Elegies for Uncanny Girls is a collection of ten stories that are linked not by character or narrator but by formal strategy. Each story engages with a protagonist whose connection to others feels tenuous. The author, Jennifer Colville, depends on the interiority of her characters to show a fragile grasp on how the characters are never really certain whether the perception of themselves aligns with reality or not. One story in particular, “Center,” most clearly shows how interiority multiplies the available reality given to fictional characters.
Interiority is the essay’s domain. Colville, who writes short stories, not essays, is a master of interiority throughout the collection. Susan, the protagonist in “Center” visits her recently married brother and spends most of the story questioning whom among these siblings garners the most attention, who is the neediest, and who has the most needs fulfilled. Within Susan’s mind, she files back and forth, constantly comparing herself to her brother, cutting at the ragged fingernail of their relationship. She compares their refrigerator contents:
As if for more evidence her brother opens the refrigerator, which blooms into an exotic jungle of leafy greens, fruit as large as heads, blocks of cheese, and expensive blue and green bottles.
Susan thinks of her small Brooklyn apartment, meals of one precooked sausage, coffee, and gummy bears. She thinks about her brother’s old refrigerator, full of beer and half-eaten bags of French fries—oh how they bonded over their bad health habits.
She compares her past to her present in doubled flashback scenes:
He [Alex] liked to be dressed as a girl, especially when they organized shows for their mother, when they went into her makeup bag, sat before the big mirror, and unzipped the mother’s secret factory of pink and coral lipsticks, silvery gay eye pencils, and blush in pots shaped like seashells.
Susan pushes a chair to the counter and tells Alex to climb up. They sit cross-legged with the cool Formica against their bare legs, tingling all over at the thrill of invading their mother’s space. This time she’s gentle. She tells her brother not to be afraid, because she isn’t sure about how to apply the makeup.
She compares her mother’s love for her to her love for her brother:
Alone, Susan goes back to thinking about her mother, but also about how it would be too hard to be any mother. If she were her mother she might have done the same things. She might have told Alex that if his older sister had learned to read and speak quickly he could get tutors—he could learn fast too. Or that if his sister could draw and win art prizes, he could take lessons—he could win some too.
There’s almost a double interiority here: Susan’s current thinking and her thoughts as a younger child. Colville’s formal maneuverings emblematize the content of her stories. The regular font interplaying with the italics structures the story, just as the back and forth between past and present flicks through Susan’s mind. Past scenes are juxtaposed with present scenes and interior thoughts of the narrator are set against scene-setting dialogue. All the while, Susan compares herself to her past, her mother, and her brother, making these stories seem particularly essayistic. How else do essays work but toggle back and forth between present day and past? Between researched topics and personal essays? Between pop culture and high-brow culture? Colville uses white space to transition between comparisons. There’s never an omnipotent narrator that comes in to tell us how “Susan spent her whole life comparing herself to her brother.” We get it through the technique and style as much through Susan’s own thought processes.
Thought, as in essays, occupies so much of this collection, but scene and dialogue equally represent. If Colville has taken a cue from essayists in how to construct interiority, perhaps essayists could take a cue from her that scene and dialogue create real-time characters with immediate and present needs and desires.
And, before I continue to suggest that this genre does one thing and that genre does another, the great pleasure in reading Colville’s stories is that they transcend genre. She lays out a strong thread at the beginning of a story and then takes the threads throughout the story to weave them into a masterful fabric. The dream catcher enters “Center” in the beginning in this form: as a cheap, kitschy, appropriative decoration: “As he sits down Susan notices a Native American dream catcher hung on the wall behind him, probably not authentic—the kind of white-person appropriation you can find at any gas station in the Southwest.” But by the middle of the story, it has been transformed into something contextual—as Susan and her brother vie, at least in Susan’s mind, for their mother’s attention, mother’s body, mother’s love—the dream catcher returns to the narrative not as something Susan can judge Alex for but something that reveals his and his wife Melinda’s vulnerability and desires.
Beside the dream catcher, Melinda has hung a painting of a newborn baby. Susan finds the picture startling, and the newborn ugly and unhappy looking, with his eyes squeezed shut… She wonders how Melinda doesn’t see the pained expression on his face. At the same time, she admires Melinda’s ability to know her wish and to hang it in the center of the wall.
