Dream sequences. References to Heidegger and Red Lobster. Special appearances from a dog named Freud and a metaphysics spouting dragon. A woman pretending to be a surreal painting of a woman looking in the mirror.
Such as Honoré de Balzac’s “Contes Drolatiques” (or “Droll Stories”), Iris Smyles’s DROLL TALES (292 pp., Turtle Point, paper, $18.95) exhibits many elements of absurdist fiction: wacky humor, illogical juxtapositions, the philosophizing of the banal, an obsession with meaninglessness. However, the tone is far from droll; What stands out about this book is its exuberance.
In “Medusa’s Garden,” in which a former ballerina becomes a living statue, or “Shelves,” about a poet who writes business manuals, Smyles enjoys the antics of her prose. She throws names away (Rabelais! Dalí! Kierkegaard! Alf! Casey Kasem!) as if to say, “Look! How random!” And yet, while the book is constantly popping up new ironies, it is rarely if ever sarcastic.
It is doubtful whether a story written entirely in pig Latin, or any other story composed of sentence diagrams, makes any meaningful progress on its premise. Other times, Smyles’ habit of making or cracking (deliberately?) lame jokes can lead a reader to suspect that someone else is having all the fun.
And what if she is? Whatever the outcome, “Droll Tales” is written in such a way that it seems like the author really enjoyed writing it. It’s a question worthy of a philosophizing Smyles character, whether an artist’s enthusiasm and inspiration necessarily translate into the inspiration of her audience.
Caitlin Macy’s Second Collection, A BLIND CORNER: Stories (211 pp., Little, Brown, $27), isn’t exactly satirical, but the best lines have the sting of current social criticism. A benefactor family pays a charity visit to Ma Moore’s “derelict” property, where they drop off groceries, cigarettes and the clothes they pay her to iron. An “educated” woman makes a “moral” decision not to pursue a career, and instead goes to part-time “house sitting, dog sitting, watering plants” gigs. An athletic mom is overjoyed when she discovers her boyfriend has “ketones in her urine.”
This kind of crafty writing offers a certain pleasure in reading: recognition, even self-recognition, but also some light-hearted, judgmental pleasure. The women and girls in “A Blind Corner”, all privileged to some degree, are totally uncomfortable whether they are in Tuscany or Acapulco, at the private Country Day school or “hanging out” in the smelly backseat. from a pickup truck, in “urban liberal” enclaves or at a dinner party in a vacation town where a man mixes “G and T’s” and his wife’s outfit “evokes the Reagan era.”
Macy evokes the contradictions of her protagonists: both compliant and contrarian, people pleasers and snobs. Story titles like “We Don’t Believe in That Crap,” “Residents Only,” and “One of Us” belie a group mentality, despite the characters’ refusal to be considered “typical.”
These tensions do not need to be resolved: we long for individuality, even if we long to belong – it inspires fear, but also comedy. “You probably think I’m ridiculous!” says an American woman to an Italian hotelier. “‘L?” Luigi smiled gently. ‘No no.'”
In the title story of the collection by Ru Freeman, SLEEPING ALONE: Stories (202 pp., Graywolf, paper, $16), Sameera, an administrative assistant at a university in Maine, is tasked with organizing a Sharm el-Sheikh-themed pool party for the white men who run her department, “the rag called Middle Eastern Studies.” To teach them a lesson, along with making lamb skewers and fruit lassis, Sameera pours gallons of detergent into the pool, and enjoys watching the “red irritation spread like blood over their white skin”.
Despite Sameera’s disdain for the inauthenticity and appropriation of these white men, in other stories Freeman is guilty of her own transgression of authority. Expansive sets and superficially drawn narrators read more like caricatures than entire characters: the war veteran whose trauma manifests itself in horrific violence, the 16-year-old Latina who “beat the odds” by failing to conceive before her quinceañera, the “solid black A teenager who is supposed to be “the man of the house” while his father “MIA” is Italian siblings in a mostly Jewish New York apartment building call their bedroom “the Swastika Room” because, the brother tells his sister, “you and I are just surviving.”
In a broad treatment of identity politics, these particular stories suffer from a lack of imaginative freedom compared to others in the collection that sing with specificity. In “First Son”, children visiting their grandparents’ island receive “kurumba from the young coconut trees, the clear water sweet and cool in our mouths, the meat inside scooped from the spoon-shaped device” which is “cut from the husk”.” Here the authenticity is in the aesthetic detail.
Something I learned when researching the title of Kathryn Harlan’s debut, FRUIT BODYS: Stories (242 pp., Norton, $25): The mushroom is not the whole fungus, but only its reproductive apparatus, its ‘fruiting body’. The mushroom, which is distinguished from the roots, is only the stem, the cap and the gills.
The fruiting bodies in this collection are both figurative and disturbingly literal. In the title story, the narrator forages mushrooms from the body of her lover, Agnes (“in the valley of the skin between her breasts sprouted a miniature tuft of enokis”; “her breast will sometimes grow truffles”). Together they eat them for sustenance, “over rice with vegetables and a touch of balsamic.”
Harlan’s narrators, mostly queer women, are fascinated, even obsessed with bodies – those of their lovers, mothers, fetuses – and their regeneration, death, even consumption. Nibbling the cuticles has been described as ‘auto-cannibalistic’, pregnancy a ‘tumour’. “Passion wasps,” says one narrator, lay their eggs in caterpillars; they “deposit their larvae under the skin of the host.” Hairy girls immerse themselves in a lake poisoned with algae blooms.
The story “Is this you?” raises the stakes from the intimate to the existential. When Maura’s mother publishes a non-fiction book about her daughter’s life, Maura goes on a sort of narrative downward spiral in an attempt to get her own story back. She envisions a ‘litany of selves’ at different ages, ‘a Maura for every essay’. There is the ‘suicide Maura’, the Maura with a sweet tooth, the Maura who is a baby in the narrator’s arms. As if speaking to all the women in this collection, one of the Mauras asks the narrator, “Are you sure your version is the correct version?”
Yoon Choi is the author of ‘Skinship’.