The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt Book Review

51mqci7w7HL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

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.

Advertisements

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

Unknown

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

91ZOrAgmdrL.jpg

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.

 

 

 

Book Review: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

download.jpg

“Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of corrections till the flames die out”

Arimah’s debut short story collection, What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky, consists of 12 short stories, each of them varied yet shockingly similar (the makings of my ideal story collection). The settings vary from America to Nigeria, from distant family to the intimacies of the parent-child relationship. Arimah embraces realism, fantasy, and a bit of science fiction in this collection, pampering this poetic world of loss and being lost with added tension.

In the first story, ‘The Future Looks Good,’ the only actual/present action of the story exists in the protagonist fumbling with a set of keys at the beginning of the story, fumbling with the same keys at the end, and being shot from behind. Arimah uses repetition abundantly throughout her fiction, and in this story, the phrase ‘doesn’t see what came behind her’ transitions the reader along. The phrase works metaphorically to illustrate the character’s genealogical past and the hardships her immigrant family suffered, as well, we realize at the end, as a literal warning, as the girl is ultimately shot from behind. It’s a shocking opening to a collection that pulls no punches, a story that reflects one of Amirah’s last lines in the book, the one quoted at the beginning of this review. These girls, the women of this collection, watch as their own flames or their loved ones are subdued, and they mourn the loss of what could have been.

In ‘War Stories,’ an elementary school girl has a feud with her arch nemesis over bras. This feud angers the protagonist’s mother, who attempts to chastise her daughter via the father, a tired, drunken old man mourning the loss (via suicide) of his best friend. The daughter replaces Emmanuel, the father’s friend, as his chess partner, and the two trade war stories about the mean girl on the playground and the actual war in Nigeria that her father was forced to fight in. It’s a touching story, one that illuminates the naivety of children and their inability (yet awareness) to grasp the concept of permanent, tragic loss. The fights about bras on the playground feel as real to this little girl as the loss of Emmanuel; although she sees something broken in her father, she cannot articulate what it is, and feels ashamed and inadequate because of it. In this story, there is a loss that is a mystery, a black fog that feels attainable by the slight on the playground but which also feels far away, until it isn’t, until you wish it still was.

Next, in ‘Wild,’ a teenage girl about to embark on her American college journey, is sent to Nigeria for a summer to learn from her cousin Chinyere. The protagonist, a slightly privileged American girl, tires her mother, who throws her hands in the air in defeat and sends her daughter to Nigeria to hopefully inspire behavioral change. The mother sees Chinyere, her niece, as a guiding example to her daughter, someone’s behavior the girl should emulate in the hopes of securing a husband and being a more dutiful daughter. While in Nigeria, the protagonist soon realizes that Chinyere has also irrevocably disappointed her own mother, having given birth at age 15 to the baby boy that is known throughout the village as Chinyere’s brother. The protagonist feels both kinship with Chinyere and amusement, a sense of power acquisition that she uses to her benefit. The two share tension, attempting to one-up one another in a competition their mothers have instilled and they have tried to reject- who can be the better girl? The two finally start to get close at a town event, and when the protagonist attempts to stick up for her cousin who is being passively mocked by a townswoman, the protagonist accidentally reveals the true identity of the baby. At the end of the story, after Chinyere’s mother beats her and yells again at the disappointment Chinyere has brought, Chinyere and the protagonist sit together, silently, holding the baby boy and lying their heads on one another’s shoulders. The theme of familial expectation and disappointment is abundant in this collection, and ‘Wild’ addresses the demonizing effects this pressure can put on young people, especially girls- it’s a threat to the fire inside of them, one that grows smaller after every utterance, every sigh of disappointment.

‘Light,’ a story from the third-person POV of a father, also addresses familial expectation and pressure, and shows the harmful effects of parents who disagree on how to address such expectation. Enebeli, the protagonist and father in the story, adores his young daughter, and cares for her extremely well in Nigeria. His wife, studying for a graduate degree in America, calls and Skypes Enebeli and their daughter routinely, and while the calls start as pleasant, the daughter learns to dread them, and resent her mother because of it. As the daughter grows, the mother finds more faults on her- the way her hair looks, what she’s wearing, her size. Her father witnesses the shame such disappointment causes the young girl, and also begins feeling anger at his wife. “This starts another argument between husband and wife, mild at first, but then it peppers and there is this thing that distance does where it subtracts warmth and context and history and each finds that they’re arguing with a stranger.” When the daughter, age 14, excitedly and full of hope reveals to her mother that she has a boyfriend, the mother again rejects her daughter, saying that she hoped she hadn’t had that kind of girl. Enebeli witnesses the girl’s slippage out of innocence, sees in her dejected eyes the first taste of female expectation: “This is the first time the girl becomes aware that the world requires something other than what she is.” The wife gets a job in the states, and orders that her daughter come live with her. At the end of the story, Arimah again uses her repetition, saying ‘but before all this,’ already giving us the tragic end of the story in which Enebeli has to separate from his beloved daughter, delivering a heartfelt and suckerpunch of an ending, illustrating the two of them happy and on fire, a kind of radiance that cannot last. “He does not yet wonder where she gets this, this streak of fire. He only knows that it keeps the wolves of the world at bay and he must never let it die out.”

The first mention of the fantastical occurs in ‘Second Chances,’ when a woman in her thirties returns to her childhood home in hopes of securing a new mattress with the financial help from her father. What she finds when she returns home frightens her- it’s her mother, back from the dead, there to choose a mattress. The protagonist at first seems shocked by her mother’s reappearance, and then angry- she continuously rejects her mother’s presence, constantly reminds her father, her younger sister, and her mother that the mother died years ago. An old photograph retrieved from her father’s wallet shows that her mother has somehow come from the photograph, which the protagonist greedily takes to her room. While the protagonist’s younger sister and the father enjoy their oddly-given second chance with the mother, the protagonist locks herself away in frustration. Again Arimah uses familial pressure in this story, showing the competitive edge between the two sisters, mostly one-sided as the younger sister feels nothing but kindness to the protagonist. “She’s always seemed so sure about everything, so accommodating of fate in a way that eludes me. I envy her that sureness. I envy her the uncomplicated relationship with our mother, where Mom was just Mom and not yet a woman with whom she disagreed.” The younger sister attempts to persuade the protagonist into spending time with the mother, but she cannot, will not, despite the obvious desire to get a second chance, to say ‘i’m sorry’ for the mysterious fight that occurred moments before her mother’s death, the reference point the protagonist gets closer to every page. I recognize this seemingly ugly personality trait of the protagonist within myself- I’ve felt rage where I should have felt love, annoyance at my mother when I should have felt grace. The mother, back from the dead, asks her daughter “What do you want from me?” To which the protagonist thinks: “I want you to boil the chicken with onions and salt. I want you to melt the palm oil on medium heat and sizzle ogbono till it dissolves. I want you to cough when the pepper tickles your throat. I want you to sprinkle in crayfish so tiny I believed, at age four, they’d been harvested half-formed from their mother’s womb. I want you to watch the ogbono thicken the water and add the stockfish and the okra and the spinach and the boiled meat and the salt you never put enough of and call us when it’s ready and say grace and be gracious and forgive me.” She says none of this though, just shrugs, falls asleep, wakes up to her mother gone again. See how much anger is in those wants? Unnecessary, undeserved rage? It’s what plagued their relationship while her mom was alive, what has sat like a dormant virus in the protagonist’s body, rage and guilt and shame. There’s so much want, and all of it is inside of ‘forgive me,’ which she does say aloud, at the end, facing the photograph that is again occupied by her mother.

‘Windfalls’ is arguably the strangest and saddest story in the collection. Told in second person, the story illustrates a sort of con team, a single mother and her daughter. The two fake injuries at grocery stores and sue, living off of legal settlements (and sometimes sexual favors) for rent. They constantly move, change their names, and repeat the cycle, the daughter apparently doomed to the same fate. Throughout the story the daughter looks for proof of her mother’s love, her mother’s pride, but only finds it in her own hurt. The daughter becomes pregnant at 15, something unexpected but which she envisions will bring an end to her and her mother’s con-life, give them inspiration for more stable ground. Instead, ironically, the daughter trips legitimately at a grocery store, and loses her baby. When she awakes to this traumatically devastating news, her mother only tells her how proud she is of the settlement the accident won, unaware of the gulf that has flooded within her daughter. “She pulled the sheets across your shoulders and to anyone looking at that moment she must have resembled a concerned caretaker. Maybe if you continue looking at her from that angle, you’ll begin to believe that too.’

‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ again plays into the fantastical world, a world in which women don’t give birth but rather craft their babies out of material, and pay for life willed into the being from Mama, the town’s witch. Ogechi, the main character, works for Mama, and has had many babies brought to life throughout the years (the most recent one being made out of yarn and unraveling). Having no money left to create a new baby, Ogechi offers empathy and joy to Mama, sacrificing bits of her self to create, a beautiful and sad and true metaphor for motherhood. Unbeknownst to Mama and the other women of the village, Ogechi creates a baby out of hair, a taboo creation because of its monstrous hunger; despite the warnings, Ogechi’s panging desire to have a baby permeates, and she creates nonetheless. This hair baby becomes demanding, sucking the life out of Ogechi and eventually killing others in its hunger. It lashes at its own mother, attempting to eat her, too, as Ogechi is forced to smother it, set it on fire. From this baby’s ashes, she creates clay, a new material with which to create a new baby. She thinks: “Let this child be born in sorrow, she told herself. Let this child live in sorrow. Let this child not grow into a foolish, hopeful girl with joy to barter.’ I read this story as an allegory for motherhood, miscarriage, maybe abortion, pregnancy, and loss; throughout the story we witness many women giving up themselves in order to have a baby, doing anything to create a life. We see the tiring effects on the mothers, just as real mothers feel; and when Ogechi loses her child, she makes something out of the loss. I’ve never experienced a miscarriage myself, but I know from reading and from others’ experiences that the loneliness of this experience is harrowing. I know the loss creates a strange, vacant presence that cannot be filled. And I know that the experience of pregnancy and birth and motherhood afterward are always tinged with loss.

In ‘Buchi’s Girls,’ we meet a widowed mother and her two daughters who have been forced, due to the loss of the father and financial income he delivered, to move in with the mother’s sister and her overbearing husband. The woman and her girls, forced to work all day and scared into semi-miserable living conditions, take solace in small things like the carpenter Lawrence and the younger daughter’s pet chicken, Kano. The diligent and loving mother mourns the loss of freedom for her young girls, and berates herself for not being able to let the fire she sees within them burn. The patriarchal household forces the women down, and when the man of the house decides to eat Kano for dinner, Buchi abides, as her older daughter Louisa struggles. “The look her daughter gave her was acid. Louisa ran out, and Buchi knew something had changed between them. There was only so much a mother could ask a daughter to bear before that bond became bondage.” The mother comes to the realization that in order to give her aging, bright daughter the best chance of freedom, she will need to be sent to the States with the mother’s friend. The story illustrates the sacrifices motherhood requires, and gives a little more credence to the familial pressure anecdotalized in earlier stories; when a woman works so hard for her daughter’s freedom, will anything that daughter does be anything short of disappointment? What if it isn’t disappointment in the daughter but in the self?

The title story, ‘What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,’ is the sci-fi story in the collection, occurring in the future 2030s-2040s. The protagonist, a Mathematician, gives patients a reprieve from their emotional pain; she is one of the talented few who have, thanks to a universe-defining mathematical equation, harnessed the capability to relieve human sadness and trauma. The service, however, comes at a high price, a metaphor, perhaps, for what the US healthcare system can offer and who it can offer those services to. The protagonist remembers her father, her desire to take his pain away over losing his wife, while also remembering her ex-girlfriend, Kioni, who left the protagonist after a heated argument regarding the privileged experience of trauma healing. The protagonist’s inner thoughts and nostalgias are in the background to the current event news cycle, which alleges that a man fell from the sky, a Mathematician who supposedly had the smart, fool-proof ability to fly, such powers this busted equation has given to the world. The protagonist, though, believes in the equation whole-heartedly, refuses to accept it might be flawed; it has substituted even for religion in this new society, and a man falling from the sky is a sign of failure. At the end of the story, the protagonist returns to her home to find a beaten and crazed Kioni on her doorstep, uttering phrases such as ‘we have to go’ and ‘they just come and come and come.’ The protagonist realizes that the sadness Kioni has absorbed via her Mathematician sadness has finally caught up to her, has finally broken her irreparably; and, in a self-sacrificing act, she takes all of Kioni’s pain into herself, glimpsing again her father’s pain she was not able to heal. The story made me question pain- what it brings us, why it exists. I’m on top of my anxiety wave right now, present and calm- I’m sure if I was in a low moment, I’d have panicked while reading this story.

‘Glory’ is perhaps my favorite story in the collection. Born in Nigeria and now living as a single thirty-something in the US, Glory is unlucky and prone to fault. “She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify- as if she’d been born resenting the world.” We see Glory being mocked by her parents, her mother constantly telling her to do better, her father undercutting her achievements with bleak and quiet disappointment. Her job as a telemarketer does nothing to inspire hope; “it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.” During her usual bouts of boredom and unhappiness at work, she meets a new guy, and can tell immediately by his accent that he’s Nigerian. She feels the urge to brag about him to her parents right away, to feel pride from them as soon as possible. She resists the urge, though, and waits until she and Thomas are serious. And she feels quite happy at her parents pride, at their recognition of her capabilities. “He didn’t seem to mind howdy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume. She wanted to ask him what he saw in her but was afraid his answer would be qualities sh knew to be illusions. A carefree attitude that was simply carelessness. Bluntness mistaken for honesty when she as just mean.” Thomas references Nigeria, mentioning his desire to return, to bring the protagonist with him. As things progress with Thomas, she meets his mother, who makes veiled mentions of future children, of her agreement to move to Nigeria with Thomas; instead of answering these questions as she felt scripted to, however, her bad luck resurfaced. Arimah provides more nostalgia here as the protagonist reminisces on her grandfather, the only person who recognized her doomed fate from the start. He warned her of a future loss- “the older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhale her life had been so far, in preparation for an explosive exhale that would flatten her.” Later, Thomas proposes to the protagonist, and as the ring, the potential life, sits in her lap, the protagonist contemplates pride and shame. “A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She eld out hope that one day all her missteps would stumble her into accomplishments she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation- she couldn’t bear it.” The story ends with this sentence: “Looking at the ring, resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.” Arimah leaves the ending vague- was it resentment or elation she chose? Or were these two feelings wrapped up in either? Do we ever really know the difference?

The second to last story, ‘What is A Volcano?’ is, in my opinion, the weakest in the collection. This story takes on a fantastical/religious theme, writing from the point of view of dieties. The story centers around the River Goddess and the Ant God, and their ongoing feud. River pranks Ant until he is so shamed that he does something incomprehensibly cruel- he captures River’s twin babies, hiding one and unknowingly leaving the other to be eaten by his ants. In her grief, River asks all other dieties to help her and they do; “How, they wondered, can a body feel full to bursting with grief but also hollow?” Ant God goes into hiding amongst the humans, passes the responsibility of knowing the other twin’s location to different women throughout the centuries. River mourns the rest of her life, as does her sister, who comes to be known as Bereaver because of her heartache and shame surrounding her nieces’ capture. “And while Bereaver wanders, River and her women lie canonic with heartache, dreaming of their children. And when, in the place she is hidden, the surviving god-child cries, their bodies hear her, and their breasts weep, and that, since you asked, is a volcano.” This is an origin story, a sort of emergence of the fire that is a major motif throughout the collection; according to this story, fire, then, was born out of loss. Grief. Tremendous devastation. And that kind of hurt lives within women, the women who mourn, who search, who love.

The collection ends with an appropriately named ‘Redemption,’ a story of a Nigerian girl who falls into obsession/admiration with the neighbor’s house girl, Mayowa. The protagonist’s family, a privileged and slightly wealthy family, looks with disdain on Mayowa, a young and good-looking girl. During their first interaction, Mayowa notices the slight from the protagonist’s mother, and enacts revenge by throwing a pile of shit at their home. The protagonist becomes enamored by this act, by the girl’s ability to be herself, unique and typical and special- “I wanted her to teach me to throw things.” Attempting to befriend Mayowa, the protagonist invites her into her home and shows her a makeshift bank full of church donations. For a bit it seems as if the girls are friends, until Mayowa runs away with the protagonist’s house girl and the family’s money. Once the women are returned and punished, the protagonist’s admiration turns to rage, hurt that her best friend did not ask her to leave, had used her. “I felt jilted, and in that sly way infatuation can flip, the turning over of a mattress to hide an embarrassing stain, I began to despise her. I thought of Grace and her beating, the many ways a girl can be broken. I wanted the Ajays to beat her, to open her up and scoop out the thing that made her brave. To leave her like the rest of us, like me.” The protagonist notes that Mayowa is sent to Brother Benni, the sexual predator/priest that harmed the protagonist herself earlier in her life. The protagonist feels guilt, and then pride, another supreme taste of admiration and adoration when Mayowa cuts Brother Benni’s upper thigh with a razor blade when he attempts to molest her. “She wasn’t my friend. She wasn’t here to fight for me. Or love me. She was just as powerless, another daughter being sent back to her mother in disgrace. My thanks felt foolish under the glare of this truth. Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction till the flags die out. But my tongue stirred anyway. I stepped into view and threw something of my own.” This is how the entire collection ends, a taking charge, a call to action- to recognize our own fire within our womanly bodies, to know that the fire will be dulled, watered, killed. But it can be reignited. It will be reignited.

 

Overrated, Disappointing Books

This is a very unusual post for me. The books I review on this blog are generally books I appreciate and enjoyed reading- books that brought me deeper into my love of literature and exploration via the art of writing. And, truthfully, there didn’t use to be that many books I didn’t like; indeed, I finished mostly everything I started, and gave everything at least a 3 star rating on Goodreads. But now, in my frumy grumpy age of 26, I’m not so lenient. I’ve abandoned books, or kicked myself when I forced myself to persevere. I’ve cultivated my own style of what I want in literature, and those standards are becoming more and more important. My shelves have thinned as of recently, due to a move and also to a desire to rid myself of the stories that truthfully hadn’t done much for me. I guess I wanted to get closer to what defines my literary taste. And doing that has prompted me to reflect on some books I have been sorely disappointed by.

