Sun. Feb 23rd, 2020

Monsters in the Mirror: On Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Verge”

OURS IS AN AGE of anxiety. The monstrous invisible bursts into view in our art. In Jordan Peele’s Us or Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite the underground ascends. Fiction of recent years, including the stories of Carmen Maria Machado and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s novel The Water Dancer, deals with a mood of psychic dissonance through elements of horror and fantasy. The vast scale of our predicament begs new forms. In Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s first story collection, it is her realism that shocks the senses. She descends among the monsters, but the monsters walk among us — an organ smuggler, a pimp, a group of teenage bullies. Her past novels and memoirs explored the darker corners of life, and these stories continue that project. Her stories startle and repulse even as they provoke the reader’s gaze. The characters in Verge teeter on many brinks: connection, knowledge, endurance, and desire. Yuknavitch writes with realism’s gimlet eye and horror’s racing heart.
The opening story, “The Pull,” begins with a young girl obsessed with swimming. But this is no Cheever suburbanite: the girl swims her way through pools in a war-torn city. “Home is a blown-up brick in her throat.” The unnamed swimmer and her older sister feel emblematic of a larger tide. “Her foreground is cluttered now, with her dead friends and the bombed-out training pool, all of it between her and her freedom to swim. She has the same desires as all kids: She wants to swim. Have friends. Go to school. Not to starve. Not to die.” The girls, and many others, take to the water, but the story ends in ambivalence. Yuknavitch demands her reader face culpability. Fury leaps off the page, “We put children into the ocean.” With this line, the goals of the collection begin to take form. If this is the world as it is, what then? As Yuknavitch describes misery and desperation, reading becomes a kind of complicity.
Yuknavitch grounds her existential questions in the flesh. Her attention to the physical — in particular the human body — defines her aesthetic. In past work, including the novel The Small Backs of Children, she’s written of the viscera and fleshiness of existence with a keen eye. “Meat” is a word that delights her, and you can feel the muscles pulp and bones crunch in her story of a boxer battling cancer in “Beatings.”
[A]rts of combat, of beauty, sport, of self-defense, of speed and thought, of the body unbodied from its tasks and let loose into movement and rhythm, arms unarming themselves, wrists cocked back to fluid animal rotations, shoulders dipping and curling, neck forgiven its upright burden and relearning the side-to-side and back-and-under tricks of instinct, chests and biceps pumping and bulging like melted masses, hands letting go of tools and becoming not a part of the body but the body itself, of all the internal organs in symphony and not against one another, not individuated but of continued measured movement, as if the entire corpus was what drove things, and not the heart alone.
The tension in this story and others is the dual nature of that body. On the one hand, it brings freedom and release, even from itself, those “arms unarming themselves.” On the other, its fragility and boundaries confine the spirit. A body may suffer, a body may maim, a body may drown even as it swims toward safety.
In “Mechanics,” two women talk while one of them works on a car. The one beneath the hood has an increasing premonition of the other woman’s desire, which only builds as the stranger makes conversation:
Don’t you think they’re a lot like body parts, like that tube over there that curls underneath that other thing looks like intestines, and that thick curved thing like an arm with a flexed muscle, that big thing in the middle with all the compartments could be the lungs, it even looks like it’s meant for air, and all of it together here under the hood, and us inside it tightening and screwing and greasing.
Yuknavitch revels in subtext and shows just how much of the world exists in the imagination, the grinding of those powerful, terrible wheels. In “How to Lose an I,” a man named Jackson drives south toward Florida. “[A]s he leaves the West Coast, the windshield is a giant body — no, it’s just the California hills giving way into the Southwest desert, like great shoulders or the well of the small of a back.” The human form is projected onto landscapes and machines, a vision that mirrors the characters’ own senses of confinement, the inescapability of the flesh.
