Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection 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). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Do you prefer Romero or Boyle?” the postfeminist zombie assassin asks over the sugar-crusted rim of her appletini. She’s got a Wonder Woman thing—maybe a fetish, maybe just an itch. Like most of the characters in this mixed bag of stories and picture poems, her hunger can’t quite be articulated or pinned down. The denizens of this book want, surely and deeply, but something remains vague about this wanting; it is not hot desire, but the chilly reminder of being, still, unsatisfied.
The contexts in which these characters find themselves aren’t quite right, either—a little sticky, dusted over with someone else’s crumbs. Their sexual partners might be passable—“satisfactory for a stand-by hook-up,” as one narrator puts it, or even “an occasional at-home necking, possibly a low-lighted evening event with coworkers—but they aren’t exactly princes, even if they aren’t exactly frogs. Zombies, it seems, have it easy: if brains is what you want, go get them. But most of us have a harder time putting our hands on what it is that might make us content, even in the short term. And the best that we end up with fails to hit the spot. “After tolerable sexing” we’re left feeling that there should have been more to the whole thing, but puzzled, perhaps, as to what such more might look or feel like, or how in the hell one could acquire it.
There’s a woman in one story, for instance, who gnaws off an arm to escape her bedpartner from the night before. In another piece an artist, while drowning, contemplates the metaphoric value of a phrase like “saltwater clouds.” There’s a man who lives in a closet, and zombies, or the idea of them at least, like the stripper who twitches her way across the stage, heading toward the “Gritty end to another cattle day.” Mainly the subjects here are sex and food, cookie crumbs for the man in the closet, milk in a glass and piss on a mattress, armpits and avocados, aromas of varying rankness or allure, cereal taken dry and prophecy that misses the point. A couple’s relationship is vivisectioned over a burrito bowl, or another couple discusses “the distressed barn wood aesthetic of the room and try to ignore the nakedness of it all and the fact that the room has grown rather cold now and their sweated skins are uncomfortably slippery.”
Here’s a representative Bryant protagonist in a representative moment:
She adjusts the hem of her skinny black skirt and tries to straighten the twist in the red lace bra strap that irritates the mole on her shoulder because the mole sticks out too far. She has made mental notes to have it removed many times. The lace and elastic are cutting into her skin now and she thinks she smells the aroma of ejaculation and sperm swimming through her canal. She glances around the convenience store and wonders if 7-Elevens carry pregnancy tests. The bra strap really is too tight.
Banal, but horrific; there’s more raw material for clammy nightmares there than in any scene of a woman chewing off her arm at the shoulder bone. Bryant is best when describing a single contested section of cut avocado or the way a bra strap irritates a mole.
There is also, about midway through the text, a series of picture poems, appropriated Gustav Klimt prints reimagined, infused with scrawled words, an intimate, handmade presence, a narrative mark more visceral than anything in the stories themselves. “Pluck,” “Sag,” “Wax,” one bony, corpse-like female body is marked, while “The Choir of Heavenly Angels” is remade as “The Interior Clichés of Women,” gold plate swiped out for a monochrome wash of grey. One image, wherein the body of a woman is reduced to so many cramped billboards voicing fears and resolutions for physical reinvention, features, beneath a pendulous breast labeled with phrases like “Fondle me breathless, slice me open, take my cancer,” and “Prime real estate,” a section proclaiming simply “This space for rent.” Here, along the warped curvature of fin de siècle fantasy, Bryant reiterates the same sense that casts a shadow over her stories—something like a generalized regret, a burped aftertaste that not only spoils but resolutely sums up the whole meal that preceded it, an aftertaste that serves to leave one far hungrier, aware of how deeply unsatisfied one has been all this time. “Leave her alone,” one zombified image instructs, “Wanting more.”
Official Rae Bryant Web Site
Official Patasola Press Web Site