Here are some of the most disappointing titles: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Talent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, and The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King. All of these I’ve read within the last two years- there’s a chance that if I’d read them before 2016, I wouldn’t have been as hard on them.

Each of these books has its own grievances. Ng is an author I really wanted to like; I was oddly disappointed by Everything I Never Told You, and found myself in the minority on my indifferent opinions. I especially wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You because of their setting near Cleveland, Ohio (HOMETOWN!). But there’s something cheap about the way Ng writes a story. It’s plot-driven, no incentive for the reader to contemplate character development or intellectual thought. The novels read almost as if they are detective novels, pushing the reader onward, fast-flipping through pages in anticipation of the story’s resolution. And while Ng does a great job setting up the place in these novels, I finished both saying… that’s it? A fast-paced and slightly intriguing plot isn’t enough for me anymore. And this feeling, I’ve come to realize, marks each of the above-mentioned titles (most of which have received an embarrassing amount of praise on Goodreads, Book of the Month, Instagram, etc.).

My Absolute Darling was such a weird read that I don’t know how to write about it. There’s something inherently uncomfortable with a male writer writing from the perspective of a sexually-abused 14 year old girl (especially when that sexual abuse comes from her father). I couldn’t help but cringe as the author, so obviously bringing his own gender experiences, tried to participate in the emotions of an adolescent girl. I’m not saying that a man can’t write from a female’s perspective- but in this novel, Turtle (the main character) feels so unbelievable that I don’t buy any of it. There’s no real sense of trauma or healing- again, it’s a 300 page book existing for its ending.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies was so infuriating to me that it’s hard for me to remember the reading experience. It got so much hype that I was really looking forward to it- I kept waiting for that revelatory moment during my reading that would get me to the ‘oh! I get it!’ moment. Sadly, it never came; in fact, the opposite did. I continuously asked myself ‘why am I still reading this?’ and ‘what is this book attempting to say?’ It was such a long read, and I skimmed a lot of it (something I hardly ever do, even in grad school reading text books). The novel attempts to tell the story of a closeted gay man in Ireland and his biological mother who was expelled from her small town for being pregnant out of wedlock. The two run into each other casually throughout the novel without knowing their identities, and at the end share a bit of life together. The characters felt so forced and uncomfortable, and the other characters ended up being chess pieces to fuel the inevitable reconciliation of mother and son that I shut the book in exasperation after finishing. I have no idea what gives this book hype- some of the sentences were so cliche and honestly quite cringey.

Oh. Milk & Honey. I have so much to say about this book and the fad that it has created. There are so many terrible ‘poems’ in this book (I’m sorry) that have now been replicated ALL OVER my Instagram feed by people who have never read poetry in their lives. This instagram revolution has prompted people to get the typewriter app on their phones and write a sentence with a loose, empty metaphor, provide weird spacing and dashes, and gives them ‘poet’ status. It infuriates me to see some of this quite bad writing get such praise- I honestly found a poem the other day (by someone being published in  an ‘instagram’ collection —- face palm —- ) that references cockroaches fucking as a metaphor for the guy’s loneliness. He of course mentioned smoking cigarettes in the same line. I don’t have the energy to pretend that this stuff is good. Most of what Kaur writes is unoriginal and flimsy, cliches that have been recycled and reprocessed with curated spacing and drawings. I become so apathetic walking through poetry sections of bookstores now. It feels like a true shame to see Mary Oliver and Rupi Kaur, who once said that ‘everyone is a poet,’ on shelves together. Poetry is an art, and it’s difficult to create. The term poet shouldn’t be granted to this level of drudgery. I’ll honestly have to write a longer post just about this fad later because it irritates me so much- why are so many people gravitating to this? Because it’s quick and easy? How does this intellectually stimulate ANYONE?

The Mars Room- what a disappointment. I haven’t read any of Kushner’s other novels, so I won’t give up on her writing yet. But this book was… bad. The concept of telling the story about a female prison seems a bit played out thanks to Orange is the New Black (which I still like), but there is still obviously so much storytelling room here. I hoped that The Mars Room would give different perspectives on the prison experience, especially since Kushner did so much research while writing the novel. But, that hope fell flat. Chapters are weirdly short, timelines are lost on me, and the novel drops off one of its main characters half way through to never be seen again. There’s also three (?) protagonists in the novel, and Doc, the third perspective, feels so wrong and out of place that I can’t understand why he’s in it at all. Romy, the main main character (I hate that), doesn’t feel like a fully formed person at all. We are expected to empathize with her status as a mother but are given no scenes with her and Jackson, her son. We are expected to know her and understand why her situation with a stalker and a strip club motivate her to escape prison, but instead it feels like a stupid plot and a stupid ending. I didn’t have any emotion while reading this book. It was so lackluster that I’m selling it immediately.

FINALLY, I come to the Dark Tower Series. Oh. My. God. I’ve been waiting to read this for years. As a nerd and lover of the fantasy genre, The Dark Tower has been the one series I’ve been saving. Friends have told me how great it is, reviews have referenced it as a touchstone for other novels… I knew I was in trouble when in the middle of slodging through the first novel, someone told me it was the best one (I hated it). Somehow, I pushed through ALL of the 7 books. It was the biggest reading mistake I have ever made. Again, we have a male writer writing from the perspective of a female (in some parts); this female, Susannah, is one of the worst-written characters I have EVER read. King creates her as a black, disabled, schizophrenic woman, somehow nailing all minorities into one single character. And her dialogue is so bad I want to scream. It’s almost like King lived in Maine without interacting with a single black person ever and then guessed at what they talked like (oh wait :)). Apart from that major criticism, the books could be wittled down to three and still be too long. King ends up writing himself into the story, attempting to get meta but really just getting egotistical and confusing. The final big bad guy doesn’t feel big at all, and King’s time travel stuff falls flat if you piece it out. There’s weird demon sex throughout for no real reason, an annoying beaver? pet that I hated, and other weird stuff that gets no real definition or reason for existing. It feels like it was a story curated especially to be weird. It’s unnatural and feels forced. I will never forgive myself for finishing this stupid, stupid series.

If it seems like I’m being hard on these, maybe I am? And maybe it’s ok to be? I love literature so much that I’ve always felt… bad or wrong somehow if I didn’t like a book. It felt, somehow, like disrespecting the art form as a whole. But now, my perspective has shifted. I think it’s more than ok to dislike a book. And I think it’s more than okay to point out what’s lacking from works of art.

Isn’t the point of writing a book to get a reader to wonder? To think? To live more fully? I know that some readers come to the experience for different reasons, but ultimately, why does one read? Why does one listen to a song? Stare at a piece of art in a museum? Why do we watch films? If it’s only for surface-level entertainment, then sure, these books are fine. And maybe that’s why they sell well. Maybe they’re the Marvel movies of the book genre. And I know this sounds really pretentious. But I’m just frustrated, because so many life-altering books get outsold and overshadowed by these half-alive stories. I’m clearing my shelf of these books. And I’m letting Donna Tartt, Ramona Ausubel, Ruth Ozeki, Han Kang, Virginia Woolf, Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anais Nin, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver take the spots. I want the fully alive stories. The ones that I cry at. That I think about and long to reread. The ones that keep me up at night, unable to sleep until I blog about them. Those are what is worth reading.

A little bit of an introduction

I found it- my book.

I was trying to write a book of essays. I was trying to finally finish something, to get a bulk of my work out into the world. A few essays lie in my files, decent first drafts with some definite edits to come. They’re too long- paragraphs that twirl and twirl, sentences that dart and zig and zag until you can’t trace their return journey. When it comes to myself, I have a lot to say. Does that sound selfish? Well, I guess that’s the conflict, isn’t it? That’s the shit, the darkness, the void. Whatever it is, this is it. I feel compelled to nonfiction because I want to expunge myself. I take to my journal, my notes app on my phone, my text message threads (sorry, friends), my blog, a blank Word Doc, because I need to. My brainwaves attempt to drown me, and it’s only by writing that I feel on top of the crest, still submerged but paddling, nonetheless.

My 17-page first draft-editing-madness was interrupted one day by this impatient urge to write a story. Fiction. I hadn’t felt that need to create something that specific… ever. As I said, I’ve always had to write, but I have never experienced the desire and the specification. The urgency that I needed to write this story- THIS was the story I needed to write at that time, not the nonfiction piece that I drilled myself into finishing. It was the small, intimate story that took place in a car, on one day, between two unnamed characters. It was part auto-biographical, part existential. It emerged onto a blank Word Doc in 20 minutes. And two weeks later I made a few edits. I haven’t touched Extraterrestrial since.