In “Second Language,” a girl trafficked as a sex slave considers her body a secret burial ground for her past: “Somewhere in her skull or rib cage, the hint of old ideas — family, home — lingered, but the memories were not strong enough to negate their absence in this place. In this place her being was her bodyworth. In this place it was be or die.” As often as the physical traps a character, sometimes literally handcuffed to a bed, the pleasure of inhabiting a body unlocks freedom. In “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” two men processing fish in a frigid Alaskan town find solace in each other. Looking at his prone lover on the floor, his “lashes painted down onto cheeks,” the older man, Bosch, thinks, “There is no other heaven than this, this is heaven on earth.” Yuknavitch’s sly nod to the 16th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch is apt. He, too, depicted heaven and hell on the same canvas.
Yuknavitch writes of the dual nature of existence most urgently in her women. Five of the stories share “Woman” titles and recur like a Greek chorus: “A Woman Object (exploding),” “A Woman Signifying,” “A Woman Refusing,” “A Woman Apologizing,” “A Woman Going Out.” The ferocity and pathos of these brief sketches appear, in an almost painterly way, as images burned on the mind. In some, women reach a crisis and take bold, sometimes reckless, action. As the woman in “A Woman Signifying” says, “See where keeping quiet has gotten us.” Yuknavitch has no patience for keeping quiet, for resolution, perhaps for past forms altogether — either of womanhood or the short story.
Several of the stories read as prose poems, a singular powerful image described and cut loose from narrative requirements, a type of Boschean canvas. “Drive Through” takes place entirely in a Toyota Corolla that creeps along a McDonald’s line as a panhandler makes his way down the cars. The story employs a second-person perspective, and the “you” feels a natural extension of the book’s larger project of engagement. A writer must invent a new language to throw her reader off-balance; you can see Yuknavitch trying fresh approaches as she goes along. As the wife in “Beatings” thinks, contemplating a long string of men in her life who have died from heart failure, one “must take what has been told a thousand times and give it a form no one expects.” That project of reinvention applies not just to art, but to the world it describes. The past may provide clues, but it will not save us, not in this world of “be or die.”
The stories of Verge unsettle the mind, elicit disgust, shock with naked rage — but do we deserve peace? The monstrousness of the world draws Yuknavitch’s eye, and she demands our attention to these repugnant facts and strange beauties. All art may not be political, but all art is revelation. Books expose the gaze of the writer, what draws her scrutiny, what feels urgent. Entering into a book is a kind of submersion in another skin, another consciousness. The act of reading both subverts the self and reveals it; as many versions of a book exist as the people who read it. Verge reminds the reader constantly of the fact that even while reading we cannot escape the self, not fully. Yuknavitch expects collaboration. What type of book does this anxious age require? Verge offers an opening gambit, first, see.
In “Street Walker,” a woman who pulls a prostitute off the street into her living room asks herself, “How is it that America can say anything with a straight face?” She seems to answer her own question a few pages later, “There is a schism in us all.” That ambivalence recurs like a refrain. In “The Eleventh Commandment,” where a girl saves the local outcast from a beating, the girl spins a profane parable of the 11th commandment to the dumbstruck jocks. The story brings to mind the gospel account of the woman caught in adultery and thrown at the feet of Christ. In the biblical story, Jesus kneels in the dirt and writes with his finger in the dust as the woman trembles before him — the terrible nakedness of the scene crackles with electricity. In Yuknavitch’s tale, the grotesquery of the girl’s story transfixes the classmates. Of course, the boys themselves are as monstrous as the act the girl so powerfully describes. You may view yourself as the hero, the story seems to say, but who’s to say you aren’t a villain, too?
Verge contains a succession of mirrors, stories that reflect one way, then another. It’s a kind of antidote to the binary of the present moment, when anxiety drives a hunger for either/or. Yuknavitch delivers no answers, but a series of portraits, moments rendered in vivid detail. Sometimes seeing the monsters clearly is enough. Sometimes it’s be or die.
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Lee Thomas is a fiction writer and critic based in Los Angeles. She is an editor-at-large at Fiction Writers Review. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Charlotte Observer, The Hopkins Review, The New Guard, and elsewhere.
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