In another part of my life, I review books. I don’t get to choose the books I review and occasionally don’t like them very much. But since The Handbasket is my personal playground, I feel free to say whatever the heck I want—particularly about books I do like!
Months ago, my friend the U. K. publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery sent me a book of stories, BROKEN THINGS, by Padrika Tarrant, one of Jen’s Salt Books authors. From the first sentence of the first story, Darling, I was swept into Tarrant’s bizarre, surreal world:
“Until today, I always pushed a pram, just in case I find a baby.”
The reader knows immediately that something is not quite usual, here. This is no tidy domestic drama. In fact, it’s a story about a woman who adopts a dead dog out of the gutter.
These are small stories, miniatures of feeling and experience like the short, animated films by Tarrant’s hero, Jan Svankmajer (Alice, Faust). They are portraits: of the woman who believes a weeping seagull is taunting her, of the exasperated man from the housing council who is about to evict another woman from her home and is blown up at the end, of Lorna, “the last of the wise women: a mid wife to feral cats, and neck-wringer of injured things.” So many of the stories are written in first-person and speak with a single, vibrant, disturbed voice.
Tarrant’s stories are images trapped and corralled, temporarily, and put on brief display before they slip off of the page and back into the wilds from which they came. Technically, though, they are not so much stories as vignettes—the aforementioned portraits. Seldom do they strive for transformation, and at times I felt cheated when the words ended. I felt like the stories were ended before they were fully told. But, brief as they are, they are unique in the world. Each one is a like a baroque pearl–never perfect (what would perfect be, and would we want it?) but having a rough, glowing beauty that deserves to be noticed.
As I read this star-studded anthology, I found myself smirking at least once, laughing out loud a number of times and, yes, skipping the occasional paragraph because I’m kind of a chicken.
The expletive in question is the F-word, of course. The stories are unflinching tributes to all that is murderously vulgar and defy the simple “crime” label. Standouts include the freaky-brilliant Oleg Steinhauer’s story Hungarian Lessons, and Anthony Neil Smith’s Find Me, which reads like Robert Olen Butler and Harry Crews got together to write the most sensitive porno film ever, and Ruth Jordan’s Little Blue Pill, which makes me proud to be a girl. Then there’s Laura Lippman and Charlie Huston who just can’t write a bad sentence. (If you haven’t read WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and THE SHOTGUN RULE, go and order them right now!) Ken Bruen and Delphine Lecompte both use voice to advantage to tell two very brutal tales. And Sarah Weinman shows that she owns creepy in Lookout, which puts a child in the picture in a most disturbing way. Really, the overall quality of all of the stories is consistently high. Also nasty—but in a good way.
F*%$ is such a versatile word. It can be expressed physically or emotionally, with affection or anger or viciousness. How interesting that Jordan has found commonality in all these stories. I think it’s the brutal nature of the word that expresses itself most vocally here. One would think that the sheer collecting of the word all in one place would do one of two things: either take the teeth out of it or overwhelm the reader with its presence.
I do find EXPLETIVE DELETED a smidge overwhelming. There’s an intensity of experience here that makes it a book to be read in small doses—to be savored as it were. (Then again, you might be ready to go all night! I’m sorry, I just couldn’t leave that line alone.) But what I find most appealing, aside from the stories themselves, is the sheer audacity of the collection, the unbridled, uninhibited joy of it. Very in one’s (slightly reddened, smirking) face.