In This Light, a collection of Melanie Rae Thon’s short stories, shows the writer’s shifts in the last twenty years, while reminding us of her powerful, haunting storytelling.
There are some short story writers, who, after reading their collection, I sit right down and try to write something of the same cloth. Then there’s Melanie Rae Thon.
Her new collection, In This Light, includes two stories from Girls In the Grass, published in 1991, seven from First, Body, from 1997, and three stories written between 2002-2010. The result is a witnessing of her progression from a more traditional story structure to her own form of stream of consciousness, à la William Faulkner and James Joyce. Her short stories increasingly become expressions of her characters’ psyche, presented with plenty of free association and little sense of chronological time or even story arc. For the reader (me) there’s an atmosphere of being extremely personal and at the same time extremely remote because of the absence of linearity and the use of symbols that grow not out of common usage but her characters’ subconscious. So when I read Thon, I’m awe-struck and baffled by her breathtaking world—how does she write such a thing? I don’t stand a chance writing something from the same cloth.
In “Father, Lover, Deadman, Dreamer,” we learn, in a nonlinear, haunting way that mimics the mind spinning in and out of memory, that when the first person narrator was sixteen, she hit and killed a Native American man, Vincent Blew. Thon’s reminiscent narrator dips into this event, then back out to her mother’s disappearance when the narrator was nine, her father’s limp, a crush on a young Native American boy, the narrator’s similarity to her mother, only to circle back at the end to Vincent. In Thon’s story world, the dead haunt and inhabit the living world and the living are in constant conversation with them. “He [Vincent Blew] lies down beside me in my narrow bed. I think it is the bed my father built. The smell of pine breaks my heart. He touches me in my sleep, traces the cage of my ribs. He says, You remind me of somebody. He wets one finger and carves a line down the center of my body, throat to crotch. He says, This is the line only I can cross.”
In “Necessary Angels,” Thon opens with: “Dora’s disappeared again. I see her lying in the field, in the abandoned refrigerator.” It takes the length of the story to unravel not only why Dora was in the refrigerator, but the refrigerator’s subtextual meaning to the story, in which a white girl falls in love with and has sex with an older black boy and becomes pregnant. It is only by the end that the reader understands that Dora sees herself as the refrigerator—white, hardened, encased in white skin, forever prevented from occupying her black lover’s world.
Her style may be Faulknerian, but her people come from Raymond Carver’s landscape, or more specifically, the children of Carver’s people—poor, addicted to something, with violence lurking or smack in the center. In this regard, as with her style, Thon is fearless: she will go wherever her imagination takes her. Such as in “Punishment,” where the narrator—and the reader—enter in the consciousness of a black slave who is hanged for murdering her master’s son. “When they come lookin’ for me, I don’t tell no lies. I say, I smothered him between my own breasts.” Or the runaway street children in “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” who break into a house because it is freezing and they are hungry, and one of runaways overdoses and dies. Or in the story, “In These Woods,” in which the narrator is a runaway in conversation with her dead sister, Clare, and must lie, steal, turn tricks to stay alive. “When the pink nurse stopped to piss, my sister Clare whispered, Look at him—he’ll kill you if he can. I hid in the woods by the lake full of stumps. I didn’t move. I let the sky pour through me. He called the name I’d said was mine.”
Her stories are gritty, unflinching. I read one, then must stop, let it settle in, but it really never does because what she’s good at is disturbance. But there are also moments of much needed beauty and lightness which allow you to believe in the world again. In the midst of the grit, despair and meanness, you find glimmering sentences, “I saw flowers in the rain: boys in blue and girls in yellow, a tiny child in a pink fur coat, and another dressed in bright red stockings—all pretty children waiting for the bus in bright pairs and shimmering clusters.”