There is Something Inside,
It Wants to Get Out

By Madeline McDonnell

Rescue Press
November 2010
79 pages


Reviewed by Art Edwards


I once had a writing instructor who described revising a short story as putting the smallest weights on one side of a scale, having it tip too far one way, then trying the same on the other side only to have it tip too far to the other. It's a fine balancing act to get character and voice and setting and simile all pushing a story in its one true direction. And with so many short fiction writers out there exhibiting their own delicate arrangements, any slippage right or left can easily land a story into the deep and populous file of the not quite good enough.

Such is the case with the trio of long-ish short stories in Madeline McDonnell's There's Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out. For every moment of delight within, there is an equal measure of what feels like a lack of understanding of the characters' depths, leaving these tales with a sense of incompleteness, of opportunities missed.

When McDonnell's writing shines, it shines through her fine choice of language. In the first story "Wife," about a young woman struggling to marry for the right reasons despite her feminist mother, McDonnell renders brilliantly the minute details of modern sexuality and familial discord. When the protagonist, Wednesday, is in Barcelona with her soon-to-be fiance Ben, she notices the women there "looked like men, their hostility precluding prettiness." Such insight hints at the problems Wednesday eventually has with her aggressively single mother, who wants to enlist her daughter in the same club. Of the moans and groans Wednesday claims to make when having sex with Ben, Wednesday's mother quips, "That's called faking."

In the second and better story, "Physical Education," about a family struggling as its fifteen-year-old daughter Mary recovers from cancer, McDonnell's eye for physical description plays a prominent role. Of a gym teacher who smokes a pipe: "His smoke-puffs, too, are increasingly redolent, like whole fields burning." Mary's father, in disarray as he tries to deal with his daughter's recovery, wears "white shorts, ragged and shapeless as a baby's cloth diaper." And of a teenage friend of Mary's, "she is standing in yellow underpants and white bra embroidered with tiny cherries, the stick of a sour-apple gum pop goring the corner of her mouth." Each description provides an arresting visual that reveals character. It invites us to trust the story's first-person narrator for her unique perspective.

And McDonnell doesn't need paragraphs to render a compelling character. In the last story in the collection, "Trouble," which deals with Lucy, a pregnant woman with one abortion in her past and a penchant for crashing her car, McDonnell's describes Lucy's husband Henry as having "sweet floppy ears." With that one stroke, we get that Henry is something of a kind, lovable oaf. The author is at her best when supplying these details, bringing vividness and vitality to the people of her prose.

But these qualities alone don't yield that fine balance we all expect from compelling short works. Where McDonnell's efforts fail her is when her characters reveal complicated or unlikely sides of themselves, and those sides aren't built into the characters from the beginning. McDonnell's characters exhibit plenty of complexity, but these complexities aren't set up in a way that makes them feel satisfying and real. In "Physical Education," the father of the cancer-stricken Mary is so concerned about his daughter he attends gym class with her. Soon he finds himself on the basketball court playing with the kids. Then he organizes a basketball tournament, helps pick teams, and competes with the kids as though his own life depended on it. At first, I was charmed by a father who was so concerned about his recovering daughter. I was also charmed by a father who competed so diligently against high school students, but I never believed the two were traits of the same character. McDonnell doesn't render this complexity as much as present it and expect it to stand on its own. Although I believe complicated traits are what make memorable characters, just making a character complicated doesn't make him believable. "Physical Education" falls a bit short.

The same can be said of "Wife." The tension between Wednesday's desire to live a more conventional life cuts directly against her mother's worldview, but Wednesday also has competitive issues with her mother that surface when they jog together. Again, it's not hard to imagine such a character--both reacting against and competing with a strong mother figure--but the key is the rendering. Do these traits feel germane to Wednesday, or do they feel tacked on? In this story, I found the latter to be the case.

Finally, Lucy's tendency to crash her car in "Trouble" is a quirky way for Lucy to deal with her feelings about both of her pregnancies, but it's hard to see how this tendency is an ineluctable result of something inside her, something the reader senses from the beginning and reads to watch the events unfold, both knowing and not knowing what's going to happen.

When reading a great short story, there are moments when a character surprises us and we think, "Wow, I didn't see that coming." And our next thought is, "You know, that seems appropriate now that it happened." It's one of the most impressive tricks in fiction. Characters in every story in There's Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out have the first part of that equation down, but are lacking in the second. There is much to admire within these pages, but so much more to wish for.