An entertaining, spiky batch of experimental fiction concerned with the disconnect among siblings, lovers and parents.
The third book of fiction by Jemc (My Only Wife, 2012, etc.) comprises 42 short stories, some only a paragraph long, and with each she seems determined to upend received wisdom about how a story ought to be structured. “Marbles Loosed” is a brief recollection of a girl who’s bounced around foster homes, but there’s no forward motion to the narrative; its energy is in its wordplay, with provocative lines like, “people told me I had pearl eyes. I’d rub my sandy fingers in them, sure that was the only way to keep them smooth and beautiful.” “The Wrong Sister” is a harrowing tale about a woman who trades places with her sister, whose husband turns murderous. In “More Mysteries,” a woman minds her addict brother in an ICU but struggles to keep her grasp over him. Jemc’s abstract, metaphorical language can make her stories demanding, sometimes frustrating. But her command is consistent, as is the somber tone that infuses each of these stories despite their wild wordplay—something serious is at stake for each of the (usually female) protagonists. That’s clearer in the longer, more conventional pieces, such as “Bent Back,” in which a teenage girl with scoliosis grows more distant from her older artist sister, even while her oeuvre largely consists of paintings of the girl’s warped body. Similarly, in “Filch and Rot,” two teenage girls rise from petty thievery of lipstick to become more ambitious criminals; “[a]ll those manners and ethics were being pulled loose of us like too many bones,” Jemc writes. Here, as elsewhere, she argues that we only truly come alive when our bodies and minds misbehave.
A lot of gauntlet-throwing for a slim book, but its provocations are worth meeting halfway.