FANTASTIC WOMEN edited by Rob Spillman

Book Quote:

“You have the key to the Library,” he said. “Only be careful what you read.”    (From “Whitework,” by Kate Bernheimer)

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (OCT 19 2011)

Yes, be careful. Be very careful. The eighteen women in this book write depth-charge stories with the power to disturb and detonate unseen. Do not be deceived by the bland and poorly-designed cover (which I hope is only temporary); none of these tales is ordinary, all are excellently crafted, and a few are exceptional. Joy Williams, in her excellent introduction, calls them “witty, spooky, disorienting, and artful.” They are all those, and also at some level deeply True.

Perhaps I had better try to define the word “fantastic.” Williams prefers to say peculiar: “It means special, distinctive, different from the unusual or normal or ordinary. It even means exemption from the power of an authority to interpret and control.” All terms of special significance for women, who have so often been called upon to define the ordinary, for example in terms of household routine, and to submit to the authority of others. There is a wonderful breakaway quality to stories like Stacey Richter’s “The Doll Awakens,” a sort of Velveteen Rabbit for adults whose Barbie-like protagonist, Miss Pretty, finally asserts herself after years of abuse. Something similar happens in Julia Elliott’s “The Wilds,” in which a middle-class young girl, mingling with the almost feral family next door, discovers her own inner beast. Then there is a story actually called “Beast” by Samantha Hunt, whose protagonist feels herself turning into a deer at night.

But not all the women escape. Certainly not the protagonist of Lucy Corin’s “The Entire Predicament,” who spends the entire story tied up in the doorway to her home, housebound literally: “My head hovers over the floor, and my hair dangles, and my foot teeters near my ear, and my backside is exposed. I’m separated. I’m gagged, and behind my gag I can’t feel my voice. Homebound, on my very own threshold.” Less violent but equally poignant is “Abroad” by Judy Budnitz, whose young wife, trapped in a dreary hotel room in some inaccessible foreign town, has to suffer her husband’s increasing social life while she herself gets none at all. Many of the best stories such as these use a surreal premise to define an entirely real situation; time and again some bizarre opening sentence draws us into a world where anything might happen: “I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people…” (“Hot, Fast, and Sad” by Alissa Nutting). Or “A pair of twin boys in a Porsche Boxster drove into the house, skidding to a stop in the middle of the living room, where I picked up Pabst cans and McDonald’s bags off Mother’s hand-knotted rug…” (“Drive-Through House” by Julia Slavin).

The late-October timing and the cover suggests that the book is being released in time for Halloween. But despite the occasional hints of magic, vampirism, and lycanthropy, I find very little Gothic about the collection as a whole. What appeals to me especially is its connection to real life, and the way that so many of the stories end in acceptance and understanding; several even lead to a recommitment to marriage. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum does a riff on medieval romance in “The Young Wife’s Tale,” whose protagonist, sleeping beside her husband, dreams of a romantic young king: “Maybe, like her, he had fallen in love — with the gypsy queen and her raven hair. The tiny girl tucked inside a tulip. The mermaid, the shield maiden, the daughter crying from the tower. Maybe it was the siren who had called to him. And maybe he had answered, and was gone.” Another story that seems based on fairy tales, “Snow White, Rose Red” by Lydia Millet, is in fact a modern tale (told uniquely from the male perspective) whose hints of realism and distant violence are all subsumed in a gentler task, to put a dysfunctional family to rights again.

Perhaps I treasure the tone of quiet acceptance because it has been set so memorably by Aimee Bender in the opening story, “Americca.” Its narrator tells of mysterious events in her childhood, a sort of reverse robbery, where strange objects keep miraculously appearing. The last of these, a packet of yellow curry, appears in the pantry just as she is about to graduate high school, and stays with her as her life accelerates into familiar ordinariness: “It sat in the cupboard in the dorm for four years, alongside the oregano and the salt and my roommate’s birth control pills. I took it with me to my first apartment that I shared with the utilities-shirker, and my second apartment with the toxic carpet, and in my third apartment, when I was twenty-seven, living alone across the country, I opened it up one night when I was hungry and made a delicious paste with butter and milk, and then I ate it over chicken and rice and cried the whole way through it.”

I cried too.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Tin House Books (July 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: The Tin House
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October 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Short Stories

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