterness of unwashed hair, the lavender soap she used on her face, rose to him, and he put his nose against her warmth and inhaled her. He married her because to not do so had ceased to be an option during the night.” Despite Jude’s lessons, learned from childhood, the ones that told him reality is the only place to live, he falls deeply in love with his new wife, and they create a magical oasis of a life together, on the swampy land of his childhood home. The two have a daughter, who attends college in Boston as her father did. At this age, Jude has lost his hearing, awakened by the dawning of a new incomplete life. His wife travels to Boston with their daughter, leaving Jude alone in his childhood home for the first time. He takes a fishing boat out into the lake, relaxes as he watches alligators’ eyes peeking out from the water’s surface, and realizes he has no oars to carry him back to shore. Jude wastes away in the hot sun, trapped, forced to speak to his father’s memory. “The choices Jude made not the passionate ones. Jude had been safe. And still, here he was. Alone as his father was when he died in that tent. Isolated. Sunbattered. Old.” Jude contemplates throwing himself into the water, until the wind picks up and carries his small boat to the shore. “And now something white and large was rushing at him, and because he’d sat all day with his father’s ghost, he understood this was a ghost, too, and looked up at it, calm and ready. The lights from the house shined at its back, and it had a golden glow around it. But the figure stopped just before him, and he saw, with a startle, that it was his wife, that the glow was her frizzy gray hair catching the light, and he knew then that she must have come back early, that she was reaching a hand out to him, putting her soft palm on his cheek, and she was saying something forever lost to him, but he knew by the way she was smiling that she was scolding him. He stepped closer to her and put his head in the crook of her neck and breathed his inadequacy out there, breathed in her love and the grease of her travels and knew he had been lucky, and that he had escaped the hungry dark once more.” This might be the only story in the collection told in the perspective of a man’s; typically, Groff’s stories here are in the first person from a woman’s point of view. Jude, though, is such a special creation, a uniquely pained character who constantly battles with what he thinks are his inadequacies and what his reality is- love.

‘Dogs Go Wolf’ tells the story of two sisters trapped on an isolated island in Florida after a storm. Eventually, we learn that the sisters were the daughters of a single mother, one who constantly endangered her daughters with her boyfriends. The small family moved a lot, before settling into the cabins on a Florida shore. The mother goes missing, leaving the two small girls to the cabin to fend for themselves. Their air conditioner dies, water runs dry, food becomes short. They barely survive until they are saved by new Florida tourists, finally come back to the cabins after the storm.

I read ‘The Midnight Zone’ previously, a slightly different person in America’s Best Short Stories. I loved it then, I love it now. A first person narrator, a woman, her husband, and their two sons, camp in a Florida campground, where a Florida panther is rumored to be roaming the campsite. The husband has to leave his family for a repair at the apartment complex he owns, and the narrator is left alone with her two boys, an aloneness that means reflecting on her motherhood. “Motherhood meant, for me, that I would take the boys on monthlong adventures to Europe, teach them to blast off rockets, to swim for glory. I taught them how to read, but they could make their own lunches. I would hug them as long as they wanted to be hugged, but that was just being human. My husband had to be the one to make up for the depths of my lack. It is exhausting, living in debt that increases every day but that you have no intention of repaying.” I recognize this sentiment as well in the first story of the collection, a sort of guilt associated with motherhood- a struggle to advocate for the self, for your own independent identity even if its sadnesses contradict your motherly obligations. Eventually, the woman needs to replace a lightbulb, and she falls off the wobbling chair to a strong concussion. Her two loving sons attempt to take care of her, terrified at the severity of their mother’s pain, at their newfound responsibility to be the caregiver. As she falls in and out of consciousness, giving in to her head pain, she starts a kind of transformation: “I felt the disassociation, a physical shifting as if the best of me were detaching from my body and sitting down a few feet distant. It was a great relief.” Groff hints that the woman has become the Florida panther, making references to her vigilance, to her paws moving softly in the darkness. “I could only circle the cabin and circle it. With each circle, a terrible stinging anguish built in me and I had to move faster and faster, each pass bringing up ever more wildness. What had been built to seem so solid as fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Tie would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you. It cannot see you; it has always been blind to the human and the things we do to stave it off, the taxonomies, the cleaning, the arranging, the ordering.” In her half-conscious state, the mother again thinks of her guilt, her shortcomings as a mother. She feels gratitude for her boys’ sweetness, for their love. And finally, the husband returns. “For a half breath, I would have vanished myself. I was everything we had fretted about, this passive Queen of Chaos with her bloody duct-tape crown. My husband filled the door. He is a man born to fill doors. I shut my eyes. When I opened them, he was enormous above me. In his face was a thing that made me go quiet  inside, made a long, slow sizzle creep up my arms from the fingertips, because the thing I read in his face as the worst, it was fear, and it was vast, it was elemental, like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.” This story is magic, transformative, predatory. The lone panther, something so terrifying in her solitude, in her prowess, is something accepted in the mother, something to own as hers. And yet still, in her newfound independence, within her ferocious truth, she is capable of love.

