Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The blemishes, the wilting disappointments, the stains and sour scents of the world, both literal and as metaphors: these are central to Rebekah Matthews’s beautiful little chapbook, a series of stories wherein things don’t work out, but they don’t collapse; rather, relationships stagger on, limping a little, with a broken heel and unsightly sweat stains on an otherwise reasonably fashionable blouse. The social world in these pages is unfresh, tainted: its public space “smells like urine” while its locker rooms have a “certain sickening smell floating around . . . baby powder deodorant and lilac body spray, and socks, mixed together.” In the story that begins the book, a narrator becomes obsessed with the used condoms left outside her apartment. “Sometimes there’s a wet spot on the sidewalk next to it. I live in downtown Baltimore and outside my apartment I’ve seen a lot of bad things—a tourniquet and blood on the front steps; a man walking by in the morning without pants or underwear—but this is the worst thing.” This pollution seeps into the narrator’s relationship, a theme that repeats in story after story. Another protagonist puts her feet on her girlfriend’s lap. “She says the bottoms of my shoes are muddy. She asks if I have some sort of mat by the entrance of my door, because I should have one if my shoes are that muddy.” The nonchalantly cutting comment, as when a lover tells you, loudly and in public, “Don’t put your elbows on the table, Andrea, it’s rude” is likewise repeated here. A boyfriend wants to make fun of the girls who waitress at the Red Lobster, girls that story’s protagonist has hired selectively, so that with their “flabby arms, flat breasts, crooked teeth,” they might more readily embrace her, albeit platonically, and let her into their lives.
The protagonists here live surrounded by people to whom they want to be closer, whether it’s new waitresses dropping heavy trays of seafood dinners or co-workers who post pictures of themselves on a fashion blog or women in relationships who remain unavailable and unaware. The gestures of relationship that do happen, whether sex or the intimacy of an invitation into a bedroom or that boyfriend who wants to hear all about the lengths of the skirts of the other girls at work—they are as wrong, as disappointing, as viscerally repulsive as those used condoms, the used Band-Aid that plays an important role in that same story, or the “pool of brown milk at the bottom of my paper bowl” after a date with ice cream has gone bad. In one scene, our narrator makes out with a girl she’s interested in: “The TV was on behind her—a commercial for tampons, the cotton soaking up blue liquid.” In another scene,
After we have sex, Julie puts her hands on my shoulders. Her lips have purple crusts on them from drinking wine. She asks me how she should touch me to make me come. I say that it’s so nice that she asks, that she did everything perfectly. I don’t explain that I didn’t have orgasms with the last girl, or the girl before her, either. I know I should do something, like touch Julie the way she is touching me. I lie still, and I don’t touch her. She gets up to use the bathroom. She flushes this time.
Amidst hints of contamination—reminders of decay and disease “crusts” on the parts used for what comes closest to intimacy—the protagonists of these stories fail to touch those they want, get touched wrongly by those they don’t really want, feel bad after—bathing, as one does, expecting “bugs to be falling off me,” but finding “Just my naked body in lukewarm water.” In capturing this nakedness, this sense of self stripped bare, surrounded by jetsam leaking hazardous fluids, by people failing to connect, by animals wounded or whining or dying, spilling out their innards the way the traces of physical encounters spill out from the discarded condoms outside the first narrator’s apartment door—in getting all of this down, in economical prose, Matthews does something impressive, making beauty out of the cringe-inducing, the small-scale tragedies of life. This debut collection announces the talent of an author worth following. I look forward to future dispatches from this beautiful, damaged world—particularly the idea of a novel-length portrait of any one of these fascinating narrators.
Official Rebekah Matthews Web Site
Official Big Rodent Books Web Site