In her introduction to the 2015 reissue of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, an exhilarating collection of literary retellings of fables and fairy tales, Kelly Link describes the book’s indelible effect on her work: The things that I needed when I was beginning to think about writing short stories were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. I needed to see how stories could be in conversation with other stories. I needed to see how playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in language, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the psychologically realistic—were engines for story and structure and point of view. Link partly attributes the vital hybridity of Carter’s work to the self-conscious storytelling inherent to supernatural literature. “The literature of the fantastic,” she writes, “is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect. There is no such thing as a vampire, except in stories, because of stories.” These stories cannot hide that they rely upon other stories and are, in some sense, about storytelling itself. Such work thrives by embracing this history in order to transform it. Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, brilliantly continues Carter’s and Link’s tradition of literary fabulism. In line with the relationship Link proposes between the inherent intertextuality of fantastical literature, it’s also a Pandora’s box of bold re-thinkings of the short story form. The title subtly announces Machado’s experimental intentions by twisting the standard story collection title template—X and Other Stories. The titular “Her Body” refers not to a single story in the collection, but rather to the stories’ collective concern with women’s bodies and the narratives that constrict them. Machado begins the collection with “The Husband Stitch,” a magnificent retelling of the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. Machado uses this retelling to reflect on the history of ghost stories and urban legends. “Everyone knows these stories—that is,” the narrator says, “everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them.” Of particular concern is the fate of women in such tales. “Brides never fare well in stories,” the narrator concludes, foreshadowing her own fate. [millions_ad] This explicit concern with narrative returns in “Especially Heinous,” the collection’s masterful centerpiece, which reimagines the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an uncanny police procedural haunted by doppelgängers and ghostly girls with bells for eyes. It’s a rich investigation of a wildly popular contemporary narrative centered on pernicious representations of women. Machado brilliantly subverts the show’s overwrought and readymade horrors into creeping figures of the uncanny by digging deep into the show’s own logic. One mode this takes is dark parody. Pillorying the show’s use of sex workers, Machado writes: “GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit. “RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit. “PURE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit. Elsewhere, Machado enriches and expands tropes of the show, bringing them into full dark bloom. The “theories” about cases the detectives constantly bat back and forth descend into nihilism: “‘My theory,’ [Benson] says to Stabler, ‘my theory is that I have a theory.’ Stabler offers to come over. ‘My theory,’ she says, ‘my theory is that there is no god.’” The show’s unending hunger for victims becomes a physical, supernatural feature of New York City, which is revealed to be built upon the back of an ancient and monstrous god, hungry for blood. By trading the show’s formulaic “realism” for phantasmagoric fabulism, Machado better approaches the abject horror of sexual violence. Machado explores toxic cultural narratives with the same intelligence and imagination. In “Eight Bites,” the narrator undergoes invasive weight loss surgery. The story—a bitter fairy tale, complete with three unnamed sisters—is rife with the grotesque cultural rhetoric that restricts women’s eating. The narrator’s sisters, happy recipients of the surgery, proselytize: “‘I feel so good,’ they all said. Whenever I talked to them, that was what always came out of their mouths, or really, it was a mouth, a single mouth that once ate and now just says, ‘I feel really, really good.’” The weight-loss argot of transformation plagues the narrator even after she has had the surgery and awaits its effects. “Will I ever be done,” she worries, “transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” She is transformed, but there’s a twist. The flesh she has banished returns to haunt her like a ghost inverted: pure corporeality. The narrator attacks her own flesh and rejoices in the act. “I am a new woman,” she announces. “A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force.” The story literalizes the logic of mandatory weight loss to make manifest its violence. Her Body and Other Parties also addresses the ways women’s lives have been and continue to be constrained by narratives that consign disobedient or unmanageable women to categories of madness or monstrosity. “The Resident” follows a novelist to a rural artist residency near the site of a mysterious childhood trauma. Chief among the narrator’s feverish worries is the reduction of her experience to a trope: “perhaps,” she says to the reader near the story’s end, “you’re thinking that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” The story cleverly considers the troubled line between the tropifying of women in literature and life: Lydia filled my glass to the brim. “Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?”“What?” I said. “Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?” “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” “You know. That old trope. Writing a story where the female protagonist is utterly batty. It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done”—here she gesticulated so forcefully that a few drops of red spattered the tablecloth—“don’t you think? And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Do you ever wonder about that?” When the narrator clarifies that her novel’s protagonist is a version of herself, Lydia responds, “So don’t write about yourself.” “Men are permitted to write concealed autobiography,” the narrator responds, “but I cannot do the same?” Later, she carves her name into the tablet above her writing desk, as the residency’s previous guests have done: “C—— M——.” The initials: Carmen Machado—a wink and an added layer of eerie resonance. Though Her Body and Other Parties centers on women’s lives, at the margins lurks the ultimate source of the horrors that haunt them: men. One of the epigraphs, from a poem by Elisabeth Hewer, reads: “god should have made girls lethal / when he made monsters of men.” The men in these stories are often monstrous. But more often their acts of cruelty fade into the normal course of narrative and of life. This is the truer monstrosity of these tales and of our world. In the final scene of “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator, who has given her husband everything he has ever asked for—with the sole exception of permission to untie the green ribbon around her neck—realizes that he will not be satisfied by anything less than everything he demands. Worse: “He is not a bad man,” she reflects, “and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet—” For all their formal and political complexities, Machado’s stories also return me to the elemental pleasure I felt sitting in the back of my family’s minivan absorbed in an anthology of children’s horror stories, or swaddled in a sleeping bag at summer camp listening to a counselor whisper ghost stories. And for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.