In the quietest story of the collection, a first person woman narrator toughs out a violent Florida storm in her house alone. ‘Eyewall’ is a lonely story- the narrator ignores the government’s decree of evacuation and walls herself into her sturdy country house. As the power goes out and the storm rages on, the narrator is visited by her husband, who left her long ago for a younger woman, and then died. This is the first ghost she sees during the storm, but not the last. “Oh dear, I said. My ignorance must have been so maddening. Honey, he said, you don’t know the half of it. Well, I said, I do know my half. I didn’t say, I had never said: Lord, how I longed for a version of you I could hold, entire, in my arms.” After her husband’s ghost leaves, next comes her ex boyfriend’s.”My God, I loved you, I said. I had played it close to my chest then; I had thought not telling him was the source of my power over him. Bygones, he said.” The two share nostalgic memories of naming their imaginary children, laugh at how sure they both once were. And then he vanishes, too, leaving her alone again in the eye of the storm. In her loneliness, the narrator studies her home: “My husband looked at the study, mahogany-paneled, and said under his breath, Yes. I stood in the kitchen and looked at the swing, at the way the sun hit the wood so gently, the promise it held, and thought, Yes. Every day for ten years, watching the swing move expectantly in the light wind of morning, thinking, Yes, the word quietly piercing the diaphragm, that same Yes until the day my husband left, and even after he left, and then even after he died; even then, still hoping.” The third and final ghost to visit her, also a man- her father. The two reflect on her childhood, on the quirks of her father that used to interest and elude her so. “We waited. The air felt poached, both sticky and wet. I said, I never thought I could be so alone. We’re all alone, he said. You had me, I said. True, he said. He squeezed the back of my neck, kneaded the knots out. I listened to the shifting of the world outside. This is either the eye or we’ve made it through, I said. Well, he said. There will always be another storm, you know.” He then leaves too, and the narrator remains alone until the storm has finally passed. At the end of the story, noticing the world’s destruction and despair, the narrator finds hope. “And there I stopped, breathless. I laughed. isn’t this the fucking kicker, I said aloud. Or maybe I didn’t. Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off: one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin.” Rebirth after destruction. More love after loss.

Next, in ‘For the God of Love, For the Love of God,’ another story I’ve read before, a third person narrator tells the story of a group of friends: Amanda and her husband Grant; Genevieve and her husband Manfred; eventually, Amanda’s niece, Mina; and, finally, the young son of Genevieve and Manfred, Leo. This is sort of an epic story, exposing the secrets and inner lives of two women who used to be best friends; while Amanda settled into a cheap, average life with Grant, Genevieve went gold, living elaborately in France with her wealthy husband Manfred. The two reconnected when Manfred had some kind of accident (stroke?), leaving him incapacitated and leaving Genevieve solely responsible for Leo. In the time of this story, Amanda and Grant live with the family in the hopes of making the transition easier. This is the first story in the collection thus far that does not take physical space in Florida; while the women are from Florida, their immediate setting is in a French countryside; still, though, a phantom of Florida remains in the back. Leo, in love with Amanda, dislikes his mother, and dislikes Amanda for thinking that she is the lesser of the two women. We learn, once Grant and Genevieve share the house alone, that the two have been sleeping together, something that only Leo perhaps knows. Genevieve and Amanda take Leo into Paris, getting themselves ready to pick up Mina from the airport, a young girl Amanda raised who is flying to France to relieve Amanda and Grant of babysitting Leo. Here, Genevieve reveals that she and Manfred have gone bankrupt, and that her elaborately crafted life has fallen. Back at the country house, Manfred proves more capable than the others anticipated, encouraging Grant to drive them into town to make a surprise dinner for the women. Manfred sees the truth in Grant, sees his inability to love Amanda fully, sees his secrets- and we learn that Grant is planning to leave Amanda when they return to France. “Manfred flicked his eyes in Grant’s direction. So leave. What does it matter. Everyone leaves. It is not the big story in the end.” When the women return home, the story takes on the perspective of Mina, the fresh set of eyes on the situation. She reveals that Grant had tried making a move on Mina once, too, that she rejected him and hated him ever since. The story ends focused on Mina, the one voice distinct from the drama of intertwined and messy love in the story. “Sometime between arrival and now, she’d finally decided what she’d been mulling over for the past few days; and now what she knew and what they didn’t filled her with a secret lift of joy. Internal helium. She wouldn’t board the plane at the end of the summer. School was so gray and useless compared to what waited for her in Paris, her life on hold in that hot place where she’f lived her childhood out. Florida. Well. She was finished with all of that. A whole continent in the past. She would go toward the glamour. She was only twenty-one. She was beautiful. She could do whatever she wanted to do. She felt herself on the exhilarating upward climb in her life. As she walked toward them, she saw how these people at the table had stopped climbing, how they were teetering on the precipice (even Amanda, poor tired Amanda). That Manfred was already hurtling down. He was a mere breath from the rocks. This sky huge with stars. Glorious, Mina thought, as she walked toward them. The cold in the air, the smell of cherries wafting up from the trees, the veal and endives cooking in the kitchen, the pool with its own moon, the stone house, the vines, the country full of velvet-eyed Frenchmen. Even the flicks of candlelight on those angry faces at the table was romantic. Everything was beautiful. Anything was possible. The whole world had been split open like a peach. And these poor people, these poor fucking people. Were they too old to see it? All they had to do was reach out and pluck it and raise it to their lips, and they would taste it, too.” It’s an interesting choice of an ending- a hopeful, young, naive voice. In a way, it downplays the pain of the other characters, turns them into bitter, wasted youths who have failed. But, in a way, I think it offers hope. As Manfred said earlier in the story, a failed love isn’t the real story after all. The narrative can change, will change. And always there is the possibility for more ripe fruit.

