by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books, 372 pages
reviewed by Kim Steele
Finishing Julia’s Elliott’s debut short story collection The Wilds felt like leaving a strange town: I’m relieved to be back in a world where I understand the rules, but I can’t stop glancing in the rearview.
The universe Elliott has created in this book is fenced together by her unique and consistent voice. Every story, whether it be about a lovelorn robot, a town overrun with feral dogs, or a young girl filling the two hours before her scheduled whipping, is written in the same unflinching and intelligent manner. Elliott doesn’t hold back from the repugnant details of life, in fact, many of her stories obsess over them. Again and again her characters are acne-smeared: “Purple pimples glistened like drops of jelly on his cheeks,” “A massive zit festers in my nose like a parasite; I’ve spent the morning picking at it with a needle.” Again and again they are diseased or disappointing in some way: “But the sun has not been kind to you. It has left you blistered and spotted and scathed,” “[A] twentysomething human male, pudgy, hairless save for the frizz under his armpits, between his nipples, on his lower back, and in the pubic region. He had nine amalgam fillings in his teeth.”
Elliott’s stories don’t literally occur in the same town. Some are rooted firmly in the South while others are much more vague about their whereabouts in time and location. In “LIMBs,” an elderly woman with dementia is attached to bionic legs and undergoes a treatment to rebuild her damaged neural structures. She slinks through her nursing home, suddenly able to remember all the days of her life. “Regeneration at Mukti” is equally ambiguous about its place in time. In this story a woman attends a spa retreat where, instead of typical massages and mud baths, she is pumped full of infections. Covered in a variety of blisters and sores she anxiously awaits the day she can slough off her scabs and discover the new, revived body beneath. It is unclear whether this is the near future or another universe entirely. The uncertainty doesn’t weaken Elliott’s stories; rather it pulls you close in. As you wander through like a dreamer, you’re forced to try to make sense of this new world.
With the exception of “The Love Machine” and “Organisms,” each of Elliott’s stories is told from an exclusively female perspective. The women in Elliott’s book lead diverse lives. Some are still girls, just entering puberty and navigating changing parental relationships and first loves. Most are middle-aged. They are teachers and scholars and mothers, some faithful to their husbands and lovers and some not.
Elliott tours us through the landscape of fidelity and also beauty. Her characters often attempt to reconcile their own bodies with contemporary (and American) standards of beauty. They’re anxious about their non-conforming bodies. “Regeneration at Mukti” pokes fun at the ridiculous things women (and men!) do in order to maintain youth and beauty. “Caveman Diet” is similarly an exaggerated version of a weight-loss retreat, where our protagonist finds herself given a “cave name” (Vogmar) and eating with her hands at a table full of people barely dressed in caveman attire. This anxiety surfaces in other more subtle ways throughout the book. A woman on vacation with her elderly parents notes the many ways their bodies have warped with age. A young girl longs for a perm so that she won’t be “ugly for the rest of the summer.” These characters are made miserable by their inability to fit a standard that, as many of us know or will eventually learn, is unattainable to begin with. And while all this misery makes Elliott’s book sometimes difficult to read, it’s urgency means that putting it down is never an option.
Elliott has crafted a spooky and intelligent collection of stories that make for an engrossing and, at times, stressful read. Often, I wanted to hose her characters down. I wanted to brush their hair and dress them in clothes that still smell of laundry detergent. Instead, I held my nose and read on.
Kim Steele is a Midwesterner currently living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the flash fiction zine Oblong. You can follow her on twitter at KJ_Steele.