I’ve become transfixed by the golem. This figure from Jewish folklore -- a man made from clay and brought to life by a mystic -- raises central Jewish questions: How can human beings participate in the creative power assigned to the divine? What are the limits of human endeavor? What role do power and rage play in the history of a marginalized people? Whose body gets to be seen as human and whose as a soulless monster? In his 2001 graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, out in a new edition from Drawn and Quarterly, James Sturm brings a golem to life to animate questions about the meaning of Jewishness in America -- and the meaning of America. The Golem’s Mighty Swing follows the Stars of David, a barnstorming, Depression-era Jewish baseball team, as they travel through rural America. To make ends meet, they accentuate the spectacle of their otherness, playing into the figure of the nomadic “wandering Jew.” When car troubles put them in sudden need of a big payday, the Stars of David accept an offer from Victor Paige, a sleazy baseball promoter, to outfit one of their players in the golem costume from the hit film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. The poster for their next match proclaims: “The Jewish Medieval Monster! See Him With Your Own Eyes!” The story the team tells about themselves becomes a story about the monstrosity of their irreducible otherness. As the team settles into the next town, tensions mount. An editorial in the local paper declares, “The excitement of Saturday’s game should not disguise a simple fact: The Golem is not Putnam’s most dangerous adversary. There is a greater threat that the Putnam All-Americans must vanquish, the threat posed by the Jews.” The game eventually erupts into a violent riot. The uncontrollable rage often associated with the golem emerges, though here the golem is not its source. The Golem’s Mighty Swing poses central questions about what America has been, what it is, and what it might become. Sturm spoke with me over email about the novel and the broken America into which it has been rereleased. The Millions: The questions that The Golem’s Mighty Swing asks about racism and xenophobia are perennial American questions, but they seem newly relevant today. Do you see the book differently as it reemerges into today’s political climate? Has it been strange to revisit your work during the rise of Trump? James Sturm: I do see the book differently. In writing it, it felt more personal; I was trying to work through my own issues of identity and relationship to being a Jew to America. Rereading the book in preparation for the new edition, what struck me is how this story is basically an anatomy of a race riot that strongly evokes current events: a race-baiting, crass salesman manipulating the media for profit. The character of Victor Paige wasn’t a character I took that seriously in writing the book -- now that character is president. TM: In his introduction to the new edition, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang writes, “James shows us what America wishes it had been, and what America actually was. By rubbing the rose tint from our memories, he uncovers our nation’s truest self.” Was this your intent? How do you think the novel engages with the interplay of those two Americas -- the one it wishes to have been (and perhaps aspires to be) and the one it truly has been? JS: Most of the book’s Jewish characters are immigrants or first-generation Americans -- they fled from pogroms, hostile empires, and emerging nations. They desperately wanted to believe in the ideals of America. For the team’s black player, Henry Bell, his view of America is far different -- his family came to America in chains. A baseball story set in the 1920s is especially susceptible to evoking that rose-tinted strain of American nostalgia. I did want the book to challenge this view. I keep coming back to the present political moment and this creepy notion of “making America great again.” Talk about rose-tinted glasses! Who was it great for? And if so, on whose backs was that “greatness” generated? TM: In that introduction, Yang mentions a lecture in which you called comics the intersection of poetry and graphic design. Could you say more about that? How do you find that narrative emerges out of that intersection? JS: I think of comics as images you read, not just illustrations. With every panel I am trying to communicate something specific. Or several things and in this case there is thought given to information hierarchy. This to me is graphic design. And when I think of poetry, I think of conflating language and then artfully positioning text on a page, which is what a cartoonist does when filling caption boxes and word balloons. TM: The golem is a figure from Jewish folklore that has captured imaginations far beyond the communities in which it originated. I love how The Golem’s Mighty Swing activates various moments in the history of the golem, from its origins in Jewish mysticism to its popular depiction in the 1920 film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. What initially drew you to