Coincidence led to my reading Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker and Erin Stalcup’s And Yet It Moves overlappingly, and like most coincidences this one offered an odd cross-pollination. To be clear, I have a hard time imagining two more dissimilar books of short fiction than these: Stalcup’s début is a lush dance of what-if stories posited on unlikely events (what if gravity ceased?) and rendered with a prose that’s right—to this overwriting-prone reader—on the edge of purple. At their best these sentences are satisfying like rides in Rolls Royces: in all the splendor and comfort you forget the agenda is to go somewhere, not simply enjoy the being there. The stories are populated with folks most of us either are or recognize—folks looking for love, for satisfaction, for answers, clarity—and the offerings in the stories are almost entirely internal, the oomph emotional. Meiker’s début is a raw, savage, sharp, brittle collection of hurt and want, each story centered around young women who are ferocious in their desperation yet not remotely pitiable because of it. These characters (overwhelmingly women) are almost entirely made of, and defined/deformed by their hungers—for a not-too-tight connection, a place, pleasure, release, escape—so central to each story that the hungers themselves, rather than the characters, act as the suns the planets of the stories orbit; it’s gravitational.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
And Yet It Moves
(Indiana University Press, 2016)
Yet each book is addressing domesticity. Each book is positing something about mystery and the impossibility of solutions. Meijer is arguing something like that we are the mysteries and the world is a more-or-less stable (if unfriendly) locale; Stalcup is arguing the world is the mystery, and if there’s gonna be anything like a solution, it’ll be because of how we, internally, solve it. The locale of sense, of meaning, is oppositional in these two books, or at least that’s how they read, how their very different worlds feel.
Not for nothing: Einstein and Galileo and Tesla all show up in Stalcup’s And Yet It Moves (keen readers will recognize Stalcup’s title as the phrase Galileo said under his breath while signing his recantation before the pope), and not a bit of Meijer’s book takes place more than five places from desperation. Both these books are setting out to solve, and while the stakes are similar—How does one make sense of the world? Make sense of one’s self in the world?—the avenues chosen are radically dissimilar. What I’m trying to say: the attempting-of-solutions works out radically, beautifully different in each book. Here, for instance, is how each book’s first story begins.
In the truck she sits straight, her hands flat on the seat. At a stoplight, seeing that his head is turned away, she opens the door and thrusts one shoulder out into the night air before he catches her arm. He doesn't pull, just holds her still until she leans in again, slamming the door shut. When the light turns green he lets her go.
I longed to fall in love in the way of the cinema, fairy tales, tall tales and the great novels of all time—I had faith it would happen to me someday, any day now.
I’ll admit one reason I was moved in reading these books was because I took to them both as my wife finished her—our—third pregnancy (a third daughter), and one of the central questions I feel as I navigate new-ish parenthood is: how do we become what we are? While any parent can tell you that some traits are evident from the get-go, lots of others accrue through murkier accumulations. I find myself now looking at all women differently, wondering the routes each took to get where she is, wondering if one of my daughters might find the same track amenable.
Which is a long way of saying that Meijer’s story, jump-started by a mysterious and not-obviously-great scenario in which we don’t understand the characters or scenario, ends up making a sort of perfect emotional sense at the end as the girl chooses not to escape. Which is a long way of saying that Stalcap’s story, blissed out at its start by specific hopes, knows well that old line: when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.
Or take what reads to me the scariest story I’ve read in years—scary because true, scary because it shakes you all the way down: Meijer’s “Stones.” I shouldn’t even pretend: her stories are all scary, not in any slasher-movie way, but in the sense that her characters are so uncomfortably desperate they’ll do what you like to believe you won’t, even if deep down you know you’d fall just as far and hard if the situation pushed you. In “Stones” it’s simple: a woman doesn’t know a man well, tells him to come over, give her something like physical comfort in a harrowing way (in this way: she wants him to use a rock to sexually pleasure her). It’s harrowing. And yet: write down, at the most elemental level, some haunting desire of yours.
And then at the other end of the register—or so it feels, but you’ll discover, it’s not really that different—there’s Stalcup, who writes these gorgeous, lush stories like “Keen,” a story about women who are hired to wail at funerals. And you think on confronting a story like that, that’s nothing like the raw elementality of a Meijer story, and you’re right, except it’s not that the stories are alike. It’s that they’re two sides of the same telling.
Let’s posit that one of the central hazards and pursuits of domesticity is escape: we seek in domesticity an escape from ourselves and our real/basic lives, and yet too wide-ranging an escape from ourselves or our basic lives and we’re in monumental trouble. The question then becomes: what sorts of escapes allow us to Become more fully Ourselves, and what obscure?
If you’re even considering that question, you’re already lost. There’s no answer; there can’t be. Poor Maryse Meijer’s characters, lost and so desperately seeking; poor Erin Stalcup’s characters, so sure and suddenly presented with new circumstances—gravity disappearing, for instance. That’s what it was in these collections that capsized: such beautiful challenge. So tempting almost. It’s easy to want some challenges that usher us to new self-hood, but who other than Chris Knight in Real Genius has really considered what a sudden lack of gravity would entail? Or, deeper: you may not love being alone and wish you could have someone love you, but have you the first clue how you’d actually respond if you had to deal with some other human in your pre-coffee 8:42am space?
These books offer that. Fragments. Shards. Intimations and hints. You’d be a fool to pass up such honest attempts at accounting, even if—of course—no accounting can actually quantify all interiority.