Next comes another story outside of Florida, titled ‘Salvador.’ The third person narrator, Helena, is vacationing in Brazil, taking her annual time off from caring for her aging and sick mother. Helena has taken on these responsibilities as the youngest sister, the one who hadn’t already given birth/gotten married; as a thank you and as a riddance of their guilt, the other two sisters pay for Helena’s vacation once a year wherever she wants. Helena chooses a new international location each year, letting herself sleep with random men and party constantly. She has the same itinerary in mind for her time in Brazil, until she notices a strange, stern-faced shopkeeper staring at her from her bedroom window. She becomes doomed to be alone with this man, as a violent storm wrecks her, leaves her burdened and wet in the street until the man rescues her, keeps her in his shop until the rain stops. “She was alone and she conceded to her aloneness, she would always be alone, she would always be in these puddles that grew even as she lay in them.”

In ‘Flower Hunters,’ Groff employs a third person narrator, an unnamed she who experiences the earlier-witnessed guilt of motherhood on Halloween night. She sits at home as her husband takes their two sons trick-or-treating: “One day you’ll wake up and realize your favorite person has turned into a person-shaped cloud.” The woman passes out candy alone on her porch and thinks of her ex friend Megan, who recently ended their friendship, a fact that the narrator cannot come to terms with without blaming herself, without noticing her inadequacies in all other realms.”She is frightened of her children, because now that they’ve arrived in the world she has to stay here for as long as she can but not longer than they do. She is frightened because maybe she has already become so cloudy to her husband that he has begun to look right through her; she’s frightened of what he sees on the other side.” This is a story full of imposter syndrome; a woman feels dread, a presence always with her but amplified by the loss of a friend. “She comes in from the rain. The kitchen is too bright. Surely, in the history of humanity, she is not the only one to feel like this. Surely, in the history of herself, all of those versions atop previous versions, she has felt worse.”

‘Above and Below’ is a long story that is perhaps the weakest in the bunch for me (although I’m sure some will argue this is a favorite). The story witnesses a woman, in love and on the track for a tenured faculty position, fall from grace, eventually suffering the burdens of homelessness. This story extends Groff’s themes of belonging, of finding grace in despair.