Finishing this story, based on a version of the arguments my own partner and I have had, surprised me. My work, in the past, has been shrouded in insecurity- of feeling as if I have to say something new, grandiose, special, in order for it to be enough. I listened to Elif Batuman, one of my new favorite writers, read from her novel The Idiot, and she mentioned abandoning the novel for ten years before coming back to it. She described the changes she made, and admitted that as a younger writer, she felt the need to attempt to define all of the human condition, to write something majestic and gigantic in its scope; when she returned to her work ten years later, she found that it was in the smaller, closer moments that human nature came through the most. That resonated with me. And it echoed, again and again.

The moments I’ve learned the most about myself- the ones in which I’ve been exposed, begrudgingly, to my ugliest self- have come from arguments with my partner. I used to find this embarrassing, the desire and need to write almost compulsively about my relationship. I thought maybe it was too small in scope to write about the daily minutiae of a couple suffering and loving together. I don’t think it’s too small now. For me, it’s just about everything. I think the weight I put on that is both problematic and beneficial, at the same time. The paradoxes of human life, I guess.

It’s been (and I’m not exaggerating here) the most transformative experience in my life, this adult partnership, this relationship that has transported me across the country, to a new home, a new job… it’s made me confront the ugliness within myself that I’ve denied. I’ve lived with this part of myself in hiding; the part that needs, that salivates, sweats, paces, screams when it doesn’t feel an unhuman, fantastical, impossible level of love. There’s a part of me (that no longer has as much control as it did before writing these stories) that doesn’t trust the imperfect, easily-harmed, human love. But that flimsy, unpredictable love? That’s all we get.

And when I look at it that way- when my characters come to that conclusion- the black cloud of ‘what if I’m not enough’ goes away (at least for a moment). Even the greatest love, the ‘I Do’ at the end of an aisle, the 50th wedding anniversary party, the birth of a new baby- none of it is a guarantee. Isn’t that insane? There is no guarantee. I’ve read that sentence, said that sentence, wrote that sentence infinite times. But I’ve never accepted it. I don’t know what it means to accept that truth. To accept that the only love we are capable of is flawed beyond comprehension- my cynical mind will want to take it a step further- if it isn’t all-encompassing, earth-shattering, it isn’t real, it isn’t worth it.

That’s a difficult pressure to live inside. It’s a monster I’ve wrapped and rewrapped in pretty pink paper time and time again, feeding it to myself as if it is my only sustenance. Like I said, it’s ugly- definitely the ugliest thing about me. And I would not be confronting this part of myself if it were not for my partner, and the hope and optimism I do see in our relationship. He is as close to fulfilling my insanely-skewed desires as any human could be.

Do you need reassurance? What word, what symbol, could suffice? And would that thing that you think you so desperately need actually fill that hole inside of you?

The hole (the darkness, the void, the THE) will never ever be filled. That hole isn’t even reality. It’s a pathetic fear of being left. Of being unworthy of love. Melissa Broder, another one of my favorite writers, once asked a crowd of listeners: “can you fill the void with romantic obsession?” And the answer is no. The answer comes to me now, after I’ve dumped the concrete of a loving, long-term, stable, relationship into the hole and it cracks anyway. There is no fucking way that this chasm will ever be made into flat land.

But maybe I don’t need concrete. Maybe that hard, absolute element isn’t the element of this beautiful love I have. What if I don’t need the sturdy ground, but instead need the bountiful one? What if instead of concrete I use soil? What if I let this soft, juicy, fertile love sustain me? What if the green, wet stems that sprout from the soil come from the daily reassurances- the first morning feel of his skin against mine, every single morning, the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ instead of ‘me’ and ‘my,’ the diligent way he made coffee for my mother and brother every morning during their visits, that bath that we took together on one of the first days in the new apartment, when everything was bare and empty and cold, my head resting on his chest, hot water that felt like home– what if seeing our two cars parked next to one another in a driveway we share is enough?

I can’t have the concrete sturdy ground because it isn’t real. And wouldn’t it feel better anyway to walk, barefoot, into that imperfectly perfect earth? Isn’t it better to feel that love between your toes, under your nails, to smell it later in the shower, to touch it with your gentle hands when the sprouts become blossoms? To never walk too hard but to tread gracefully, aware of this soil, this sacred creation- the one even more divine because of what lies beneath?

 

 

 

 

The Pisces by Melissa Broder Book Review

e505f2fc08f877ac232e116bc90642ea

“I looked out at the ocean. It was as though I hadn’t noticed it before, or hadn’t wanted to see it. I was scared of its wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me. It could eat me without even knowing. But now I saw each of the waves individually, one after the other, and felt them to be in rhythm with my heartbeat. They glimmered and splashed in the moonlight. Maybe the ocean was cheering for me after all? Maybe we were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up- boats, people- but it didn’t look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me.”

When I started applying for graduate school, I experienced a dread unlike any I’d experienced before. The general malaise I’d suffered throughout my life up to that point was manageable, quiet in the face of a university I loved, friends I committed to, and an academic pursuit that became an obsession. But, as I scrambled to find an alternative academic route my senior year of undergrad, I spiraled. I felt a new sort of meaningless, an undeniable void that would never again be quiet. That’s when I found SO SAD TODAY on Twitter. Those tweets spoke into that void, mocked it and mocked me in equal, parallel parts. Then, Broder released the So Sad Today essay collection during my first year of graduate school, in the midst of a degree I couldn’t find intellectually stimulating, a weight gain, an unfortunate haircut, and a ridiculous relationship that I romanticized and fantasized to the point of no return. I needed the book. I still need it.

As I’ve said in previous reviews, living in Los Angeles now is such a treat in the literary world. I’ve been to about 6 readings in 2018 alone, three of which were with my very favorite writers (Elif Batuman, Ramona Ausubel, and now Melissa Broder). I love feeling so connected to the writing, reading, and publishing world, even in a day-job that is not necessarily a part of that. I attended Broder’s reading at Skylight Books and listened to her read a part of this novel that described graphic bad sex on the floor of a hotel bathroom. In typical Broder fashion, the voice of the text spoke from a detached yet highly emotional space, at once evoking dislike and obsessive want. The first-person protagonist, Lucy, can’t even have a Tinder hook-up without expecting the act to save her from the banality of existence.

And this, ultimately, is what The Pisces confronts- the act of fixing or stifling one’s existential dread with love. In Broder’s reading, she asked: “can you fill the existential hole with romantic obsession?” Lucy wrestles with this question throughout the novel, learning more than once that obsession does not fill the hole and can perhaps make it wider, but still trying nonetheless. Broder sees herself in Lucy, noting that “reality was never my first choice.” And Lucy’s isn’t, either. We see her from the beginning romanticizing her stalled relationship with Jamie, her partner of nine years who cannot spend more than two days a week with her (let alone live with her)- the majority of the first half of the novel focuses on Lucy strategically placing herself and her actions in order to get Jamie back. It isn’t Jamie himself that Lucy wants but instead a reprieve from the nothingness, which only a fantasy can deliver. By living in the comfort of a stable relationship, Lucy can imagine that Jamie gives her this salvation; it is especially in his loss that she feels the renewed strength of the void.

“I myself, had a very complicated relationship with emptiness, blankness, nothingness. Sometimes I wanted only to fill it, frightened that if I didn’t it would eat me alive or kill me. But sometimes I longed for total annihilation in it- a beautiful, silent erasure.”

Lucy, an on-pause doctoral student in Phoenix, travels to Venice Beach for the summer in order to dog-sit her sister Annika’s dog, Dominic after Lucy’s mental breakdown over her breakup with Jamie (which resulted in a few episodes of stalking, and a broken nose). Annika insists that Lucy visit while she and her husband Steve are in Europe, forcing Lucy to attend group therapy in order not to get sued by Jamie and his new girlfriend Megan The Scientist. Lucy reluctantly agrees, tired from her ongoing and stuck thesis surrounding Sappho, the Greek poet. The house on Venice Beach awards Lucy an unknown aloneness, and eventually gives her a loyal love in Dominic the dog and unexpected/unwanted friends in her support group. At first, at the insistence of her eccentricly-fucked-up all-female support group, Lucy abstains from dating. Instead, she devotedly walks Dominic, watching others attempt the love spiral: “Sure, compared to the greater nothingness- the void, the lack of explicit meaning in life, the fact that none of us knows what is going on here- it was at least something. Their engagement in this dance of elevating a stupid restaurant to high levels of importance, discussing kombucha, making the fleeting matter, the shorts: all of these were a fuck-you to the emptiness. Or perhaps these details were symptomatic of their ignorance of nothingness. Was nothingness so imperceptible to them that these things could matter? Could anyone be totally ignorant of the void? Didn’t all of us have an awareness of it, a brush with it- perhaps only once or twice, like at a funeral for someone very close to you, when you walked out of the funeral home and it stopped making sense for just a blip that you existed. Or perhaps a bad mushroom trip where one’s fellow trippers looked like plastic. Could there be people on this Earth who never stopped for a moment, not once, to say: What is everything? Whether there were those people or not, I knew that in this moment neither of them was asking that question. If they had tasted the nausea of not knowing why we are here or who we are, or if they had not, now they were willfully and successfully ignoring it. Or maybe they were just stupid. Oh, the sweet gift of stupidity. I envied them.”

