Normally Special

By xTx

Tiny Hardcore Press
February 2011
96 pages


Reviewed by Gavin Pate


First you notice it's small. On the cover there's a bright red shirt, a lemon yellow dress, a picture of a really clean city street. Even small—because of it, maybe—the book's an object you want to touch, open and inspect. The whole thing fits in your pocket.

In some ways, xTx's collection, Normally Special, wants to emphasize this compactness. The stories are brief, and the observations precise. Yet on finishing, it seems as if you've been asked to peer through a microscope only to find some highly complicated system, a series of disparate parts interlinked by swaths of sharp emotion. The voice slowly overwhelms you. xTx's sentences expand way beyond the brevity of the pieces. Whether because of the peculiarity of the observations or the acoustics on which they are carried, sentences like "My mom won't buy me new tank tops because she thinks forcing me to wear tops that are way too small for me is a motivation for losing weight" and "It is difficult to masturbate about your father, but not impossible, as it turns out" and "I keep him home from school and make him nest with me in a fort of blankets. Pillow walls pile around us; soft protective," build into a stunningly poignant inspection of the narrators' inner lives. Normally Special ignores the double irony of its tiny size and pseudonymous author and allows us to become uncomfortably close with the women who tell these tales.

While most of the stories are short, there is a smattering of longer pieces. Three stories in particular, "Standoff," "She Who Subjected the Sun," and the final piece, "Because I Am Not A Monster," allow xTx to work outside the compact and impressionistic mode that dominates the book. In a story like "She Who Subjected the Sun," a depiction of a strange dystopia where women are auctioned into a variety of degrading roles they must play for their new "Keepers," xTx shows the potential of her imagination, where her personal and at times disturbing themes are given room to develop.

Many pieces reveal some insecurity or attempt by a narrator to make sense of her interaction with both the world and herself. The best of these, "I Love My Dad. My Dad Loves Me" and "A Brief History of Masturbation," tend to be short and episodic. They also are some of the most powerful pieces in the book. Both serious and funny, these awkwardly salacious stories complicate not only the narrators' experiences but also the readers' voyeurism. They may leave you feeling like the narrator at the end of "A Brief History of Masturbation," who, when trying to masturbate to an image of an abusive uncle from years before, simply says, "It made me feel bad and good at the same time."

These narrators live difficult lives, both physically and emotionally, often brought about by the strains of domesticity. These stories tease out the worries of mothers, children, lovers, and the alone. Still, these often painful dynamics are buoyed by a voice that's equally angry and playful, longing and confused, and at its best, both intimate and familiar.

Normally Special is a small book. It fits in your pocket. Be careful when you open it: The sentences, the images, they're stronger than you suspect. Once open, you'll have a hell of a time putting them back inside.