Baby Geisha

By Trinie Dalton


Two Dollar Radio
January 2012

Reviewed by Mark Snyder


Trinie Dalton's voice, in her new collection Baby Geisha, is at once remote and penetrating, a shredding electric guitar undercutting the whisper of a seething punk singer.  Lost and dislocated, wandering treacherous landscapes, her characters struggle to realize intimacy with the strange worlds around them, yet continue to sabotage their attempts through distraction (the Great Preoccupation of Our Time).  Her stories are cautionary tales of how placing too much faith in the outside will only lead to heartbreak and despair, with all the schmaltz that sentiment implies removed by hypodermic needle.

An early-midlife crisis propels the hero of "Wet Look" into a nascent friendship between two siblings and their firecrackers in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri.  His attempts to "be here now" inhibit him from seeing the dangers right in front of him; he is too busy still grappling with his "issues":

Every firecracker in site was titanic, cylindrical, and erect; Iggy had entered a fervent penis world, much more macho than his own more tender universe.  Dudes blow each other's cocks up all night, he thought snidely, get wasted, then stumble in to say their prayers.  He assumed that Kitty and Jody were Christians, due to region, but again, he caught himself making assumptions and aimed to halt this.

Iggy snaps and floats along a river contemplating his fate while being pulled along by swimmers half his age, and realizing "the horror of enlightenment was too powerful." 

In the masterful two-part "Jukebox," two couples navigate discovered truths about their relationships as they distract themselves with their favorite obsessions – sexy aquatic life and the legendarily ancient tree that dominates the town in which it stands.  Each pair discovers loss and ecstasy in equal amounts, proving that both are required in order to have a heightened emotional experience. 

Abandoning some of the lush fantasy/horror leanings that made her 2005 collection Wide-Eyed so distinct, here Dalton has chiseled her sentences down to their finest points, leaving only harsh truths and blunt language but coupled with a sense of wonder and goodness.  She clearly has enormous empathy for her characters, and saves the dark shadows for the worlds they are trying to negotiate.  Even identifiable and decidedly earth-bound situations suddenly skew to the left and into other realms. In the title story, a woman's realization she desires motherhood transforms into a meditation on sexuality, spirituality, and eradicating the lines that divide: "In the Painted Desert, I decided it was time for me to take up praying.  I don't know how to pray and never knew what to pray to.  But I obviously haven't been listening to my body."

Shifting away from her familiar Los Angeles settings, Baby Geisha also functions as a survey of Where We Live Now, ranging from the hideout of a former dolphin trader in the Swiss Alps ("Shrug of Emotion") to a hospital for sloths in Costa Rica ("Pura Vida").  Characters face all forms of the elements, from sweater-demanding homeless women ("Millennium Chill") to dogs acutely aware of the tensions building in a father-son reunion ("The Perverted Hobo"). 

Dalton captures the emotions simmering under each line with hilarious and sometimes painful accuracy, describing a freezing cat as "Feline stripes coagulated into jail bars" and a weed smoker's desire to smoke her beloved plant: "I wanted to cook her into a tray of brownies.  I wanted to sizzle her in butter.  Whoa, I thought, I'm the witch in Hansel and Gretel and I'm already living in a gingerbread house."

The collection concludes with a "Sad Drag Monologues" (with accompanying self-portraits), where Dalton strips away all manner of traditional narrative and focuses on the impulses and adventures of nameless voices.  These short pieces teach us that our circumstances may change, our technological (and otherwise) means of distraction may multiply, but the carnal human need at the base of all emotions will remain, demanding and unyielding at our attempts to keep it at bay.

Dalton has a long history of working in several medias all at once (Geisha is her first story collection in seven years), and many of these pieces are taken from a variety of journals and exhibition catalogs.  Yet her command of language and astute descriptions keep her work decidedly literary, even as she is challenging her readers and riffing on the form.  Inside each of these stories is a pulsating crater of loving energy that guides her characters (and us) through her inventive, bizarre, and heartbreakingly slanted view of the world.