A Review of With Teeth by Natanya Ann Pulley
by Natanya Ann Pulley
New Rivers Press, 2019
If you’re short on time for reviews: read this great book. Pulley is a masterful writer. Her stories will make you aware of how alive you are.
Sure, With Teeth is scary, at times, but it’s also beautiful because it luxuriates in the paradoxes of how messy and ugly and gorgeous our lives are. And because it does not let us deny how very lucky we are to be engaged in the business of being human.
If Shirley Jackson, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen Graham Jones, Carmen Maria Machado, and maybe George Saunders, had a baby, well, if their writing had a child, that book-baby might resemble With Teeth by Natanya Ann Pulley. The author’s first collection, the 140th winner of the Many Voices Award from New Rivers Press, invites its readers to explore the precariousness of being human, of being haunted by fear, grief, longing, and desire — the fragility of our “embodied-ness,” of being grounded in the tissue of ourselves, including the confounding eruption of weapon-like bone, the animal part of ourselves, that protrudes from our mouths and helps us survive.
When I finished the prologue and dug into the first of fourteen stories, “Cannibal,” narrated from the perspective of a woman consumed by her killer, I thought I had found myself in familiar thematic territory, having written an academic book on U.S. fictions about cannibalism. But Pulley takes things to a whole new level, with the narrator confronting not only the limits of self and autonomy, but also the existential dread at the center of her host, and in all of us:
We are not solid things with a hole to fill, hole edges to maintain, and sod and grit hauled from other parts of ourselves into this chasm. No, we are an emptiness and when we feel a hole, it is only because we came across something solid for a brief moment and thought we were solid too. (8)
Cannibalism, the ultimate estrangement of the familiar, often signals the eruption of the uncanny, that peculiar overlay of feelings of being in a foreign, unfamiliar place that seems paradoxically familiar, a lot like home, or using Freud’s German terms, the tension between unheimlich/heimlich. After completing that story I paged back to the opening lines of “A Prologue with Teeth,” and realized that Pulley draws her readers into the uncanny in the very first sentence: “She wears a mask that looks like her” (1). In many of the stories, characters wear masks, but expose their truest selves only in their private or interior lives. Nowhere is this more provocatively and complexly explored than in “Herpes of the Heart.”
In “In This Dream of Walking, a Weaver,” Klea, a young Diné/Navajo woman, suffers from bouts of sleep paralysis; one night during the murky haze after a nightmare she remembers trying to reconnect with her extended family in a conference-style setting in a hotel in Shiprock, New Mexico. Klea had recorded and documented her family’s stories, hoping to find a deeper connection to her relatives and to better understand herself. Rather than “compressing her family history into data,” though, Klea longs to be more like her mother, who always had “some way of grasping these histories and planting them inside her to let them grown and show their own signs of genus and pollination. Klea wanted to be an earth thing, something of soil and water” (94). By the story’s end, after tears and deep suffering, Klea finds her way through and to story, the felt and lived experiences that go beyond names and genealogies. The side-stories, and whispers, the hints and questions, are brought into the narrative that Klea is weaving. She imagines herself as grandmother spider: “An ancient thread-generating incarnation. As if she did have eight legs … As if she was blessed with many eyes, small and large, light-absorbing rows of them” and with more practice this web would become “A ballooning thing. A thing made and remade and recovered and made new throughout generations” (96-97).
Despite the existential dread at the center of many of these stories, despite their stark warnings, justice is still possible, yearned for. It can be found, for example, in “The Killer of Rabbits and Brothers,” a seemingly simple story of a seven-year old named Linnea confronting first the death of her tortured bunny and then her older brother. The ending somersaults into a mysterious story of the their murderer’s transformation into a jackalope who will be a kind protector of the vulnerable, a cosmic twist and evidence of the universe seeking justice and restoring balance.
The pursuit of justice limns the edges of “Did You Find Your Killer Yet?,” a chilling third-person-limited account of DeDeAnne, a murder victim, who follows the investigation, the post-mortem once her body is recovered, and who tries to edge back into the world of those mourning and still living. At one point, DeDeAnne hears her mother worry, “We should have warned you. Maybe we did. So many shoulds. So many ways we did things to keep you safe … There’s always some child out there, DeDeAnne. In a field. In a basement. Brown girls like you in plastic trash bags in the river. We knew it happened, but never knew it could happen to us” (44). This timely story reverberates powerfully in the considerable shadow of trauma connected to the real-world crisis of #MMIWG. DeDeAnne’s wish at the end, a desire to be recognized and seen as among the living, is unfulfilled. Instead, she joins another young girl, also dead, who understands that the world will continue to ignore them because “the death of little girls was just another part of life” (47).
Throughout the collection, there is a thematic unity in motifs about our carnality, its limits, its pleasures, and its hurts. “A Robot Story” and “The Age of Plastic” follow this thread in their focus on the irreplaceability of our human-ness through the accounts of a pseudo-husband replacement robot and a sex doll who thinks she is real (in contrast to the story’s dueling human’s narrative perspective that she is not). What also lends thematic cohesion is the circular integrity of the entire collection: its title resonates in the prologue title, in the prologue’s last line, and in the very last line of the collection’s epilogue, “How We Hold the Dead,” referring to the memory of the-no-longer-living: “This once-name, a spiked harrow with teeth” (134).
Coda: This beautiful book was published by New Rivers Press which is scheduled to close shop in the not-too-distant future because of budget constraints. If you’re interested in Pulley’s great collection, order your copy today and then write to the press to let them know you value her work and writers like her: www.newriverspress.com
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