Late in Maryse Meijer’s debut short story collection, a nervous man is watching a DVD with a mysterious boy. The DVD depicts a scene of another man and boy engaged in BDSM activity, and the man quickly becomes uncomfortable watching it with the boy in the room. The man shuts it off. The boy is confused. “But it’s just pretend,” says the boy.
The man answers: “But even pretend things should be the right things.”
The thirteen stories in Heartbreaker each seem to interrogate this assertion: to bear it out, or contradict it, or prove its limitations. Pretend things propel the actions of Meijer’s characters, sometimes becoming so real they begin to affect the lives of others (usually to the detriment of all involved). In “Stiletto,” a mechanic’s obsession with his curb’s-eye view of a pair of heeled feet leads him to sneak into the back of their owner’s car. In “Shop Lady,” a lonely girl invents a sick mother in order to interact with a woman who works in a jewelry store. In “The Fire,” an arsonist views his creation in romantic terms, leading to a 500,000-acre wildfire.
While these fantasies are frequently sexual, what they are most concerned with is power. Meijer seems specifically interested in scenarios that invert power dynamics, in which traditionally powerful parties (men, adults) are forced to cede control to traditionally powerless parties (women, children) for the sake of the delusion. In this manner, the fantasy becomes a venue for reprisal, a place where the inequities of real life may be redressed.
In “Love, Lucy,” a man finds a feral, fur-covered child, whom he adopts as his daughter. She resists domestication at every turn: killing animals, biting people. “When the postman came,” she narrates, “I jabbed at him through the door slot with a pair of scissors.” Despite her actions, her father insists that she is a good girl who does not mean to do the things she does. He convinces himself that he can change her with love. “You can’t make me not care for you,” he tells her. “So you should quit trying.” In the hands of another writer, the father’s patience might win out. In a Maryse Meijer story, the reader quickly learns to foster no such hope.
The expectation of a disturbing outcome is stoked in “Fugue,” where a trio of bored teenage boys descends on a girl working the counter at a lonely gas station. The reader dreads what is to come as they tempt her under the overpass to smoke a joint. Their intentions are impure: “They know all about girls like her, girls who are alone, girls not beautiful, but not unattractive either.” This particular girl, however, is in full control of the situation. The outcome is disturbing, yes, but the disturbance takes on an unforeseen dimension.
Direct and plainspoken, Meijer’s prose calls little attention to itself, easing the reader onward to the next line. Her premises are strong enough that little poetry is required to sell them. Sharp and unembellished, they follow an intuitive logic that belies their craftsmanship.
The story “Jailbait,” for example, follows a couple’s escalating sexual games with maniacal simplicity. When a man is arrested for a minor offense at a gas station, his girlfriend is so turned on she convinces him to repeat the act. As her tolerance builds, she begs him to commit bigger crimes, thus accruing more serious jail time and landing in prison. From the inside, he writes her letters about his (totally fictional) mistreatment at the hands of other inmates, who ravage his body to the increasing delight of his girlfriend: “I tell her that I like it. That even though it hurts and I’m afraid of them, I want it.” To Meijer’s credit, the story really gets going when the man is released from prison and forced to exist in a relationship reshaped by his misrepresentations.
In “The Daddy,” an unsatisfied wife and mother finds a man on Craigslist willing to meet once a week to pretend to be her father. At twenty years old, he is younger than she is, but she eagerly reverts to the roll of a school-age daughter. “Sometimes he comes and crouches by the sink and pretends to fix a faulty pipe… Other times I refuse to do my homework or flaunt the fact that I’ve ignored my chores and he has to speak very sternly to me and point at the neglected essay assignment or the pile of dirty laundry in the middle of the floor until I melt with shame.” They agree from the outset that there’ll be no sex, but an Electra complex quickly develops to complicate their game. As with all fantasies, the spell will only remain intact so long as the real world can be kept at bay.
Every story features some variety of violation (physical, sexual, emotional, or otherwise), and the list of taboos includes pedophelia, necrophelia, and a dreamlike case of bestiality. Even so, the book is not as dark as one might imagine. Meijer tempers her stories with a wryness that keeps the pressure from building to the point of eruption. These are fictions, and their fictionality is part of their project: fantasy requires the suspension of specifics, a smoothness that plasters over the humdrum cracks in real life. There is a distancing effect, but perhaps that’s part of the appeal. It requires the reader to lean in closer, to imagine with greater abandon.
Taken individually, Meijer’s stories wouldn’t stand out from the crowded field of contemporary fabulists telling spooky tales with ironic detachment. Presented in an entire book, however, Meijer’s unerring knack for finding the pure shape of a story—for lining up the component images and complications in the just the right order—marks her as something quite rare. Her stories captivate in the way that urban legends do, splicing the sensational into the fearfully mundane. Even as they subvert the expectations of various relationships, the stories don’t feel new. They feel lived in, re-discovered, like old stories being told for the first time in a long time. While the reader may not walk away relishing specific sentences, the turns and ironies of Meijer’s parables will stick in the mind for a good long while.