Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“It is difficult to masturbate about your father, but not impossible, as it turns out,” begins one story in this collection, voiced by a woman who feels certain that the workable image she finally manages to manufacture is “made up. It’s not any kind of fucked up memories dredged up from some forgotten, deeply buried incidents.” “I am pretty positive,” she adds. “I mean, there were other things, but never with my dad. I am pretty positive about that.” Incest is presented, on the one hand, as an extreme of masturbatory fantasy—a challenge of the onanistic imagination—and, on the other, as a formative trauma, standing as seeming pretext for the voraciousness of sexual desires or, at least, the calloused competitiveness of setting out to jill oneself off to “difficult” material. Violence and lust, violation and physical need, the vague warren of childhood memories and the hot rabbit hole of the adult moment—all these are churned together in one afternoon’s solitary act.
We are knuckle-deep here in the deeper themes of Normally Special: horror casting the die of later identity, emotions skulking in the shadowy realm “somewhere between sex and fear,” and, finally, the knotty entanglements of the relationships between parents and children. Incest plays a recurring part in this last theme, but it is only a part; for every story involving a rapist uncle or the claustrophobia and olfactory hallucinations experienced when a father calls his daughter “princess” over the telephone, there are stories here, too, from the point of view of a mother, about, to some extent, being a mother, even if some of these mothers pack machetes into beach bags. We are among women in these pages, and while the writer who calls herself xTx makes forays into fantastical horror, even the dreamlike irrational reality of Kafka, as with Kafka, the theatrical setup is meant to reveal the banal; metamorphoses or ghost stories or parable-sounding tales about mice or moles all stand as diagnostic devices for our more “normal” domestic lives. For xTx, the “special” quality of a figure skater fallen in the midst of traffic or the extended sadism of a vacation-theme daydream are all, under their bells and whistles, “normal.” As with the masturbateur rigorously contemplating her father, the “fucked up” isn’t a category apart, not something “special” or out there, a province solely for the institutionalized, the broken, the guest stars of daytime talk shows; rather, what xTx’s characters find as they grind themselves deep enough into their desires is that they are all fucked up, have all been fucked up. The rest, for these women, is postscript.
Some of these women load up on throwing stars while some design theme dinners in the hopes their son will eat. Others clench tight and fold the towels as ordered or retreat into imaginary exertions of force on a world they so utterly cannot control. But the idea of violence carried out in an “almost sexual motherly way” is so different from that carried out by men—the violence of fathers and faux uncles and creepy neighborhood guys, the raging violence of wild gangs.
The success of xTx’s narrators, her voices, is how surprised they are, despite everything. These are innocent voices, contemplating their scars. Yes, innocent voices narrating their masturbatory experiments, their rapes. And what they speak here is both the initial experience of bafflement at how fucked up the world is, how the world fucks people up, and, as they age, mature, raise children, their continuing bafflement, with, as one character says how “very, very useless” all defenses are, how terribly and terrifyingly unsafe the world is. Even masturbation—the private indulgence of fantasy—is not safe.
In one of the shortest and strongest stories, the white-hot “Fireflies,” the characteristic xTx narrator looks back on one formative night, a night devoid of high trauma. Maybe there’s a highway accident, or a near accident, but mainly there was just a bar in an Ohio town, a “pretty good-looking Podunk guy” who gets over eager but not overly aggressive. “I coaxed him back up to my mouth with something about saving the best for last or something probably lamer or more clever and then I don’t remember but I escaped,“ she writes. Instead, this night takes on such special resonance because of all the later nights—not spoken of here—that followed in its wake, because of the fact that “the lessons that were learned that night are remembered but not necessarily practiced,” and because, in this regard, that night in Ohio takes on a special significance, an initiatory moment, the horny Podunk juxtaposed with the first experience of fireflies, with learning “that fireflies were real, which, when that happens to you, feels like anything magical could really exist.” Except it is also, of course, the inverse. Here is a girl in a bathroom of a bar in Ohio, innocent, staring down at the head of some horny Podunk as she guides him up and away, but here, too, is that girl years and years later, speaking in these pages, staring into the abyss that she first caught a distant glimpse of that night in that bar bathroom.
The subjects at the heart of Normally Special are ugly, horrifying. The author’s gift is to portray this horror slant-wise. Moreover, the women who have endured and are enduring this horror, the women who speak here, are also remembering—re-feeling, viscerally, as in the haunting story about insects and Ohio—what it was like to not yet know, to be “pretty positive” about the world, seeing magic in fireflies and simple pleasure in ice cream. They are, also, still seeking pleasure, and—as in the story of the girl masturbating to what she’s pretty sure are manufactured memories of her father masturbating to her—experiencing such pleasure as a complicated amalgam of their pasts. Sexual pleasures prove treacherous navigation; these are intimate stories charting examples of such steering—stories of hard-learned lessons and stories of enduring practice.
Official xTx Web Site
Official Tiny Hardcore Press Web Site