‘Snake Stories,’ the second to last story of the collection, packs a hard punch in very few pages. It may be my favorite of the book. The story begins with a first person narrator and her husband walking home drunk from a New Years Eve party in Florida. The two discuss original sin, and the narrator is reminded of all of the snakes her sons have found in their Florida home. “All around us, since the fall, from the same time other terrible things happened in the world at large, marriages have been ending, either in a sort of quiet drifting away or in flames. The night my husband explicated original sin to me, we were drunk ad walking home very early in the morning from a New Year’s Eve party. Our host, Omar, had made a bonfire out of the couch upon which his wife had cuckolded him.”  We learn that she is a northerner, unused to the ease with which Floridians encounter snakes and alligators; she is plagued with her youngest son’s adoration of snakes. Groff connects the physical snakes punctuated throughout the wife’s domestic life with sins around her, noticing even her husband’s innocent desire and lust for Omar’s ex-wife. “My husband is an almost entirely good person, and I say this as someone who believes that our better angels are matched by our bitterest devils, and there’s a constant battle happening inside all of us: a giant cockfight.” The woman mourns climate change in this story, Groff again implementing macro-level issues into the interior lives of her small familial characters. Within the story, Groff finds a woman bloodied, her clothes ripped. The young woman reluctantly lets the narrator bring her to her home, clean her up, and take her back to the abandoned house she is squatting in. The woman begs the narrator not to call the police, but after she leaves, she does. The police cannot find her, and a male officer warns the narrator that you cannot help those who do not want it. The references of original sin, of pinning sin onto Eve, reverberate here; the feeling of shame, betrayal, hurt that comes from rape, from men’s abuse of women, echo in the officer’s remarks. It leads the narrator to remembering her own womanly hurt with an ex-boyfriend: “I smelled like sweat and spilled beer and cigarette smoke, and decided to take a shoer that night. Halfway through, I heard the curtain open and only had time to say, Wait, before he’d pushed himself into me, and I pressed my cheek against the tile and let the soap sting my eyes and breathed and counted by fives until he was done. He left. I washed myself slowly until the water went cold. He was snoring when I came into his bedroom. I stood naked and shivering for a very long time, so tired that I couldn’t think. I fell asleep. What had happened seemed so distant when we woke up in the morning. We never talked about it. I never told anyone.” This hits so hard against my chest. I can still feel it in my throat, my own night so very similar to this one, to the strange girl’s earlier in the story. I ache for all of the women who have stories similar. Olivia, the ex-wife of the story, tells the narrator that she knew her marriage was doomed when she found a snake (snake stories yet again) in their toilet.”I know myself enough to understand that even if I suspected something, I would never look.” And at the end, when she returns to her husband’s bed: “I said, Tell me. You think there are still good people in the world? Oh, yes, he said. Billions. It’s just that the bad ones make so much more noise. Hope you’re right, I said, then fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, I woke and stood and checked all the windows and all the doors, I closed all the toilet lids, because, even though I was naked and the night was freezing, in this world of ours you can never really know.” Protection of the self. Of the love that is right. Protection that we were not granted before. Protection that we have learned to instill ourselves.

The collection ends with ‘Yport,’ another story set far away from the backdrop of Florida, again in France. A third person narrator, a mother, takes her two sons to France for the summer while her husband works. She travels to France as she once did as a student, claiming to study the novelist Guy de Maupassant, whose home town is Yport. The mother feels less love for France than she once did; she feels fear as the one in charge now, incapable of navigating through strange streets, unable to speak French as strongly as she should. This is an intimate story, one that shows the mother getting to know each of her two very different sons in a strange setting. She comforts them when they become restless, unenamored and not in love with France. “I’m the toughest mother in the world. I won’t let anybody hurt you, she says, and she is either lying or not, it is hard to tell, because this promise is so complicated, the future so dark.” The woman becomes extremely lonely, faced with the question of why she thinks France was a good idea. “There is a sucking sound. When she looks up, the edges of the little square have blurred. It is here again. It has found her again, the dread, in Yport, this place that she thought would be too small to be noticed. She moves over to her children and puts an arm around both. They let her hold them, wondering. They smell mealy and could do with a shower, and she should probably toss these rotten shoes. But oh, God, she thinks. Let them stink.” France is not the reprieve, the energy she expected. But there are the moments. There is the final moment of the story. “The little one and she watch ghostly things with silver backbones nibbling at their ankles. Shrimp or fish, she doesn’t know. She knows so little about this astonishing world. If a meteor crashed down right now, would we die? the little boy says. Depends on the meteor, I guess, she says. Huge. Then probably, she says very slowly. He sucks his lips in. Like the dinosaurs, he says. The truth might be moral, but it isn’t always right. She says, Well the plus side is that we’d never know about it. One minute, we’re in the sun, enjoying the ocean and ice cream and naps and love. The next, nothing. Or heaven, he says. Okay, she says sadly. The older boy is now the size of a thumb. He has gone too far for her to save him in a calamity. Rogue wave, kidnapper. But the mother doesn’t call for him. There is something so resolute in the set of his shoulders. He isn’t going anywhere, just away. She understands.” Another story of motherhood- of a mother’s inability to protect and her instinct to protect.

4is a dark book. It takes on the macro within the micro- exposes the universal threats to love, to humanity. It propels us to love, despite.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado Book Review

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Here we are again, reviewing another short story collection by an incredible female writer. Her Body and Other Parties, a debut collection by Carmen Maria Machado, blends, just as What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky and Awayland, fantasy and realism. Machado tells everyday stories of ordinary people- store clerks, young wives, new mothers, writers, artists. She effortlessly weaves one small element of distopia/utopia/fantasy  within each story, impacting the entire plot via metaphor/symbolism. Machado doesn’t use fantastical elements for the sake of fantasy; instead, these small instances of other-worldliness amplifies her stories, transcending them further into a mysterious and volatile and luxurious abyss.