I see myself in a lot of Lucy (and, from what I can tell, in Broder). I recognize her compulsion to obsess over romantic possibilities, her desire to remain cool and aloof despite her absolute impatience. I’ve felt that lack of truth in the dating world, been disgusted at the stab of nothingness that being with someone meant. It’s all felt so hopeless to me before, while at the same time being the only thing to have hope in. Love is both an impossible shot in the dark and a deliverance from insanity. “I don’t know that we are ever really okay in life, but there are times when we feel closer to it- when we don’t remember what it feels like to suffer. During these times we are moving forward in the void, forgetting we are going nowhere, so the void feels less daunting. We feel like we are handling shit. We are handling shit and doing work on ourselves. And then another person comes in, and meets us there, and we think we can handle it.” I’ve made the mistake of believing myself to be ready. Of becoming obsessive and anxious and a whole slew of other too-much-ness. And when the relationships (sometimes not even relationships) have ended, I’ve blamed it on the other person, explaining that they weren’t ready, couldn’t handle me. I see now, though, what Lucy sees in herself (and then denies): I want love so fucking badly that it devastates me when I don’t get it. I want to be loved in an ephemeral all-encompassing way, and if I sense that the impossible can’t happen (which, it never can, because we’re all human and we all suck), I will self sabotage. “I knew that what I wanted was something that couldn’t exist. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something I wanted.”

Lucy doesn’t listen to her support group for very long. She gets on Tinder, meets up with two different men while also meeting up with a swimmer on the rocks of Venice Beach at night. She’s disappointed by the Tinder dates, recognizing the fleeting nature of them while also craving something else: This wasn’t what I was in this for. I mean, it was something, at least, not just ordinary, hollow life. It was a stab at the nothingness. But I had wanted him to really fall for me, obsess about me. Had I been used? Could you be used if you were also using the other person? ” She uses these dates as fuel to get Jamie back, recognizing that the more aloof and distant and uncaring she seemed, the more attractive she’d be to Jamie; and sadly, she’s right. He begins to see Lucy as attractive again, to see her not for the familiar woman but as the wanted woman. Broder writes about this concept a lot, giving voice to an area of love that is so often unremarked upon: limerence, the feeling of intoxication at the fantasy of a person. Broder posed the question to her reading audience here in LA: “why is it always the shorter lived love that is more intoxicating?” Why is it the love lost that makes us want it more? Lucy goes on a few dates, meeting up with one man, Garrett, in a hotel lobby for a hook-up. She preps for the date, spending a ton of money on new lingerie, only to find that he hasn’t gotten them a room but rather expects her to fuck him in the hotel’s public bathroom (to which she does, both vaginal and anal, resulting in a UTI). Not only was the sex bad, but Garrett left directly after, abandoning the already disillusioned Lucy, leaving her to wallow into an even deeper pit of the void. Living in the fantasy of a person is so much safer than the reality.

Lucy hears from Jamie on and off, becomes intrigued by Theo the night swimmer, and listens to the women in her group, especially Claire, her new friend. Lucy notes of Claire: She could have a harem of a thousand studs, but the truth was there would never be enough to fill her need for attention- for devotion. That hole was bottomless.  It was never-ending. She wanted their devotion, but should one of them want her to commit, it would be over instantly. If he became obsessed with her, really fell in love, asked her to move in, she would grow tired of him. When I looked at her I saw that there was no human who could do that for us. Fill the hole. That was the sad part of Sappho’s spaces. Where there had been something beautiful there before, now they were blank. Time erased all. That was the part nobody could handle. Some people tried to shove things in them: their own narratives, biographical crap. I was pretending that nothing had ever been there in the first place, so that I wouldn’t feel the hurt of its absence. I wanted to be immune to time, the pain of it. But pretending didn’t make it so. Everything dissolved. No one really wanted satiety. It was the prospect of satiety- the excitement around the notion that we could ever be satisfied- that kept us going. But if you were ever actually satisfied it wouldn’t be satisfaction. You would just get hungry for something else. The only way to maybe have satisfaction would be to accept the nothingness and not try to put anyone else in it. And Lucy adopts this view, resolves to not become obsessed anymore, to sit with her awareness of the void and just be in it. She does, for a few days. She spends time with Dominic. Until Theo the night swimmer sucks her toes, eats her pussy, and reveals that he’s a merman. 

The inclusion of fantasy in this novel is intriguing. It’s a deep-rooted metaphor, an almost laughable manifestation of unreality glaring at us from the page, wading in the water. Lucy falls in love with a merman, a literal fantasy, thus mirroring her projections of love from previous relationships- Theo offers her this all-consuming, other-worldly love; he is himself a fantasy. And still, Lucy’s void is there. How depressing, to discover the inescapable nature of depression/anxiety- and doesn’t the void feel worse, feel even tighter, when we rope someone we love into it? When we let them know that they’re not enough to fix it because nothing is enough to fix it? I know that’s the lowest I’ve felt in the void. It’s hard to climb out of that sort of shame.

Plot-wise, Lucy starts seeing Theo regularly, hauling him into her sister’s home for some serious sex (including some goddess-level period sex). During these episodes, Lucy tranquilizes Dominic, who seems to hate Theo’s presence. Lucy continues obsessing over her blossoming relationship with Theo and continues tranquilizing Dominic. She neglects her duties as a dog-sitter in lieu of her apparent happiness with Theo. Never does Lucy reveal to Theo that she will be leaving Venice at the end of the summer- she finds a safety in the certainty that she will be leaving, that she will be the one to leave. It’s a form of self-protection that I recognize in myself, the self-sabotaging because maybe hurting yourself hurts less than being hurt by others. Eventually, Lucy reveals she will be leaving, and she temporarily loses Theo, who exhibits Lucy’s own abandonment issues. He eventually returns to her, where she is waiting, and the two make plans for Lucy to join Theo underwater. She doesn’t quite understand how this will work, but her obsession propels her onward; even after she discovers Dominic dead in the kitchen pantry, she commits to Theo. Annika and Steve return home, devastated at Dominic’s death, and Lucy goes to the rocks. There, she confronts Theo about what going underwater truly means- and it means death. Theo has taken 17 other women underwater, their carcasses still there; and he excuses the fact by claiming that this is the ultimate result, the only result, of all-encompassing love. This is the love Lucy wanted, right? This is the answer to the nothingness, right? To be inhaled, annihilated, consumed…

“Fuck you,” Lucy tells Theo. She turns her back, returns to her grieving sister, accepts the role as the caregiver. She lets herself be needed, mourns the loss of Dominic, the pure lover of her summer. She sits in her aloneness. ‘In a way it was kind of nice to be alone. The euphoria was gone and the silence was gone- those were Theo’s. In his place, some of the nothingness had clearly returned. But I felt different about it, like it was laughing with me or maybe I with it. It was my own nothingness to have and to hold. In my mind I called it a fucker and turned off the light.’

Ultimately, I don’t think The Pisces rejects romantic love. I actually think it’s quite a hopeful book. Lucy learns how paralyzing romantic obsession can be- and comes to confront, for the first time in her life, that not even the perfect love can fix the depression. It’s a hole, definite and black, wide sometimes and small at others. But it’s always there. And that’s not to say you can’t love with the hole. It’s to say the opposite- that to love is to love. And that purity is not lost in the black hole of depression.

I had been mistrustful of love, of anything, really, that came too easily, as though it were fool’s gold and could one day disappear. I had spent so much time creating friction for myself: not only in whom I chose to love but in the work I did. I’d made my thesis impossibly hard- harder than it needed to be, ensuring that I might never complete it. Somehow it always felt safer psychologically to do that. But where had it gotten me?’

This is a lesson I’ve learned this year. Over and over again, I’ve learned it. I’ve sweated it and cried it. I’ve looked myself in the mirror, irises brighter from crying, and told myself I needed to change. I’ve sat in silence more than I ever have. What does it mean that I have hesitancies surrounding my own happiness? Why can’t I sit in joy without waiting for it to end? Now, I attributed my crying to joy. I hadn’t known that I’d wanted joy either. I had not ever known that I could have it. Now I was crying because it felt like a miracle- not only that I would want to live at all but that I actually could.’ I’d had no idea that I’d have to work to accept joy in my life. But I have so many days, surreal days when I find myself driving through Beverly Hills on my way home from work, and the joy threatens to suffocate me- at least, that’s how it feels. But maybe that isn’t suffocation. Maybe that’s just… presence. And maybe I push it away because I’m scared it will be taken away. Maybe the recognition of having it will make the loss bigger.

But maybe. Maybe it won’t.

So, this is to say that I’m not alone. That you’re not alone. This is to say thank you to Melissa Broder for giving this voice the room it has been begging for. This manifestation of anxiety and depression, the kind that attacks the romance first and the rest later, is no less serious or diabolical than any other. It isn’t worthy of dismissal simply because it reeks of paranoia or selfishness. “Is love willful ignorance?” Probably. But it’s what we’ve got. We don’t get mermans, and if we did, it’d be terrible. We’re given the choice to see (or manifest or create or fucking fake if you have to sometimes) the beauty and the fantasy in the reality of our loves, our long-lasting loves that show up for us and stick with us even when we’re ugly. We have to live inside our flawed carcasses and other people’s flawed carcasses, trusting (somehow) that such flaws will never be insurmountable. Trusting that love can win if it believes itself to have already won.

