Monday
Jan052015

Baboon

By Naja Marie Aidt


 

Two Lines Press
October 2014
978-1931883382


Reviewed by Angela Woodward


 

Baboon, the prize-winning collection of short stories by Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt, will perhaps be most enjoyed by the reader who was orphaned at birth and raised in a blank white box with food slipped in through a slot, warmth provided by an electric blanket, and soothing music piped in at twilight. This blissful being, grown to adulthood untainted by the rest of humanity, will treasure the quick plunging plots of these brief stories, their sparseness and intensity. Those of us who once were children with parents, though, who have had siblings, lovers, or spouses, who might have children of our own, who have friends, and have sex, and speak, and drink, those of us who have divorced and remarried, who travel and eat in restaurants and work at jobs, who own houses or live in apartments, who buy groceries, drive cars or take subways—we will see ourselves reflected viciously in these stories and shudder.

Aidt aims unerringly for horror in plain sight. Women reek of cheap perfume and sweat; men of cigarette smoke and sweat; mothers have bad breath, brothers fart. Her prose is fiercely unleavened of anything but pure animal observation. Every odor and wrinkle and snarl and drip of snot stands spotlighted. Some of the stories are pared-down observations of the everyday. In "She Doesn't Cry," a little girl and her father wait for a train. In "The Woman in the Bar," someone observes a couple in conversation nearby. Nothing needs to happen for something dreadful to transpire. Other stories venture into exaggerated absurdity. "The Honeymoon" involves an apocalyptic trip to Greece; a wild man invades the car of a honeymooning couple, frothing religious fury at the wife. They move on to a town dominated by women, and the wife ends up over a cliff naked. Though every inch of action is precisely detailed, the plot as a whole is far from realistic. Similarly, in the story "Bulbjerg," it's not clear why a family traveling on their bikes is lost in the woods instead of getting straight to their goal, the town in the title. They may simply have poor directions, or they may be fantastically off track.

Aidt makes frequent use of the first person, an unnamed "I" who cannot be gendered until his or her relation with someone else in the story makes it clear. This someone else is often addressed as "you," as if the "I" were recapping a film about a person to a person sitting next to them while viewing the film at the same time. "We grabbed two bags of mixed candy. You placed them in the large woven market bag, which your mother had bought in Bali […]'What do you have there?' [the cashier] asked, pointing at the woven bag. 'Oh,' you said, 'I forgot to put them on the counter.'" This little shoplifting incident instantly devolves into a violent debacle in the story "Candy." Only halfway into the story does it become clear that the "I" is a husband, the "you" his wife. In other stories, these relationships never become quite fixed. We presume to put it all together by the end, but remain tentative about aspects that another writer would have firmly established. This accounts for much of the vertigo Aidt's tales induce. While tactile details are rendered sharply, the context remains out of focus. Man or woman, brother or lover, dream or reality, is left up to the reader to decide on and fix. Aidt asks for a huge amount of complicity with the reader to fill in the missing framework.

Aidt depicts the palpable to exquisite effect. In "Conference," a woman meets a man again whom she had sex with, presumably at the last annual conference of whatever academic discipline or economic society they might both belong to. "I could see the nape of your neck," she says as he sits in front of her during a lecture, "the light skin of your throat, your strangely rounded thighs pressing against the black fabric of your pants, and your thick wide hands relaxed in your lap. I could see your breathing in your back, how it blew you up a bit, how your shoulder blades slid away from each other a little before coming together again." These are simple words, exact and tight to the small phenomenon of this man sitting. Aidt need say nothing more to indicate the depth of feeling, the desire and repulsion and dread this wordless encounter stirs in the narrator. The story fends off any received ideas about love, or respect, or professional behavior. Anything more or less belonging to human culture seems unnecessary, an afterthought in the face of the pulse, the breath, the rounded thighs. Her eventual vomiting and shame are similarly stripped of attachment to culture. There's nothing to redeem or make sense of the horrible smell, the wet lap, her colleagues' stares.

One of the most piercing stories in this collection is "Starry Sky," about the ecstatic relationship of a couple from courtship to marriage to parenthood and middle age. Their physicality is the core of their relationship. They have no names, no occupations, just their preoccupation with each other. Their voracious carnality seems like what many of us yearn for as the mark of a fulfilling relationship. The husband, however, also has sex with men; first just one, then several. His secret life does not square with the wife's narration of their joy and compatibility. In one scene, she thinks back fondly to their early encounters as she takes "something" out of the closet, a big object that he bought for her, that he also likes her to put in him. Aidt doesn't describe this thing, and from the placid, domestic context it's not immediately clear what it is. The reader in the blank white box is probably ignorantly eating her next banana, while the rest of us have to visualize the deluded wife taking the dildo out from its concealing pile of lingerie. Aidt's omission is not intended to shield us. Rather she insists we do the imagining here, and makes the wife's humiliation ours.

Aidt's stories are virulent attacks on complacency, on any kind of finished, settled expectation of stability or reason that we have pulled down on top of our animal natures. It's horrible to be in a family. It's dangerous to have a lover. Even to have a body is a punishment, as the tour-de-force final story "Mosquito Bite" reveals. This is the only extended piece, about four times the length of all the other stories. At its start, a confident, healthy playboy wakes up with a woman he's taken home with him: "Someone living was puttering around alarmingly near, and he froze." It's not as if someone not living could be puttering around. This odd word choice accentuates the character's bland distancing of other people, who seem to him to be vague organisms, whether they are family, friends, or women he'd like to fuck. He becomes the worst of these organisms, his own body turned hideously repulsive, weak, stinking, and helpless. The little bit of hopefulness he evinces near the end hardly signals redemption. The story implies he is just as repulsive when he's whole and healthy. We are all corrupted by being alive, walking around in our disgusting meat suits, doing horrible things to each other. The only compassion Aidt offers up is that her coarse revelations come out of diamantine tales, brilliant and unrelenting in their focus. Even a degraded human creature writing about degradation is nevertheless capable of artistry, restraint, and grace.