Colville dots these images throughout the essay to create added texture but also, since we have no omniscient narrator, these objects serve to signal the turning point. Susan’s mind is turning from comparison between her brother to alignment with him—the story ends ten pages later with her finally listening to Melinda: “And her brother, who has been ready to be her friend since she walked in the front door, settles into his seat and says, ‘Tell me what happened.’ And Susan, aligning herself with Alex, begins.” In short stories, just as in essays, this ending might come off as pat or too easy if the reader hadn’t been alerted earlier on to Susan’s transitioning moment. Essays come off as preachy if they tie all the loose strings up at the end. Colville avoids the equivalent problem of short story endings by seeding the clean ending throughout the text, tucking the resolution into pulsating objects.
She tucks in a prevailing image again in the story “Details” where she, the undergrad, describes the professor who is trying to seduce her.
He’s told you about the peacocks in conference. How they make strange sounds late at night, and last night he called at twelve o’clock just to give you some feedback on a story, and his voice sounded thick and lonely and you didn’t really know why, but you could imagine.
He stops and everything gets quiet. He tilts his head and says, “Listen, do you hear the peacocks?”
At the end of the story, after the undergrad has stopped the seduction, Colville ends the story with the interior narration of the undergrad:
I imagine how I’ll step out at the pet store, where we started with me pretending to stare into the aquarium of goldfish while he moved in behind. No, this time I’ll start without him. I’ll walk out of the pet store, past the coffee shop, and bakery. I’ll stop in front of the bungalow with the plastic pink flamingo, the unexotic, out-of-context, brilliant pink flamingo with the tiny wise eye. Forget the peacocks. I’ll start there.
The peacocks, which were once the emblem of seduction, have become something much more manageable—pink, plastic flamingos. The undergrad doesn’t need the significance to come through the professor’s peacocks anymore. She finds her significance elsewhere.
Colville returns to these moves throughout the collection. It’s the great fun to puzzle together how these images and objects operate as narrative and as character, even as the main story is filled with plenty of regular plot and character. It makes these stories multilayered. It gives them threads that weave into fabrics, strings that vibrate orchestrally. She does it with tattoos, with feet, with pillowcases, with jeans.
As the title of the collection suggestions, these are stories about women. Objects tend to correlate with the women’s bodies throughout. These are women who want to inhabit their mother’s bodies, find a twin, have sex, stop having sex, give birth, breastfeed their babies. The female body here is as palpable as image. As the images and objects transform, so does the female’s body. In “Winona,” the last story, the daughter getting a tattoo signals that she has claimed her own body. It is both the primary plot and also the thematic point where the daughter turns away from the father to the mother. These bodies, like the other images laced throughout the stories, are not static objects but fluid and transformative ones.
In the first story in the collection, “Other Mothers,” he narrator ventures into a coffee shop with her baby in a stroller and bodies nearly collide with Colville’s vibrant imagery:
There I’d be, pushing my baby down the street, free for a moment among the yellow-green bay leaves, the flower boxes dripping with fuchsia, when another mother would barrel toward me with a baby strapped tight to her belly in a carrier like a huge bandage with no breathing hole.
At the coffee shop, she meets a woman with red stitches across her wrists. These wrists aren’t marks of suicide.
‘Are you wondering about my wrists?’ I shake my head and she holds one up. ‘The hands won’t fall off. But the split does make it harder to hold things.’ She extends her arm across the table, holding her wrist out for me to touch. ‘They’re hooked on here,’ she says, point to the space next to her wrist bone. ‘This skin is thicker here. It’s like a mitten clip.’
The woman is at first a spectacle, an object. But, just as Susan aligns with her brother at the end of “Center,” this narrator aligns with the split-wristed woman when she realizes their similarity. “‘It happened when I had my baby,’ she said. ‘That’s when my wrists split.’ And then it all makes sense. This woman isn’t avant-garde. She isn’t a French feminist. She’s a mother.” We are all split in some way, now that we’re mothers, the narrator understands.
Colville brings her characters together through bodies. She keeps the connective tissue knit throughout the story with recurrent images. She keeps the collection together by toggling between thought and scene, strong narrative voice and dialogue. The delight for me was in, as I do in essay-reading, finding the strands and weaving them together. Like reading an essay, it’s exhilarating to weave the threads in Elegies for Uncanny Girls, but what compels me most is the moment the voices of the narrators come to life. This isn’t the domain of essay or the domain of short story but is definitely the domain of good writing, of which Colville is in complete command.