The two epigraphs for the collection really set the tone for the book;

My body is a haunted
                 house that I am lost in.
                 There are no doors but there are knives
                 And a  hundred windows.
-Jacqui Germain
god should have made girls lethal
when he made monsters of men.
-Elisabeth Hewer

The first story in the collection is titled ‘The Husband Stitch.’ It’s a conversational piece, instructing the reader how to read the story aloud; “if  you are reading this story out loud, make the sound of the bed under the tension of train travel and lovemaking by straining a metal folding chair against its hinges. When you are exhausted with that, sing the half-remembered lyrics of old songs to the person closest to you, thinking of lullabies for children.” The first person protagonist of the story, a young woman who expertly falls in love with her desired mate, a man who she first meets as a teenager, retells her life-long love story with this man. Machado introduces the element of strangeness on page two, describing the protagonist’s ribbon: “‘Oh, this?’ I touch the ribbon at the back of my neck. ‘It’s just my ribbon.’ I run my fingers halfway around its green and glossy length, and bring them to rest on the tight bow that sits in the front. He reaches out his hand, and I seize it and press it away. ‘You shouldn’t touch it,’ I say, ‘you can’t touch it.'” The green ribbon adorned on the front cover of the book must be this exact ribbon, the one laced around the protagonist’s (and, as we find out later, all women’s) neck. Tied into the couple’s extreme sexual connection is the man’s greedy lust for his partner’s ribbon. The green ribbon becomes a touchstone throughout the story, which triumphantly marches through the protagonist’s pregnancy, delivery, motherhood, and middle age. She and her husband continue exercising their special intimacy, never tiring of one another’s bodies- but always there is the phantom of not the ribbon, but of the man’s desire to own the ribbon. “‘Will the child have a ribbon?’ He startles me then, wrapping his hands around my throat. I put up my hands to stop him but he uses his strength, grabbing my wrists with one hand as he touches the ribbon with the other. He presses the silky length with his thumb. He touches the bow delicately, as if he is massaging my sex. ‘Please,’ I say, ‘Please don’t.’ He does not seem to hear. ‘Please,’ I say again, my voice louder, but cracking in the middle. He could have done it then, untied the bow, if he’d chosen to.” The protagonist gives birth to a boy, ribbon-less; “I am up for a long time listening to his breathing, wondering if perhaps men have ribbons that do not look like ribbons. Maybe we are all marked in some way, even if it’s impossible to see.” The son, as an infant, becomes infatuated with his mother’s ribbon, reaching for it just as his father does; when the protagonist instructs him not to come near her ribbon, she notes that something has been lost between them forever, a chasm between the sexes that perhaps can never be mended. There are moments when the husband becomes violent, edging closer and closer to untying the ribbon without his wife’s consent. At the end of the story, their son has moved out, marrying his own ribboned wife. “‘Do you want to untie the ribbon?’ I ask him. ‘After these many years, is that what you want of me?’ His face flashes gaily, and then greedily, and he runs his hand up my bare breast and to my bow. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes.’ I do not have to touch him to know that he grows at the thought. I close my eyes. I remember the boy of the party, the one who kissed me and broke me open by that lakeside, who did with me what I wanted. Who gave me a son and helped him grow into a man himself. ‘Then,’ I say, ‘do what you want.'” The man does untie his wife’s ribbon, and she apologizes for not knowing what was underneath, for not understanding her husband’s far-away and confused look. “As my lopped head tips backward off my neck and rolls off the bed, I feel as lonely as I have ever been.” The story ends with a final giving from woman to man, the ultimate sacrifice. The span of this story is as wide as can be, showing the couple’s intense sexual and romantic connection that withstands time, change, and age. Yet, despite how much the two give to one another, the man cannot be satisfied with one unknown. He seems to want to uncover the very essence of his wife- the essence of womanhood. And why are the women the one with the ribbons in this story? Is it because they are constantly the ones asked to sacrifice? The story reminded me so much of mother!, the film by Darren Aronofsky, which shows a woman consistently sacrificing for love, never wanting more than love, and a greedy man who cannot be satisfied by the human acts of love. What does it mean to have a son, then? To feel his chubby baby hands around that same ribbon, the difference between the sexes? How do we raise men to respect the ribbon (the period, the uterus, the essence) without needing to own it?