IMG_4334

Book Review: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel

51EGo2szKKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

How many times have I mentioned that I adore a good short story collection? I feel like I’ve raised my hand at any appropriate moment, inserted myself in any conversation I can somehow relate to a short story collected, and have volleyed on behalf of this incredible avenue for storytelling. Fiction is most delicious to me in the forms of short stories- ripe and juicy clementines, bright orange and fast.

I’ve been looking forward to this book’s release for months. I adore the cover- the font, the slightly off-kilter alignment and odd use of floral fabrics, the strange looking creatures, almost mirrors of one another. And the title intrigues me, pulls me in- it’s a sister to Neverland or some other mystical realm, a world that is far off but still accessible, still, somehow, a land. I went into this reading experience having no past reading relationship with Aububel’s work (it hurts my literary soul that I had not previously devoted myself to her writing- two novels and another short story collection?! I can’t wait)- I didn’t know what to expect, and the book’s description didn’t offer much either. I deduced that Ausbuel implemented fantastical elements into her stories, that human themes were transferred and translated onto mystical beings. And I was cautious of this because I think it’s easy to get wrong. Ausubel, however, succeeded.

A collection’s organization is always something I take notice of- why did the author choose to place this story here, and that story after or before? Why, out of the many stories they’ve written, did these few end up in the same collection? What commonalities bring them together? What makes them different enough to stand out? How do you find the balance? Awayland‘s structure is even more interesting because of Ausubel’s employment of sections. The book is divided into four sub-sections, each containing a few stories in it. From my reading experience, this is not common. Typically, the stories exist via the binds of the book, and no other structure contains them. Another writer that comes to mind who has employed this structural technique is Jhumpa Lahiri- in her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri sections her stories into two separate sections, intertwining the two via shared characters and plot lines. I was floored when I read this book- it felt as if an entirely new reality of poetic prose had made itself apparent to me. And Jenny Zhang’s Sourheart, a story collection I adore from last year, also employs some interesting structural elements, like characters from some stories showing up in the peripheral of later stories. This is an innovative, deliberate, and creative stroke of brilliance that the short story possesses over the novel- a short story collection tells a quick story, firy in its brevity, but a collection can tell multiple stories, tied together delicately with the simplest of strings.

I took diligent notes on this collection during my reading (which only took me 1.5 days- I ate it so disgustingly quick) in order to deduce a thematical definition of the sections. I think the meaning(s) are expertly obtuse while still remaining openly inviting, making the reading so deliriously powerful.

The first section of the book is titled Bay of Hungers and includes three stories: ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ ‘Fresh Water From the Sea’ and ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ The first story, ‘You Can Find Love Now,’ walks us through a Cyclops (yes, a Cyclops) creating an online dating profile for himself. The Cyclops’ presence in the story only serves to further highlight the silliness inherently wrapped up in online dating, and the ways we describe ourselves in order to find someone interested in us- an elaborate hoax, a game likened to that of fishing. As the Cyclops says: “If you want me to set a trap, I’ll set a trap. A first date picking blueberries in the whitest, cleanest sunlight, tin pails. I’ll bring sandwiches and chilled Chardonnay and tell you that we are already the good people we wanted to become.” This story is a short burst through the bleakness of loneliness, an honest look at what it means to expose yourself in just the right amount to be interesting but not frightening. But what if you, yourself, are frightening? What if that’s part of your essence? “If I came to your house, tonight, where would I find you? The living room? The kitchen? Waiting at the door? I’ll call you Aphrodite and smell the sea in your hair and shuck oysters for you from the depths. I’ll tell you that I’ve never seen a real goddess until now. Come with me and be adored, deep below the earth. While you sleep, I will strike a huge sheet of metal until the shape of your body comes into relief. You never have to take me to meet your friends, you never have to take me anywhere. You never even have to see me in the light. Your grandmother will tell you that all the good men are gone, but then here I am, and I’m ready for you.”

The second story in this first section is one of my two favorites from the collection- ‘Fresh Water from the Sea.’ From a third person omniscient point of view, a tale of a mother and daughter grappling with death comes to fruition. The two characters, never named in this story but instead referred to as ‘the mother’ and ‘the girl,’ attempt to come to terms both separately and together with the mother’s upcoming death.  The girl travels from Los Angeles to Beirut where her mother is living (a city, which we find out later, was her mother’s birthplace that she was forced to evacuate but never stopped longing to return to). There seems to be no cause for her mother’s impeding death, but rather an odd phenomenon- the mother is simply shrinking, losing bits of herself, becoming mist. The girl doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she understands that she must provide support for her mother, especially since the girl’s sister does not intend to see the mother despite her upcoming death. Throughout the story, the girl longs to be closer to her mother, for the certainty and hardness of death to create a more intimate connection between her and her mother. “She wanted to ask for forgiveness or clemency. Her mother hardly knew her at all, and she suspected the reverse was also true. She had always expected some midlife understanding, a trip to India in which they wore a lot of loose white clothing, finally revealed their true selves, said all those unsayables. On one of the little paper pee cups, in the marker that was meant to be used to write your name on the sample, the girl scratched: Give us more time, please. As much as you can spare.” The girl reckons with her desire to know more of her mother and the truth that her mother’s intentional distance throughout her adult life enabled the girl to have more autonomy; “her life was an unplanted field, and everywhere she looked something waited to be sown.” As the mother continues to deteriorate, slowly becoming mist, she thinks about her past: her utter devotion to her home country, her belief that loving anything else would negatively impact her first love. She tells the girl: “‘you can love as many and as much as you want. I thought I had to save my love up, that I would run out. It turns out it’s the exact opposite.'” The story ends with some of the best fiction writing I’ve come across in recent memory. “The girl remembered hearing her mother crying in the other room as a child. She seemed to be drifting on an unknown sea. Every day, many times, the girl had tried to turn herself into an island on which her mother could land. The mother and her daughter were nothing more than strange weather. The girl asked her mother to tell her that they were both going to be all right. That they were both going to be at home wherever they were. The wanted it to be true, something the mother could know from her perch at the edge of life. Out over the sea, the sun grew hotter. The girl remembered the water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation. The mother closed her eyes. She was almost invisible now. She was just the faintest color, like the rainbows thrown by a crystal in the window. The air hung against the girl’s skin, heavy. The woman was the air; the girl breathed her in. She looked around the room and could not see her mother anymore. A storm broke over the girl, thunderheads, lightning, rain and rain and rain and rain.” I want to burrow into this last sentence; in fact, when I first finished the story, I closed my copy of Awayland and cried. There’s something expert in the way Ausubel chose to exclude punctuation in the last sentence- it gives the ending an ongoing rhythm, a wake of sorts to carry on. Life, like water, flows, and eventually, dramatically, slowly, ebbs.

The final story within this first section is titled ‘Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species.’ It focuses on a small Minnesota town and its mayor, Tom. The town, similar to a town in Russia, struggles with low reproduction rates, and the mayor feels obligated to make a change. He uses his Russian counterparts as a model, and tries to inspire consummation across the town by offering an automobile as a prize for the couple who gives birth on a specific day. We see Martha and Jeff, a couple who utilize the day to indeed conceive. Martha, a very aware woman, contemplates the fact of motherhood: “When the baby comes, Martha knows, it will make her wonder whether anything else has ever been true. You thought all that mattered? The world will say. That old life was a set, just a painted background.” Humorously, Ausubel introduces us to another couple, known as the wrestling coach and Nathalia. The wrestling coach desperately wants to win the prize, and pressures his wife to give birth on the set date. When Martha gives birth, she is two minutes early to the specified winning date, and the wrestling coach cheers. “Martha looks at her baby, who knows nothing yet of the world waiting: corruption, bribery, teenage drivers, being flat-footed, having too little money and too much beer, doing the dishes, going out for dinner and being disappointed in the overbuild spaghetti sauce, getting up for work before light, coming home after sunset, the roses wilting on the table, the list of jobs that need doing around the house: cleaning the tiny screen on the faucet, breaking down the boxes your aunt sent and writing a thank-you note for the terrible-smelling bubble bath that was inside, scrubbing the frozen-on pink sticky in the refrigerator. This is life. It can be difficult to see the miracle in it. To her bundle, she offers an out clause: you were born, innocent and beautiful and straight from the lips of God, but if you look around and see the potholed streets, the mud puddles, the old nurses in too much makeup, and you decide you want to be an angel instead, I will understand. I will wrap you up in a soft blanket, cover you up completely and allow you to make your decision in private. If I open the blanket and you are gone, evaporated, I will forgive you for it. But if you are still there, pink and fussing, I will know that you have chosen to stay, to endure the old world. And I will try to teach you the tricks to make it easier. How to get on the bus without buying a ticket; how to pay for one movie and see three; how to fight with your father so that you always win; how to ensure maximum darkening of the skin in the sun; how to find your life’s horizon- that place just far enough in the distance to keep you moving forward but not so far as to be discouraging.” Martha embarks into motherhood, promising the bare minimum, which is the most.

