Surgeons, nurses and medical students are central figures in this smart debut story collection, the better to get at the viscera and inevitable breakdowns in our lives.
Scheer is a writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, a job that seems to have provided inspiration for her fiction. In the opening “Fundamental Laws of Nature,” a woman who’s just received a breast-cancer diagnosis projects her concerns onto the show horse her daughter rides, a potent way to capture her newly off-center self. In “Transplant,” a heart-transplant recipient becomes obsessed with whether the new organ has rewritten her whole personality; when she decides to convert to Islam, Scheer leaves it an open question whether the decision is born of anxiety or something more ineffable. And in “Modern Medicine,” a burn-center nurse on a ketamine trip is confronted with images of patients she thought she had thrust firmly out of her memory. Scheer writes with a striking intensity about the human body and its fragility, but the overall mood of Incendiary Girls isn’t shock or horror but wonderment at the way the physical and psychological intersect. The woman in “No Monsters Here” who keeps spotting body parts of her missing soldier husband around the house is similar to the new parents in “Primal Son” whose newborn has an apelike aspect: Each is trying to reconcile expectations with radical proof of the world’s inconsistency. Scheer doesn’t send each story to the same emotional destination, though, playing the former for pathos and the latter for dry humor and a winking joke about evolution. A couple of stories slip a bit too deep into the allegorical weeds, but this is overall an effective and surprising collection.
Eleven appealingly strange studies of bodies in crisis.