The first story impacted me so heavily that I needed a breather before reading the others. ‘Inventory,’ the second story in the collection, is exactly that: an inventory of the sexual partners a first person narrator has had. In the midst of her mysterious taking stock of past lovers, we learn that an apocalypse is at hand: “I still have never seen Jurassic Park. I suppose I never will, now.” The partners vary from her past to her present, as refugees and fleeing Americans stop at her corner of Maine on their way to find salvation. At the end of the story, the narrator vacates her cottage: “I took my bag and tent and I got into the dinghy and I rowed to the island, to this island, where I have been stashing food since I got to the cottage. I drank water and set up my tent and began to make lists. Every teacher beginning with preschool. Every job I’ve ever had. Every home I’ve ever lived in. Every person I’ve ever loved. Every person who has probably loved me. Next week, I will be thirty. The sand is blowing into my mouth, my hair, the center crevice of my notebook, and the sea is choppy and gray. Beyond it, I can see the cottage, a speck on the far shore. I keep thinking I can see the virus blooming on the horizon like a sunrise. I realize the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will go a little faster.” The story contemplates the human condition, asks us to imagine what kinds of lists we would make in the face of annihilation.

In ‘Mothers,’ the next short story, another first person narrator encounters unexpected single motherhood with her new daughter Mara. Her partner, called Bad in this story, leaves the two of them shortly after giving birth. The story tells the history of Bad and the narrator- how they met, fell in love; how the narrator fell head-first into the rabbit hole of Bad’s erratic behavior. The narrator imagines their future together, parents to a beautiful baby girl; “And at the edge of the clearing, mittens turn our Mara’s tiny hands into cartoons, her puffy jacket is zipped up to her small nose, and a woolen hat protects her fine brown hair, and we are reminded that we are alive, we love each other all of the time and like each other most of the time, and that women can turn children into this world like breathing. Mara reaches out and up, not for us but for some unseen presence, a voice, the shadow of a once-nun, un-ghosts of a future civilization that will populate this forest with a city long after we are dead.” Instead, though, the narrator gets a motherhood without the second mother; she gets confusing moments, fear of the unknown, loneliness and loss and an impossible fate of accepting the loss of Bad. “What I say: ‘Why did you leave her with me?’ What I want to say: ‘This almost broke me, but it didn’t. It made me stronger than before. You have made me better, Thank you. I will love you until the end of time.'” The narrator turns her love for bad onto Mara; “I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.” And the narrator has indeed outdone nature, becoming a mother of a baby girl who has two mothers. At the end of the story, the narrator finds herself with an older Mara and her baby brother Tristan, in a house that is not hers but a couple’s (perhaps Bad and her man’s?). She warns the two not to run, tells them she and Bad have been bad mothers. Was there an adoption of some kind? A custody battle? Where did all of that love go?

‘Especially Heinous’ is the next story in the collection, and my least favorite. It’s written as TV show plots, seasons 1-12 of Law & Order characters. It’s a sort of re imagining of the beloved TV show that many in America adore. I’m going to skip out on writing about this story because I don’t remember much of it.

Next, in ‘Real Women Have Bodies,’ Machado dives deep into the fantasy realm. The protagonist, a woman working at a dress store in a mall called GLAM. She works with Natalie and the store-owner Gizzy, whose reasons for working in the store are personal: “I’ve seen the way she runs her hands over the dresses, the way her fingers linger on people’s skin. Her daughter is gone like the others, and there isn’t anything that she can do about that.” Again, Machado seamlessly introduces the story’s oddity, weaving it in as if it’s reality. Women are missing- later we learn that this missing comes from a literal vanishing, a sickness that causes women to slowly vanish into mist. “No one knows what causes it. It’s not passed in the air. It’s not sexually transmitted. It’s not a virus or a bacteria, or if it is, it’s nothing scientists have been able to find. At first everyone blamed the fashion industry, then the millenials, and, finally, the water. But the water’s been tested, the millennials aren’t the only ones going incorporeal, and it doesn’t do the fashion industry any good to have women fading away. You can’t put clothes on air. Not that they haven’t tried.” The protagonist acts on her crush for Petra, the seamstress’ daughter who delivers the dresses to the shop. Together, the two start living in Petra’s mother’s motel, having sex and falling in love. Eventually, Petra unveils her secret to the protagonist- that her mother, while making the GLAM dresses, sews the dresses with vanished women inside of them. When the protagonist looks closely, she can see the women, airy and mostly gone, trapped inside the dresses. Petra reveals that the vanished women keep coming, hoping for a chance to be sewn into a dress picked up by a more present girl. When Petra starts to fade, herself succumbing to the mysterious plague, the protagonist takes it upon herself to release the vanished women, breaking into GLAM and slicing up the dresses, freeing the barely-there women. “I see them all, faintly luminous, moving about in their husks. But they remain. They don’t move, they never move.” It’s an eerie story about lingering, about identity- I’m not sure I understand the metaphor yet- I’m not sure if I have to.