In this first section exist three very different stories. Each of them hold some element of fantasy- the cyclops character in story 1, the dissolving into mist element of story 2, and the low-reproduction rate of story 3. The first story seems to focus a bit more on fantasy than the other 2; while the fantastical elements almost fade into the background of the second two stories, the cyclops stands firmly at the center of his. The Bay of Hungers, this first section, tells stories of hungry people. They are hungry for love, for companionship, for courage. But mostly, I think, they’re hungry for guidance. There are deep, hallow unknowns for the characters in this story- what does it mean to expose your flaws to another? What does it mean to watch your mother die without the time you expected to get? What does it mean to be a mother in a world you don’t quite see the light in? Despite how human these questions are, how undeniably present they are in many lives, the answer is still unknown. They pool, congeal, forming a slow-current, a Bay of Hungers.

The Cape of Persistent Hope, the second section in Awayland, holds another three stories: “Mother Land,” “Departure Lounge,” and “Remedy.” “Mother Land,” we quickly learn, is a story concerning the distant and cold sister from “Fresh Water From the Sea.” Her name is Lucy, and while her twin sister (who she deems as perfect), cares for her dying mother, Lucy travels to Africa with ‘The African,’ her white boyfriend. Lucy wrestles with the concept of foreignness throughout the story, pondering what it meant for her mother to never feel at home, for her sister to be good, for her to feel so out of place. She discovers that she is pregnant, and feels a sense of sadness at the fact that her baby may also not have a clearly defined home- she perhaps worries that her child, like her mother, will never have a ground to feel confident standing on. Throughout the story, Lucy ponders her relationship with the unnamed boyfriend, wondering how long their relationship will last, wondering when she will reveal to her family that she is pregnant. The two witness a political riot, and Lucy contemplates her upcoming murder. After not being murdered, Lucy’s true fears divulge: producing a child that feels alone. “‘All babies are foreigners. None of us knows what we’re going to get. Isn’t that the beauty?”

The second story, “Departure Lounge,” is a first-person story of a chef, one who works on the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii where a Mars training mission operates. The narrator interacts with the astronauts-in-training, the courageous people who have defined themselves willing to sacrifice life to start anew on an inhospitable place. She narrator does not feel a part of them- after her divorce, she wandered until finding this world within a world, this strange place that was far away while being close. Eventually, while working as the chef, the narrator gets back into contact with an ex-boyfriend from college, Peter, who is now gay. The two exchange intimate and quick emails, learning who the new versions of themselves are, coming together in their aloneness. Peter reveals to her that he wishes he had a baby, and the narrator hatches a plan- she leaves the base, illegal for all workers there, and descends the mountain into tourist-fluent Hawaii to meet Peter. “There were so many miraculous far-aways on this planet and yet they couldn’t find enough to keep them here.” Her and Peter end up sleeping together, which does not result in a pregnancy. Still, they keep up the charade, meeting once every few months in hotel rooms to, they tell themselves, work as tools for reproduction. The two do form a kind of connection, a bridge across the vast expanse of two lonely lives, two empty kitchen cupboards. The narrator contemplates what this strange relationship means (as if it needs to be deduced into something so transparent as a meaning); she goes walking and comes upon a group of teenagers sitting together and laughing. “I remembered being sixteen and feeling so in love with my friends that it seemed like they would be enough to sustain me for the rest of time. We wanted to be together all the time, six or eight of us, lying on someone’s floor, pointing out shapes in the puckered ceiling as if the expanse above us were as beautiful as the heavens. I knelt down in front of the teenagers and said ‘Stay as long as you can.'” Peter and the narrator decide to use a surrogate service in India where the price is discounted. As they prepare to fly to India, Peter asks the narrator to pose as his wife for his upcoming visit to his dementia-ridden grandmother, giving her a bit of peace before she dies. The narrator feels warmth at this facade, admits the warmth that she feels from Peter, a new warmth, a new far-away bubble of never-before-lived-on rock, just like Mars. “So much was possible. Here we were, on our way to a life of meaning. ‘Are you ready?'”

Next, in “Remedy” (which is probably my favorite in the entire collection), Summer and Kit, a beautifully in-love couple, grapple with the reality of death. Summer witnesses her neighbor man die falling from his roof; this spurs the story into motion, inspires Summer into paranoia, a new force in she and Kit’s small secluded world of two. She spurs conversations on with her husband, telling him that she will be the one to die before he does. “What he doesn’t understand is the relief she feels. Not knowing is worse than any answer, and Summer wants this the same way she remembers wanting other comforts: sweaters knitted by hand from the wool of rare rabbits, tiny landscape paintings with gold frames, important books she’ll never get around to reading. Before she met Kit, Summer prayed to die every day. She imagined the ghosts of her parents in a living room with leather couches and bookshelves that required ladders. She imagined that her mother would have plenty of yogurt to eat and her father wouldn’t need to bother with food at all. Except the occasional pecan pie, delivered at exactly the right moment, before he even realized he wanted it. There would be a chair for Summer there. A reclining chair, and outside, a garden. Every day with her foster family she thought of that place, wished for that place.” We learn that both Kit and Summer are orphans, alone in the world together. Summer continues to believe that she is dying, her symptoms nonexistent and the cause of death meaningless. “He disagrees with her diagnosis, with the idea that she can suddenly be dying of nothing in particular, but Kit believes Summer. That’s the whole thing of it- believing each other is what makes living feel real.” Eventually, Summer comes up with a plan, caving to her paranoia- in order to stay somewhat together after her impeding death, Summer hopes to transplant one of her hands onto Kit, and one of Kit’s hands onto her dead body. She writes to a doctor hoping he will agree to the procedure. “Kit looks at his hands. He imagines that one of them is his lady-love’s and that she is stumped. Kit feels a kink in his heart. His girl is in the shower, soaping every inch of skin. He cannot see the maze of tubes and cavities inside her body. He cannot know what is pumping right and what is pumping wrong, how each of those slippery organs is tucked against its neighbor and whether something bad is truly blooming there. Whether, even if her body is perfect, a truck will lose its brakes, tumble off the road where Summer is walking. There are storms beginning to twist in the warm oceans to the south, and make they will whip this way, tearing the houses like paper. The ferry could sink beneath them; poisoned gases could leak into the air at any time. The melted ice caps are washing toward them. They’re both dying- everyone is. The schedule of death is not made public. Love’s job is to make a safe place. Not to deny that the spiny forest exists, but to live hidden inside it, tunneled into the soft undergrass.” Oh, my favorite sentence of the collection. That spiny fucking forest- it’s there. Not even love can make it untrue. Kit adores Summer- it’s his adoration for her, his absolute wish for her not to suffer, that indices him into creating a fake email account posing as a doctor in Thailand, willing and able to do the hand transplant. He hopes that by choosing this far-away, foreign land, the truth of his lie will not be made public. He thinks that they will arrive at the supposed doctor’s office and be greeted with a non-English speaking person, a miscommunication turned into a vacation in a tropical isle for the couple. Upon arrival, Kit and Summer take different trips to meet the doctor, both telling him not to do the surgery, both feeling stupid in thinking that he might have any idea what they’re talking about. At the actual appointment, the couple laughs, realizing that instead of a hand transplant they’re getting massages. They fall asleep, and when Summer wakes up, her hand is not her own. “And finally she sees skin. She can’t tell if it’s her own because it is so swollen. Waterlogged. This hand looks twice the size of the one she used to carry around on the end of her arm. And at the wrist: a bracelet of stitches. X X X X. It is the way she would have sewn something, not knowing how to sew. Beneath, there is a clean cut. It is beautiful, the cut. The cut is absolutely perfect.” The cut- a metaphor for awareness, for a learning and growing moment independent and together. A marker of love gained and transcended.

What binds these three stories together? My first reaction is that less fantasy is implemented within these three stories; instead, Ausubel takes us to different kinds of awaylands, remote locations far away from the character’s normalcy (Africa, a Mars-like simulation, Thailand). Location is key in each story, as the characters attempt to thwart their domestic problems by vacating elsewhere. Lucy vacates to her partner’s home country, hoping to feel closer to a sense of belonging than she did in her familiar California life. The narrator in the second story runs away from her solitary bubble of astronaut trainees on a slim hope that she will create a renewed life with an unlikely partner. Both Summer and Kit travel far away to be alone together elsewhere, Summer in the hope that her idea for love transcending death will prove true, Kit in the hope that it will not. All of these characters are confronted with their problems, their loneliness, their fears, in their new awaylands, and each of them receive hope, a persistent, slow walk forward into the unknown. The Cape of Persistent Hope.