the golem? What do you find compelling about it? Did the story you wanted to tell come out of the golem, or did the golem present itself as a way to tell the story? JS: Marvel comics initially introduced me the golem legend (The Invaders #13, to be specific). Though now it is obvious that the Marvel universe is a very Jewish universe, that was not apparent to me at age 12, and seeing the Golem and knowing it came from my religious tradition made me take note. I think most artists and writers relate to the golem legend as we attempt to mold something in our image (or collective image) and try to imbue it with life. TM: In his book The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, historian Eric L. Goldstein writes about “how Jews negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them.” The Golem’s Mighty Swing carefully thinks through Jewishness in the American context as it relates to whiteness and blackness: the Stars of David play for segregated audiences, and the player who ultimately takes on the role of the golem is black and not Jewish. When writing the novel, how were you thinking about navigating this complex history of American Jewishness and racialization? JS: In the first half of the book, the Stars of David were presented as Americans first and foremost. Their position in society is precarious, but they are never seriously threatened. In the second half of the book, they are seen as Jews first and foremost, and being seen through that lens leads to the violence. I was also trying to call attention (and to counter) prevalent stereotypes with the mention of Joe Hush, the chatty Native American. TM: In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the Jewish baseball players occupy a space between assimilation and otherness. The narrator -- manager and third baseman Noah Strauss -- says, “My father would be gravely disappointed knowing we are playing on the Sabbath...His imagination lives in the old country. Mine lives in America and baseball is America.” Yet the success of the team depends on playing up their exoticized Jewishness: they’re advertised as “the bearded wandering wonders,” Strauss goes by “The Zion Lion,” and ultimately the golem embodies the perceived monstrosity of their otherness. What do you hope the novel says or asks about diasporic Jewish experiences? JS: When you become an American, what does it then mean to be Jewish (or Irish or German or Chinese)? What part of one’s identity has to be sacrificed to be part of the “melting pot?” And who ultimately decides whether you are an American or not? There are cycles of history where Jews can wear their heritage proudly on their sleeves and other times they will be beaten and murdered for doing so. As good as America has been to Jews, we know that can change quickly. There’s also a mention in the book of black ball players dressing up as Zulus that isn’t all that much different from what the Stars of David do. What is one’s “authentic” identity? This was a question I took seriously in writing the book. TM: Two pivotal scenes in the novel center on baseball games, which are the site where a lot of the novel’s underlying psychological drama occurs. As someone who isn’t much of a sports person, I was particularly impressed by the way you brought those scenes to life on the page -- they’re incredibly absorbing. How did you think about how to represent the drama, motion, and suspense of those games in the medium of comics? JS: I learned most about depicting baseball in comics from Japanese Manga. Though I couldn’t read the Japanese, I could follow the action very clearly. The storytelling through the artwork was so clear and precise. I could tell when a batter was expecting a fastball and got a curveball. There would be pages of a pitcher trying to pick a runner off of first base. Each character had a very specific body type and body language. Japanese baseball manga was light-years ahead of any American baseball comics. TM: What are you reading, thinking about, and working on these days? What’s next for you artistically? JS: I recently read Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 and a recently translated Korean graphic novel, Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong. I also just read Eleanor Davis’s comic book, Libby’s Dad. All of these books were excellent. And after 30 years, I reread Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund. I’m currently working on my next graphic novel, Off Season. It’s contemporary fiction about a father of two young kids recently separated from his wife against the background of this past election season. Excerpts of the book were published in Slate. It is hard not to keep thinking about politics these days.
Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand. Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold. As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed. As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story. And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like. This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple. Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.