(Word West LLC, 2020)
Mannequin and Wife: Stories
(Louisiana State University Press / Yellow Shoe Fiction, 2020)
Much as there is to appreciate about these two debut collections, I’d call attention first to their way with a small touch, deft. Collective Gravities, as the title suggests, ventures at times into science fiction, and space travel provides author Chloe N. Clark an opportunity to flash some wit. A girl finds that with makeup, she “looked beautiful, and it was strange because before I wasn’t even pretty⎯so it was more than just one step for a girl, it was a giant leap for girlkind.” As for Jen Fawkes, her Mannequin and Wife tends either towards noir and espionage, or myth and fairytale. At one point, a narrator fumes: “I, too, believed Caleb’s father was special, but… I drew the line at the notion of a mythical man-beast roaming the earth, impregnating women in the name of love.”
Levity like that flutters throughout both these plump assortments of narrative. Both authors strike a winning rhetorical balance, controlled and yet colloquial, open to wry asides. So too, the texts set up an engaging biplay between longer work and shorter, alternating pieces of a dozen pages with those of three paragraphs. Yet neither writer skimps on suffering or dread. Neither suffers a blind spot, some ugliness they’d prefer to avoid, though Fawkes deals more in terror, Clark in sorrow. It didn’t surprise me to learn they’ve worked in other forms, Clark a poet, Fawkes an actress⎯and the latter, asked about early inspirations at a recent reading, named the old shape-shifter Italo Calvino.
Fawkes also made an excellent pick for her collection’s title piece, a story not just previously published (that goes for nearly everything in Mannequin and Wife) but also a prizewinner. One of the longer narratives, like most it tweaks a genre, working with a Twilight Zone motif of dolls come to life. Beneath the surface weirdness, however, simmers a tragedy all too commonplace, the damage violence does to love, and by drama’s close even the weary old expletive “shiver me timbers” can put a lump in your throat. Granted, investing the everyday with something extra, with magic, helps to define any good fiction. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to discover a new talent who can size up a pair of “hormonal adolescents,” in the story “Call Me Dixon,” as “monstrous, half-formed creatures with one foot in the cradle, the other in the grave.”
A “monstrous” vision like that has a name, among critics; it’s called “the grotesque,” or “carnivalesque.” Sure enough, Fawkes features a freak show in one of her choice longer pieces, “Rebirth of the Big Top.” Such classic Americana helps to generate a storytelling swagger, and for “Iphigenia in Baltimore,” Fawkes tosses in something older, epic:
Sing to me, O Muse, of Beatrice Fleck, thirty-six-year-old virginal fourth-grade teacher, strongest woman alive, and covert author of erotic novelettes.
The sentence covers a lot of ground, from Homer to the sort of embossed paperback you wouldn’t want to be caught browsing, and as a result it’s a laugher. Nevertheless, the subject hints at unhappiness without end: an unloved woman growing old. Shivers like that worm their way into the playfulness, in all this author’s best. A suspicious wife, considering her husband, can “feel the afterglow of adultery in his muscles.” A couple of stinging short-shorts, “Hobbled” for one, have an extremity that smacks of humor but in no way lessens the nightmare.
At the shorter length, though, you’ll find a richer selection in Clark’s Collective Gravities. This author’s work in poetry has helped hone her skill at the potent ellipsis, the loaded implication, and (in “Spoken Like Tongues”) the aesthetics of dream:
The word was small and looked soft, shivering in the woman’s fingers. She let it drop.
Grace reached out and caught it easily. It was warm as a baby mouse. Lighter than she’d imagined…
Grace lifted the word to her ear, gently as she could. It was whispering, but she couldn’t understand….
Not that Clark’s stories, long or short, lack for hard knocks and the mundane. “Balancing Beams” gets the book off to a wonderful start, imagining a woman astronaut who’s survived a bloody “trauma” out in space. Her greater struggle, however, takes place back on earth, where she must adjust to visiting the market or taking a shower. Another of Clark’s longer triumphs, “The Color of Electrically Brilliant,” imagines a supernatural talent for the young Marina⎯one of several sharp-thinking girl protagonists⎯but climaxes with a school shooting that puts a close to any mystical business: “It never happened again. The gift disappeared.” So too, Marina’s flesh-and-blood mother matters as much as any ghost or revenant, and the weight of family counts a lot, among this book’s Gravities. The science fiction device in “Like the Desert Dark,” a portal that swaps the dead for the living, doesn’t keep a father from loneliness and grief.
As it happens, three of the shorter stories feature a reality that, these days, we’d all rather do without. A deadly epidemic turns up, three times. Of course, Clark’s work was appearing in magazines long before COVID-19 reared its bristling head. More than that, any sensitive reader can see that lasting love, rather than a killing virus, provides the real subject in “The Width of Your Body Apart,” or “They Are Coming For You, So You Better…” (a remarkably touching zombie story). This author offers something more valuable than prophecy⎯ namely, a fine imagination.
Both Fawkes and Clark let me down, now and again. Mannequin felt overripe, once in a long while, bursting with madcap invention when it ought to settle down and concentrate on peoples’ feelings. Gravities risked vanishing into the ether, relying on a tickle or brush-by when it could’ve used a real wallop. But again, the disappointments were few and far between, and more than that, they’re inevitable with short-story collections⎯ even Italo Calvino’s. What matters finally is that two new writers have proven both ingenious and full of feeling, rewarding both at the level of the phrase and in their larger dramatic conception, and I’d hate to see their small-press publication keep them from getting greater attention.