With dream-like language, Miranda Mellis’s latest book, None of This is Real, gives us a fantastical world with a haunting resemblance to our own.
Miranda Mellis’s new collection acts like an unruly Greek Chorus—hard to discern individual voices; the work’s strength lies in its homophonic nature. The shared crisis of her characters is worth an intense study, all the more because Mellis is a rare bird who can mold complex existentialism into a respectable 115 pages.
None of This is Real is a construct of five short stories—none of which preoccupy themselves with elaborating on the surreal content of the book. Over time, the stories build upon a theme of disappearance, or nonexistence. As one of her characters claims, “I have a relative who disappeared and this caused irreparable damage to the immediate family, all of whom descended into various forms of addiction and personality disorder.” Similarly, three of the five stories consist of voices of children—either young or old—fixated with their mothers. The children seem to be searching either for their mothers’ physical presence or for a drop of shared parental/child understanding. Often, these narrators are faced with an emotional disconnect; the mothers have anxiety, pop pills, or are alcoholics. The child carries this disregard like a crucifix.
There are moments where Mellis’s turns to magical realism seem too elusive. But the fantastic happenings are less tangential, and more calculated and philosophical. People walk into the sky, become animals, or develop witchlike powers, yet there’s a frustrating, almost haunting resemblance of Mellis’s fictional world and our own. There is masturbation. There is abandonment. There are long lines at the coffee shop.
Mellis’s message emerges as the sum of the work’s parts. To Mellis, the family is a single unit, not a compilation of independent people. The irony is that the children in this single unit fail, time and again, to connect with their progenitors. When the narrator is perceived as a continuation of the parental body, any form of rejection is then a dismissal of self. The reader slowly realizes the collection is less about mothers and their children than about what it means to unconsciously reject, or unwrite, one’s self.
There are similarities between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the titular story, None of This is Real. In Metamorphosis, Gregor is trapped in a bug-like body with a family that does not understand him—literally and figuratively. In the story, “None of This is Real”, O finds a dorsal fin growing out the top of his head. He very much wants to speak to his mother about his quickly developing lump, but cannot find the right moment. When he calls her on the phone, she doesn’t answer. It’s as if, by magic, some force prevents him from being able to speak about the problem at hand. They talk of other things, which only serves to irritate O. Otherwise, both Gregor and O greet their fate with an inhuman level of calmness. They’re more tormented by the accompanying physical disabilities—in Gregor’s case, injuries acquired from being assaulted by his father, and in O’s case, terrible headaches—than with the meaning of the sudden change.
I don’t mean to delve into a lecture in comparative literature, but it is important to note that Mellis is a well-read lady. The epigraph to “The Coffee Jockey” is a quote from Beckett’s, The Unnamable, which is perhaps the most helpful framework she could provide, as her book could be viewed as a homage to the last volume in Beckett’s dense trilogy. In the story “Transformer”, Mellis writes, “Still we live into the future via the shape of a word or letter…which becomes the geography—imaginary at first—of our destination.” It is no coincidence, then, that None of This is Real has a main character named O. His name highlights the conundrum of having a past that is seemingly the future—of being the embodiment of a clock face, something that, “…passes but never passes; is the traveler and the traveled; abides but doesn’t exist; makes everything and destroys everything.” Her characters subsist in a state of purgatory, and Mellis makes us wander, confused, alongside them.
This is not to say that reading None of This is Real is like entering a scary place. Purgatory is neither a heaven nor a hell, and somehow Mellis’s tone lands on strange contentment. As one of her characters says of herself, “She was of no use to the world but she found the world very useful indeed. Without the world, she thought, what would I have to look at?” In another story, a character states, “Her surroundings were what were left to remind her that she existed. They existed because she perceived them.” Reading Mellis’s work leaves one with a similar sensation; you quickly accept her dream-like language as something cogent and almost tangible. Reading the book, one feels as if you’re leading the characters to meet their final fate—as one vaguely controls a story during sleep. When you’re forced awake, or when the book ends, everybody is gone. The next question: without Mellis, what will I have to read?