By Maryse Meijer
New York: FSG Originals, 2019
144 pages. $15.00 (Paperback)
Following up her acclaimed debut short story collection, Heartbreaker, Maryse Meijer continues to subvert expectations in her equally unsettling and incisive second collection, Rag. In these fourteen inventive stories, Meijer skillfully takes the reader through a shadowy landscape that’s all her own. Here, an undergrad loner grows fascinated by her shut-in neighbor, a brother is possessed by the spirit of his tyrannical stillborn sibling, parents starve themselves while showering their daughter with prime rib, and a vindictive high schooler attempts to humiliate her childhood friend perhaps to the point of suicide. The breadth of imagination gives the collection unpredictability and readers a sense of wonder, while tonally the gaze feels sharp, almost ruthless.
It’s not that the stories lack warmth. Characters do care for each other and love their children, even amidst their betrayals, and sometimes their own cruel behavior confuses them. But the collection overall is stripped of safety and sentimentality; instead, Meijer excels in creating moments of discomfort, making space for it partly through unpredictability and even more through purposeful lingering on provocative details, a willingness to swim in deep water. The collection opens with a miscarriage in the story “Her Blood,” with an apologetic woman whose blood floods the pizza shop bathroom and even trickles into the cracks of the vinyl booth cushions as she waits for the ambulance to arrive. The boldness of this choice, the willingness to immerse us in the bloody landscape, rather than turning away, sets the tone for the collection. The narratives are going to look and keep looking even when it’s no longer polite, even when it’s uncomfortable.
The stories also run on unease because Meijer doesn’t shy away from characters making questionable, even reprehensible, choices: shooting a dog with a BB gun, binge drinking through parenthood, sleeping with a possibly disabled and underage ex-student. The collection is full of boundary-crossing. The father in “The Jury” explores cutting videos while drunk and later peels the blanket off his sleeping daughter, staring a beat too long. The teenage narrator in “Viral” calculates how to humiliate her childhood friend by recording her masturbating with a doll and making it viral. She convinces her boyfriend to help in the humiliation without telling him the friend’s response will probably be suicide. The collection has many such characters revealing themselves as monsters. Most obvious may be the narrator in “The Shut-in” who spends much of the story getting to know her hermit-like neighbor only to commit a final act that shatters all trust.
Some stories contain echoes of each other: In “Jury” and “At the Sea,” fathers walk thin lines of propriety fueled by alcohol. In “Viral” and “The Shut-in” first person female narrators flirt with the possibility of revealing another person against their will. “Pool” and “Her Blood” both use characters’ fascinations as the propulsive engine, and for me both resonated the most. “Pool” details a lifeguard’s growing obsession with a swimmer’s poolside accident and the lifeguard’s desire to recreate the blood-stained moment with the swimmer. The accident becomes their intersection point and creates a troubling intimacy that attracts and repulses both men. The lifeguard becomes obsessive, and readers feel the charge of such fascination. “Her Blood” plays with a similar intersecting moment of intimacy between two otherwise strangers. In the aftermath of the miscarriage, the pizza shop clerk and woman orbit each other in late night phone calls and store visits. The magnetic valence surrounding them is mysterious, just outside the realm of romance but instead something else, which propels the reader forward.
Shades of brutality also run through the collection, including assault, disfigured bodies, euthanized animals, and homicide. The fact of these incidents often feels less important than their treatment, the strange and skewed look at them. Some story set-ups on the surface seen ordinary but in time prove the opposite. Both “Evidence” and “Rag” reveal murder, but it’s the third parties in the narratives that push beyond the expected: not the killer or the killed but the other eye watching. The detective investigating in “Evidence” reaches a point when he can no longer stomach the accumulation of death: “The detective stands. Peeling off gloves, giving orders… Making the usual jokes. He turns his back on the other guys, rubs his eyes. Somehow he is expected not to go crazy” (111). The third party in the title story “Rag” is the rag itself, finding itself in the throat of the suffocated wife: “I got her to the end, of air, of feeling, of a body, of will” (141). In both cases, through these unexpected choices Meijer transforms what could be routine scenarios into enigmatic material.
In the end, it seems nothing is off limits in Rag, which may inspire a tremendous sense of freedom and fear. As the dog-euthanizing narrator in the story “Francis” says, “Freedom after a certain point is a mistake” (53). In this case, it’s no mistake but a testament to the collection’s surefootedness in original territory.
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