Next, in The Lonesome Flats, three stories tell different tales of solidarity. The first story, ‘Club Zeus,’ frames a first person narration around a 17 year old high school student working at an all-inclusive resort in Turkey. David, the protagonist of this story, longs to escape Orange County, where his senior year of high school and the questions of the future await him. He wants an escape, a reprieve from his predictable schooldays and his hyper-spiritual mother. Club Zeus offers that to him, but in the exotic, adventurous way he expected. Instead, he dresses up as an old, bearded man, and retells Greek myths for interested vacationers and lives with an older lady he affectionately calls Grams. Even across the world, David finds monotony and banality. One day, though, this spell of sameness is broken, when one of the vacationers drowns in the main pool. David sees the man’s lifeless body, and struggles to feel that same sense of predicatableness as before. David wanders across the grounds of Club Zeus, grief-striken and pained. He finds the dead man’s wife, an older woman who eventually begins the early stages of sex with David. Although he resists at first, David gives into temptation, admitting to the reader the glorious, wrongful appeal of her grief. Their coupling is interrupted by David’s boss, and the story ends with a retrospective David, announcing for the reader: “My mother was right: pain is an enzyme and I am softened. A year from now, when a girl asks me if I’ve ever been in love, I will lie and tell her no, but only because I will not know how to explain this night. Love, I want to say to the widow, love is an island. But when I open my mouth, the words get tangled. It begins to rain again. Emir clears his throat, trying to prompt us all to return to our separate lives. But when I lean into the widow’s hand, she holds my head up. Below us: all the world’s water.”

“High Desert,” the next story, again takes on the omniscient narrator role, telling the story of a childless mother and husbandless wife, who moved to a dry city in New Mexico to escape her traumas surrounded by water. At fifteen, the narrator’s daughter vanished in the sea, and quickly afterwards, her husband drowned himself. The story takes place much later, trailing the woman into her older age as she gets a hysterectomy due to her uterus literally beginning to fall out of her. As she’s healing from her surgery, her daughter appears, fifteen still and soaking wet from the water. The two talk as they fill the mother’s bathtub, which begins to overflow. “‘Did you ever encounter your father? He went in after you.’ ‘There are a lot of ways to take care of someone,’ the girl says. ‘He did his best.’ ‘Don’t tell me if you suffered. Don’t tell me what it was like in the water before you got used to it.’ The bath is full to the brim but no one reaches to turn it off. The woman puts her head on her daughter’s shoulder. Water begins to spill over the lip of the tub. It is warm and good. The floor is wet, the bathmat is wet, and the water keeps pouring. The mother lies back in the warm wet room and the daughter lies back in the warm wet room and they put their arms out. They grab hands and float.” Next, in a quick 2.5 page story titled ‘Heaven,’ a male protagonist describes his current living arrangements- a property that borders heaven and hell, which frequently sees sinners on their way to repentance. The man contemplates loneliness, and the concept of togetherness: “On a strange bright day, sun where there isn’t usually any, a dress catches on a branch. It is red, meant to tie around the waist and be untied by a true-lover and holding it makes the man feel suddenly very far away. He imagines pulling the dress’s woman onto the good earth, a vision, her whole self bared and holy and ready, everything unbeautiful washed away. How long it has been since he’s touched someone. The man hangs the dress as carefully as it is the woman’s shell. The arms are empty and begging, and the man comes close and wraps them around his body. They are grime-wet, and they stick to his skin. He is held on to.” These three stories exist in The Lonesome Flats, an arid, muted place that serves as some kind of purgatory; David’s life seems to take on a before and after because of a stranger’s death in ‘Club Zeus’; the mother in ‘High Desert’ ascends to a better understanding and acceptance of her lost motherhood; and the citizen in ‘Heaven’ reckons with his lonely boredom, and what his choice to choose this place out of convenience rather than love has meant.

Finally, the story collection ends with The Dream Isles, the last section of the story comprising two stories, both with elements of deeper fantasy than most of the book. In ‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following,’ Ausubel cleverly plays with humor to address the ironies of human entertainment; a museum boasts marketing strategies on behalf of the mummified Egyptian animals thanking the museum-goes for attending. Each of the said animals scoffs at the sign, explaining their lofty roles in the Egyptian society before being put on display in a fluorescently-lighted room. My favorite mummified voice in the story comes from ‘the eggs’: “The eggs wish to thank the idea of life, which has reassured them over the centuries that they were preserved in earnest, not simply because the priests mummified anything they could get their hands on. The eggs have been waiting for three thousand years to find out what they will hatch into. Will they become crocodiles or hens? Surely, when the egg mummies finally crack, it will be a god who has broken them…. What if, the eggs imagine, they have not yet left the shore, the tossing waves of the Nile are still ahead, and beyond them the true afterlife: kings and queens wait to receive rodents, baboons and cats, their royal arms open, welcoming home their great, delicate slaves.” Awayland finishes with ‘Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender,’ a story the begins with a sexual assault committed on a nine-year-old girl by her father, a ship captain. The daughter defends herself with a knife, which fantastically sets in motion the ship’s wreck a day later. As most of the passengers freeze in the Arctic Ocean, the captain (Halvar) and two other men, Esa and Paer, find themselves stranded on an unfamiliar shore. Paer has lost his wife to the sea, and the captain has lost his livelihood; Esa, as he admits, has lost nothing. Each of the three men come into contact with the same phenomenon: a beautiful, cold, near-death mermaid. Esa discovers her first, and decides to keep her presence a secret from the other two men- “From something that warm to something that cold. That is how Esa had always thought of love: a shock to the skin.” Paer discovers the mermaid next, and believes in spite of the evidence to the contrary that she is his drowned wife, returned to him. Finally, Halvar finds the mermaid, and misbelieves that she is his daughter, returned to him as his rightful property. He attempts to have sex with the mermaid, who cuts Halvar severely across his body with her tail. Each man reckons with what they know to be the truth- there is no way this love is probable or possible (none of them ask, interestingly, if she is reciprocating their interests, which she is not).- “Paer did not know how the next steps went, how a man turned into a fish. Yet knowing rarely made the journey easier.”  The mermaid watches the men dote on her with an exasperated sigh- she has loved many and is done with that stage of her life. She lets the men take comfort in comforting her though, as she sees how forlorn and alone they are. “Esa went to his mer. He would stay all night, brush the snow off. He worried that she was cold, though he knew the deep water must be just as chilly. He said, ‘I can’t live in water and you can’t live on land, but we can stay here at the edges. I’ll build a house on stilts, over the sea with a hole in the floor and a ladder. The place where air and water meet- that’s our home together.’ Sometimes it takes a shipwreck, he thought. Sometimes it takes a tragedy. The mer washed back and forth with the waves. She looked into Esa’s puddle-brown eyes. It was good, a service, to let someone believe.” At the end of the story, all three men lie with the mermaid, all four close to freezing to death: “Esa had enough blood to love the mer but not enough to be the only one. He wanted to kiss her but Paer was already there, his beard frozen and his mouth warm. Esa was freezing, every living thing was, and the world had slowed down so much that Esa was not sure it moved at all. The water had turned to ice, stopped lapping. The air was hardly breathable. Time had quit on them. Esa lay down in the snow and put his head on the mer’s belly. Home had found him, he thought. The differences were no longer the point: warm and cold, home and away. There was only this hour to move around in, and what it contained: bodies, ice, water, earth. On the horizon, the frozen edge, green light spit across the sky. The whole endlessness split open and bled.”

It’s a haunting image- this otherwordly sunrise of green breaking into the irises of four dying creatures, each a metaphorical (and in one case literal) fish out of water. Esa has achieved something to lose, Paer has achieved an epic love again. There’s a parallel between the fluorescent light that the animals see and the green light that the stranded men see- a sort of unrelenting passing of time. The Dream Isles– a literal island full of love-sick, deranged, dying men, and an exhibition room, a fantastical home for the once-beloved animals. They’re not necessarily happy dream islands but are instead places in which the characters can achieve a dream-like peace that they perhaps do not deserve.

I had the astounding pleasure of meeting Ausubel in Los Angeles at Skylight Books tonight. She read the first story in this collection, and shared a powerful and light-heard Q&A. She talked of the difficulty in writing magical realism, her troubles in finding the ‘crack of relatable reality and human emotion’ in the absurd. She warned of the perils of knowing what your story is about and enticed writers into letting a moment create a story instead of a plot creating itself. She said that a successful story revolves around an unseeable but forceful black hole, an unavoidable gravity that a story abides by.

I asked my question- the one about structure, and the reason for implementing sections within the story collection. she mentioned that her past story collection (which I am SO thrilled I still have yet to read- like a little hidden treasure!), ‘A Guide to Being Born’ was sectioned in terms of the life cycle- birth, gestation, conception, love. She mentioned that she first introduced sections into her story collections because she was worried that the plots weren’t different enough, that she was writing the same story again and again. The organization helped her differ the stories enough while still keeping overarching and central themes (blackholes). Awayland focuses very much on place, both geographical and fantastical; the sections, Ausubel says, helped her place each story in terms of exile and the concept of home- what the definition of home meant partially depended on which geographical place (section) the stories took place in. All of them exist within the larger place of Awayland, a fantasy land both familiar and nonexistent.

29244479_10213467783803211_6481145464010833920_o.jpg

I loved this book so, so much. It gave me hope and it gave me sadness. It made me laugh and it made me cry (twice). Ausubel was such a dynamic presence- look at that dress! It matches the lovely cover oh Awayland. I’m so excited for what else Ausubel’s work has to teach me.