The following story, ‘Eight Bites,’ takes aim at weight and the pressure for women to look thin. This story doesn’t feel fantastical per se; in fact, it feels creepily possible that women would go through with a surgery that removed part of there necessary organs, sacrificing a long life for a shorter one while thin. An older woman with an estranged daughter and three sisters goes through this surgery with Dr. U, achieving the thinness that she always strived for. The title of the story, in fact, comes from the protagonist’s mother and her advice to only ever eat eight bites of anything in order to stay thin. Before the surgery, the protagonist would never be satisfied with only eight bites. Her daughter, Cal, is concerned. She calls after the surgery is already complete, warning her mother of vague complications that the surgery can bring. And, like a horror-movie epiphany, the complication comes- a ‘thing,’ something that looks like a human, like Cal as a teenager. It stays in the protagonist’s house, soaking wet; “She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real. ‘You are unwanted,’ I say. A tremor ripples her mass.” What follows is a violent confrontation, the protagonist endlessly kicking the thing with hate. And then she parts from it, to live her life forgetting about the thing that she can still sometimes hear in the floorboards. The story shifts to future tense, an odd technique in most writing. It’s ingenious here though- knowing what comes next not in a flash forward but in an all-knowing omniscience gives the story another kind of tragic tone. “Arms will lift me from my bed- her arms. They will be mother-soft, like dough and moss. I will recognize the smell. I will flood with grief and shame. I will look where her eyes would be. I will open my mouth to ask but then realize the question has answered itself: by loving me when I did not love her, by being abandoned by me, she has become immortal. She will outlive me by a hundred million years; more, even. She will outlive my daughter, and my daughter’s daughter, and the earth will teem with her and her kind, their inscrutable forms and unknowable destinies. I will curl into her body, which was my body once, but I was a poor caretaker and she was removed from my charge. ‘I’m sorry,’ I will whisper into her as she walks me toward the front door. ‘I’m sorry,’ I will repeat, ‘I didn’t know.'” What a fucking ending. The allegory of abusing one’s body is so real and present within nearly every woman’s life; how we kick the one thing that gives us sustenance, that cares for us, that carries us to our everlasting resting place when we ourselves cannot. We discard parts of ourselves for the superficial, for appearance, and we shamefully rage at what we have lost, mourn the part of us that we have surrendered, mistakenly. I love this story. It makes me want to take my stomach in my hands and say thank you.

