Sunday
Jan132013

Shut Up/Look Pretty

By Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, and Amber Sparks

Tiny Hardcore Press
September 2011
978-0983562535

Reviewed by Jennifer Messner


 

Shut Up/Look Pretty anthologizes story collections by Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, and Amber Sparks, five writers with very different but wonderfully complementary voices. While their stories range dramatically in theme, style, and setting—sometimes even within a single author's collection—what brings them together is their exploration of their characters' truest desires and the external expectations they cannot—or will—not meet.

The title is both ironic and deliberately provocative, prompting a reader to pay careful attention to how characters speak and the ways in which they subscribe to or subvert conventional standards of beauty and behavior. The characters in these stories are not what you'd call "pretty" – they are spirited, difficult, challenging, flawed; they rarely act as others might wish. They aren't especially polite. They probably aren't happy. They are outsiders, living in the margins, and their stories largely happen below the surface.

Outsider status can be an ambivalent existence, and in many of the stories, such as Amber Sparks' "The Ghosts Eat More Air," Lauren Becker's "Follow," and Kirsty Logan's "Local God" we consider envy of those who seem more at ease in the world, those we maybe wish we could be. Logan captures this so artfully in her arresting opening sentence—"Francis Faskally is always the main character, and that is why I hate him,"—then parlays the narrator's simultaneous resentment of and attraction to the charismatic Faskally into a tense and suspenseful novella. Lauren Becker's characters are uncomfortable in their own skins, torn between badly wanting to fit in and being unwilling or incapable of conforming. They are both the rejected and rejector, at once vulnerable and prickly. They are the wrong girl to hook up with at the wedding, the one you won't marry, the girl who has to be escorted away, the girl watching instead of the one you watch. In her story "Follow": "The girl has true pale yellow hair and a smile that makes boys think of light blue Tiffany's boxes. This girl is the girl. The line leader, the team leader, the cheerleader, the one who will lead always, we hope, to the very best place we can be." But "We fail, as we know we will. We accept our failure. There can only be one. She is the girl."

In Amber Sparks's "Ghosts Eat More Air," two characters exist on opposite ends of the outsider spectrum, a father who has withdrawn from society into a world of ghosts, and his daughter, excluded from both and desperately wishing for normalcy, "Sometimes the daughter wonders if she really died with her mother; if she is the real ghost after all. She is so clearly the intruder in her own home."

Extreme outsiderism in Shut Up/Look Pretty can be sinister as well. In Erin Fitzgerald's and Michelle Reale's stories, we often journey to dark interior places.  In Fitzgerald's "Where Did It All Go Wrong," a seemingly affecting portrait of financial hardship takes a shocking turn. In this, as in several of her stories, she creates an ominous impression without clearly defined circumstances, leaving the reader feeling unsettled and fumbling around the dangerous edges of imagination. What exactly has transpired and what will happen next are perhaps too terrifying to state clearly; they are hinted at, but never said.

Things take a similarly chilling, but more explicit turn in the first half of Michelle Reale's collection "What Passes for Normal"—in these stories we experience an unspeakably cruel mother, an act of domestic violence, and a father's anger building to the point of explosion. In "Practice," Reale details an unimaginably creepy first "date," in which parents have sent their daughter out into the world with an older man. The girl's subsequent silence is a means of emotional distancing and self-protection: "Spongey leans her hot cheek against the door. Disenthralls herself from a future that belongs to someone else. She doesn't trust herself to speak. Wouldn't know what to say if she did."

Reading Shut Up/Look Pretty is akin to being trusted with a secret, or in this case, many secrets, resulting in a very intimate reading experience. Lauren Becker's characters bare their souls to us, confessing their deepest desires simply and openly in the first person, almost child-like in both the directness and the deceptive simplicity of their sentences, wearing their hearts right on their sleeves: "Your name unspeakable, you are The Boy. You move like peanut butter down the halls of school. Smooth. No hurry. I want to spread you and me on white bread and take a bite... I want you to take my hunger. I want you to bite back."

But as in all of her stories, and in so many of the others in Shut Up/Look Pretty, these powerful and sensual words are not actually spoken to The Boy, the object of affection, or to the intended recipient – they are spoken only to the reader. We alone are privy to their inner yearnings and disappointments, all the things they will not or cannot share with others.

We see this theme of unspoken desire throughout the collections, often from the point of view of women, and often coupled with disappointment. In Michelle Reale's "Girls With Barrettes," a poignant portrayal of teen mothers meeting their boyfriends in the park, the reader is once again witness to longings and disappointments the characters cannot publicly give voice to in their own worlds:

The girl with the red hair fastened with a pearly barrette wants to take the boy, father of her child, to a quiet place. Her body hums with desire... She closes her eyes. Waits for his touch. Instead, he places his finger on the soft spot of the baby's head, gently pulsating like a tiny heart under the orange fuzz that is his hair.

Disappointment takes a darkly comic turn in Amber Sparks' "She Turned Her Husband into an Angel But Nothing Changed":

The wife wanted her husband dead. He hardly seemed to notice he was alive, anyway... They married because the wife liked a challenge. The wife thought she was could open him up, pull out wild Irish weather from inside. But when she tried she found a map of Cleveland instead. Her days grew long and endless as parades.

But it is not only women who experience disappointment. Erin Fitzgerald movingly depicts a father's stunning revelation silenced in her story "Trumpet Voluntary." When the estranged father sees his daughter for the first time performing in a school concert:

One of the trombone guys whispers something to her and she giggles. Her eyes are bluer and wider then, even from a third of a gymnasium away. After that, I can't pay attention anymore... I gave something away without even knowing it. I gave something without knowing I had something to give. It turned out to be the biggest thing I've ever given. The most important thing that I didn't even do.

He is then introduced to his daughter merely as "a friend," and must suppress his identity and his transformation. Only he and the reader truly understand the importance of that meeting.

One of the great joys of reading this collection is contemplating each author's voice against the others; this perhaps also presents the greatest challenge as a reviewer. I found so much to admire in each author's style: I have already mentioned Lauren Becker, whose writing has a big, wide-open, emotional appeal. Erin Fitzgerald's flash is striking for exactly the opposite reasons: her prose is expertly controlled, taking us precisely into each tense scene. Logan immediately catches the reader and holds her there, right through to the end. Sparks offers a constantly surprising mixture of otherworldliness, whimsy, and poignance. Reale's subjects can be shocking, but her stories are also stunning, and my appreciation for them grew more and more with each rereading.

Each of these five authors' contributions could easily be a book its own right, but in pulling these writers and their work together, Tiny Hardcore Press has created something that is perhaps stronger and definitely more intriguing. The characters in Shut Up/Look Pretty have not shut up, at least, not to us. In their own ways, they have spoken volumes—and it is often very pretty.