Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness

Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness, Heather Fowler
Submitted by the publisher
$18.95, 268 pgs
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” Francis Bacon
Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness is Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of short fiction. These seventeen stories run the gamut from (mostly) benign eccentricity to psychosis, between normal human lunacy and bat-shit crazy, and give a nod to the circumstances and environments that contribute to each. I was eagerly anticipating this collection because short stories are my favorite form of literature and, come on, is that the best title EVER, or what?

The collection begins with “The Hand-Licker,” in which we are introduced to Evan, schizophrenic and off his meds, for whom time is not linear and who is haunted and harassed by the memory of a former girlfriend, Sharon. Sharon’s face has a habit of animating inanimate objects, her voice issuing forth to taunt Evan. The title of this story refers to Evan’s compulsion to lick women in whose hands Sharon’s face appears. He desperately wants not to return to jail and to avoid commitment but the meds render him dull and his world duller, a gray wash superimposed over a world that, without the intervention of the drugs, is Crayola-bright. The trade is unacceptable. 

Our second story, “Losing Married Women,” begins with one of the best opening sentences I’ve read: “I am an unrepentant harvester of other people’s marriages.” It’s a disturbing sentiment and as such has accomplished its task: the feeling conjured is at once fascinating and repellent, sort of like the proverbial train wreck. Unfortunately the story evokes nothing after that first promising sentence.

“Speak to Me with Tenderness, Howard Sun” is perhaps the most satisfying tale. Howard and Lisa are coworkers who are attracted to each other but Howard has the social skills of an eight-year-old child. For instance, this is how he invites Lisa to a football game: “I have two tickets,” he said. “Want one?” Howard communicates mainly with mixed tapes and poetry; said poems he copies and leaves at Lisa’s desk for her to find. Things get progressively stranger as Howard begins creating alternate personas on Facebook in a campaign to get to know Lisa without having to actually talk to her – a “thought-tryst.” As Lisa’s therapist muses, “…Howard Sun is a person with either extreme fear, extreme mental illness, or extreme cruelty. But which is it?” This is an excellent question. This story is a brilliant exploration of the effects of social media. Does the pseudo-anonymity allow us to be more our true selves or does it render personal intimacy ever more difficult?

Two of these stories strike me as particularly relevant on this day as I listen to news reports of a monster in California who decided that many anonymous women must die because a couple of individual women had rejected his attentions. Apparently any woman can serve as a stand-in for any other woman because we function in this society as symbol, rather than individual – we are “other,” without personhood; we are denied agency and viewed as vessels for anything that needs stowing: love, babies, ideals, hopes, opinions, religions, insecurities, prejudices, hatreds. “Ever,” the first story in this category, is a classic tale of obsession, of stalking, inevitably escalating to its logical conclusion in which the narrator asks the question, “If a woman falls in the woods with no one around to see her, does she make a sound?” The second story is “Tiger Man.” Terry and Jane are none-too-gracefully handling their marital problems. Terry comes across a book titled City Men, Emasculated. It espouses the usual cliché about hunters being denied their essential purpose, blah blah blah. Terry’s friend eloquently expounds on the premise.
“Women,” Frank said. “They want you to be Mr. Sensitive, then Tarzan. Tarzan, Mr. Sensitive, Tarzan, Mr. Sensitive. No matter which way you go, you’re screwed. Go caveman, and you get: A sexist pig, outmoded, and an overt representation of ‘the man.’ Go sensitive flower, and you’re emasculated for not being a bodice-ripping Fabio. Women inspire personality disorders.”
Why is this an either/or proposition? Is a healthy balance too much to ask? Are men congenitally incapable of complexity? They are not, after all, amoebae. Reviewing my notes on this story reveals that I have written, “Women suck. Boo hoo.” Terry would do better to read On Origin of Species. Adapt or let your bloodline die off. 

Heather Fowler
Unfortunately, this volume disappoints. The uneven quality is distracting. I was heartened time and again by a promising beginning and then more often than not frustrated by lack of follow-through, as if the story was incomplete. On the other hand, there is definite promise here. Ms. Fowler is a talented chameleon, moving between time periods, languages, and cultures rather effortlessly: from revolutionary France in “Blood, Hunger, Child” to plague-ridden Florence in “Mother’s Angels” to the call-and-response revival-inflected rhythms of the American South in a satisfying homage to Flannery O’Connor titled “Good Country. People.” Note the use of punctuation in the title of that piece. That “period” is important. This book is visually arresting. It features original artwork, “A Cabinet of Curiosities,” created by Pablo Vision especially for each of these stories.

Heather Fowler’s previous stories have been nominated, and won, awards. People With Holes (Pink Narcissus Press, July 2012) was a finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in short fiction. Individual stories have been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and a Pushcart Prize. This leads me to believe that maybe Elegantly Naked isn’t her best work. In that spirit, I’m going to read some of her earlier work and report back. Stay tuned. 

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