Lidia Yuknavitch in the 21st Century
In the Short-Story Collection ‘Verge,” the New Gothic Meets the Avant-Garde
Lidia Yuknavich’s previous book was the dystopian novel The Book of Joan, which took the mythic substance of Joan of Arc’s life, transplanted it to a surreal dyspeptic future, then twisted the guts of the tale into a wrenching psycho-sexual spiritual odyssey and chronicle of rebellion. Her new volume, Verge, 20 short stories peppering the reader like so much literary buckshot (some almost prose poems, others comprehensive character studies) contains nothing quite so outré. In fact most of the tales hew to the naturalistic side of the storytelling street. But in the manner of early Ian McEwan or Patrick McGrath, who were once heralds of the “New Gothic,” they bring us snapshots of lives twisted by 21st-century stresses, demands and desires into grotesque shapes. Sexuality, both female and male, proliferates like kudzu, as do various entertaining neuroses. Matters of vengeance and forgiveness predominate.
Yuknavitch’s protagonists are simultaneously to be pitied and applauded, thrust away and held close, denied and emulated. No one is guilty, everyone is guilty; no one is responsible, everyone is responsible. Life is a fix we are all in together.
The collection opens with “The Pull,” indicative of the marginalized milieus Yuknavitch means to thrust before our averted eyes. Two refugee sisters, making a desperate sea crossing, experience catastrophe. What saves them? An obsession cultivated back in their homeland. Thus do our indulgences offer secret salvation.
In “Street Walker,” a woman who has survived past hazards to build a safe and secure suburban life with her beloved husband nonetheless finds her attention captivated by the local junkies and whores lurking in the interstices of her environment. One day she succumbs to their allure, and opens her house to them, learning a new equation. “Fear + anger + desire = life.”
The reader might start to prep himself to encounter only tragedy with each tale, but Yuknavitch is too sly to obey such formulas, always offering off-kilter outcomes that blend loss and gain. On the far end of this spectrum, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is positively euphoric, detailing a love affair between and older man and a younger man, both of whom work at a fish-processing plant. It’s soulful redemption in a Barbara Ehrenreich Nickel and Dimed-style world.
Several scattered stories all share titles that begin with the words “A Woman [blank].” These chart various strategies for coping–or not–with societal and self-imposed expectations. The first, “A Woman Object (Exploding)” gives us the rageful wife of a famous painter who goes ballistic at a gallery show. “Because by now of course she has started swearing, a mighty swear swarm, like starlings murmuring.” One wishes for a novel featuring this gal as a kind of female avatar of Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.
In “Cosmos,” a Darger-esque janitor assembles cryptic dioramas out of the intimate trash left behind by teenagers at concerts. “Second Language” tracks the life of a sex-trafficked escort until the day when she rebels. And “The Eleventh Commandment” somehow manages to successfully blend John Hughes and David Lynch, as it gives us a feisty teenage girl who saves her bofriend from a beating by preaching a Gnostic parable to the bullies.
Placed centrally in the volume, and also the longest story, “Cusp” strikes me as the most powerful and fully realized tale herein. A young teenaged girl who worships her older brother drives her life willfully off the rails when deprived of his guidance and inspiration. Their fateful reunion comes out of left field, and shatters everything.
In “Mechanics,” I swear Yuknavitch is channelling cartoonists Jaime and Beto Hernandez (viz, their Music for Mechanics) as she delivers a vignette about a woman car-repair person who lusts after an ice-princess customer of menacing mien.
The volume closes with “Two Girls,” a stream-of-consciousness long paragraph that affirms the existence of hard-won transcendence.
Her sensual prose alternately blunt and scalpel-like, her outcomes never predictable, harking to spiritual ancestors such as Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann and Rikki Ducornet, Lidia Yuknavitch exhibits in her fearless and multivalent stories the urge to get down and wallow in the gutter with her fallen characters, while with a firm finger under their chins she gently tilts their gaze up to the stars.