In my favorite story of the collection, ‘The Resident,’ Mrs. M, a first-person protagonist, travels to Devil’s Throat, a mountain oasis housing an artist’s retreat. The protagonist feels exhilarated at her acceptance after years of rejection, and finds inspiration in her nostalgic ties to the place (she once was a girl scout in the same area) for her novel-writing. This entire story feels as if it is shrouded in mist- it reminds me of mornings in Ireland, when you couldn’t see in front of you but had to walk, had to drive anyway. On her way into the retreat, the protagonist runs over a rabbit, its body cut in two and its lower half the only part she can find. This odd introduction parallels nicely with the odd array of characters we meet at the artist’s retreat; Anele, the photographer, Lydia the poet/lyricist, Benjamin the sculptor, an unnamed woman known as the painter, and Diego, an illustrator. As the protagonist struggles to write even a single word, she suffers an extreme illness, one very similar to her fever during one summer’s Girl Scout camp trip to Devil’s Throat, once known as Angel’s Mouth (a clever juxtaposition). During her sick reveries, the protagonist thinks: “It was then I remembered that I had once been sick at camp. How had I forgotten? This was the unspoken pleasure of the residency: the sudden permission of memory to come upon you. I remembered one of the leaders taking my temperature and clucking her tongue at the number. I remembered a sense of despair. Here on the beach, the despair felt clear, as if I’d been seeking its signal for decades and had just now come in range of a cell tower.” The protagonist notices strange bumps all over her legs, as if a rash or bug bites; these multiply over the course of her stay, a mysterious plague on her memory, her physical health, and time itself. She eventually agrees to pose for Anele’s photography project, and is confronted with a strange situation when Anele instructs her to fall out of the chair into dirt for the photo. The two are interrupted by a thunderstorm, and the protagonist mistakes this moment for friendship, the kind of girlish love that we know from later in the story the protagonist has never received. “Was this friendship? Was this how things were supposed to be? It felt that way, that I had ecstatically stumbled into happiness, and everything seemed right and correct.” The strange aura of the retreat intensifies as the protagonist sees Lydia and Diego fucking in public, gets more serious abrasions on her skin, and does not receive any letters from her wife back home (which she also seems to remember sometimes in a haze). The retreat seems to be impacting the protagonist’s memories and thought patterns, connecting her present to her past in one fluid line. Eventually, the artists gather to share their work, and Anele reveals the photograph of the protagonist- “here I looked completely, irrevocably dead.”  The photograph cuts like a betrayal for the protagonist, as does Lydia’s assertion that the protagonist’s novel reads like a mad-woman in the attic trope. She dreams later of her wife, who continuously asks the protagonist where she is going and what is through the forest, a beckoning of sorts. She thinks again of her time with the Girl Scouts: “The thought of events passing without my being there- of shared events and shared pleasure from which I was situationally excluded- caused me suffering beyond measure.” We learn that the protagonist was once abandoned in the forest by her other Girl Scouts, hence why she became so ill. “Perhaps that is hat caused my grief.” To distract herself, the protagonist wanders through the forest, eventually coming across a lost Girl Scout whom she escorts back to camp. The two share the Girl Scout rhyme, which the protagonist has not been able to remember correctly until now: “Twist me, and turn me, and show me the elf; I looked in the water and saw myself.” After this altercation in the forest, the protagonist returns to the residency. She finds the top half of the killed rabbit from earlier in the story on her studio’s doorstep, which she takes to the artist’s for advice. Lydia becomes disgusted, calling the protagonist crazy, and again the protagonist feels abandonment, exclusion. She reveals that she once kissed one of her fellow Girl Scouts with the thought that they had felt the same; and in retaliation, the other girls drug the protagonist to the middle of the forest and abandoned her. “Only then did I understand. Only then did I see the crystal outline of my past and future, conceive of what was above me (innumerable stars, incalculable space) and what was below me (miles of mindless dirt and stone). I understood that knowledge was a dwarfing, obliterating, all-consuming thing, and to have it was to both be grateful and suffer greatly. I was a creature so small, trapped in some crevice of an indifferent universe. But now, I knew.” She thinks again of the night she was found in the woods, sick- she was taken back down the mountain, away from the girls who did not want her. The leaders made the same comment the protagonist did to the rabbit (twice now): “You deserved better than that.” The protagonist finally breaks at dinner with the other artists, flees to the forest. “In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason. What if you colonize your own mind and when you get inside, the furniture is attached to the ceiling? What if you step inside and when you touch the furniture, you realize it’s all cardboard cutouts and it all collapses beneath the pressure of your finger? What if you get inside and there’s no furniture? What if you get inside and it’s just you in there, sitting in a chair, rolling figs and eggs around in a basket of your lap and humming a little tune? What if you get inside and there’s nothing there, and then the door hatch closes and locks? What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked inside of it?” These sentiments are one of that mad-woman in the attic trope, the Awakened woman who sets herself free in the ocean. It reads as if this protagonist has reached that point of no return- of knowing so much of yourself, of having the cryptic answers of your own mind and existence, that it breaks you. She returns home and is unable to recognize for sure whether the woman gardening in the front yard is her wife, whether her home is her home or another timeline, strung together through the forest, the studio, the bumps on her legs, the severed rabbit, the lost little girl. At the end of the story we discover that the protagonist was writing to a specific audience: judges for yet another artist residency. “Thus far in your jury deliberations, have you encountered any others who have truly met themselves? Some I’m sure, but not many. I have known many people in my lifetime, and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so that their branches might grow back healthier than before. I can tell you with perfect honesty that the night in the forest was a gift. Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness. Pray that one day, you will spin around at the water’s edge, lean over, and be able to count yourself among the lucky.” Was there a second occasion in the forest or was this all a dream? Is this a psychological tale of a woman finally confronting the trauma of her childhood? Was the Emily scout in the forest actually herself, time converging in a supernatural type of way only available to the artists that explore, that leave the realist plane? And is it worth it?

The collection culminates in the shortest story, ‘Difficult At Parties.’ The story begins “Afterword, there is no kind of quiet like the one that is in my head.” This is perhaps the loneliest story of the bunch; its protagonist, a woman freshly released from the hospital after suffering undefined physical trauma, suffers through the trauma’s immediate after effects with her attentive and caring boyfriend Paul. He attempts to help heal her, to invite her back into society. Machado indicates that her trauma was due to a man, a suspect in custody or an unnamed, unidentified man on the run. We don’t ever quite know what has happened to her, but I can guess that rape may be involved. Paul and the protagonist can’t seem to get intimate afterwords, and when the protagonist attempts to masturbate with porn, she hears voices of the inner thoughts of the actors, all tinged with rape. At night, the protagonist struggles next to Paul, suffering and resuffering unknown and unannounced traumas in her dreams. The two attend another couple’s house-warming party, where the protagonist panics and hides in a closet, deterred by Paul’s flirtation with a random woman. The end of the story shows the protagonist healing in a small way- she is able to watch videotapes of herself thrashing at night, able not to shake, able to accept the reality as it is. There’s a sense of readiness at the end of this story, a feeling of a completed lap- these traumas have unwillingly been thrust upon us women, but we have endured. We have returned home, we have watched the videotape, we have reckoned with the phantoms that are ourselves, and we have accepted that our undying, womanly love may never, ever be enough.