The Body Uncanny: Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch
The word “uncanny” came to mind several stories into Lidia Yuknavitch’s Verge, the author’s first collection of short fiction. The word itself appeared soon thereafter within the text, as if merely thinking of the concept had summoned it, which is fitting. The “uncanny” is a theory in art that describes a strange feeling created by familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts—like seeing something recognizable, but noticing there’s something just a bit off— and it plays a crucial role in “The Eleventh Commandment.” In Yuknavitch’s story, we are told of a secret Eleventh Commandment that is only revealed to people who can prove themselves smart and mature enough to handle it (“you had to have intelligence, but you also had to have imagination, and most people barely have the one and none of the other”). Yuknavitch writes: “Thou shalt for the rest of time be stricken with disease, it said, when thou settest eyes upon the uncanny.” The implication is that you cannot just reject the uncanny without wondering what it means, without recognizing that it is a “fucking miracle.” This is not unlike the collection itself—these are stories that seem familiar, but Yuknavitch takes each one just a step further than what we are accustomed to, a step into the unknown and unfamiliar.
It’s easy to compare Verge to other recent collections with mostly female protagonists that dive into the seedier sides of human behavior, sometimes with a slight fantastical twist; I am thinking of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, Amie Barrodale’s You Are Having a Good Time, Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. But a good portion of Yuknavitch’s stories decenter the middle-class American experience; these are stories that focus poverty-stricken Eastern Europeans, on those enslaved to the organ black market, on the sex trafficked, on the incarcerated, on the addicted. Yuknavitch does not just focus on the marginalized, but often centers those that live along the margins of the margins.
In “A Woman Apologizing,” a woman handcuffs herself to her bed as an act of forgiveness, having just had an argument with her partner. The tension comes from not knowing whether her partner will indeed come back. Has it been one fight too many for him? Will she die there? “Second Coming” centers on an arguably semi-incestuous moment between two sisters, and “Second Language” tells the story of a young woman who is sex trafficked, but Yuknavitch pushes the story into unconventional ground—the young woman has a condition in which her insides are visible on the outside. In “Cosmos,” a man finds a severed hand (“at first he thought it was a baguette”), but the story ultimately becomes a meditation on the necessity of death for life to truly flourish. And in “Cusp,” a young woman comes into sexual consciousness as a men’s prison is built barely ten feet from her window; she begins selling both drugs and her body inside the prison, all while reading a ton of Shakespeare.
Though the stories are not narratively linked, they are thematically connected and echo each other through specific images and references (descriptions of bodies of water and body parts, for example). The stories share a similar mood as well; we depart from each one with the same unsettled feeling. But we aren’t meant to leave these stories completely hopeless about mankind. Instead, Yuknavitch’s characters are resilient—yes, they have spent most of their life losing, but they will certainly be the last ones standing.
In “The Organ Runner,” a young woman named Anastasia has her hand severed by a combine harvester when working her family’s field. In order to save it, the hand is first grafted to her ankle, just above her foot. “She remembered resting in a hospital bed, staring down at the handfoot, wondering if they told each other secrets,” Yuknavitch writes. Because Anastasia can no longer work the field, she is sold off to her “aunt”—who hawks organs in the black market. There are seventeen other children in her aunt’s home who work as organ runners and as the occasional organ donor. During Anastasia’s first run, a driver is late at a pickup point. Out of instinct, she starts massaging the kidney—“She didn’t know why she did it. She just felt the kidney needed help.” And because she has little feeling in her hand due to her initial accident, Anastasia is able to continue massaging the kidney, despite having her hand submerged in ice. When she arrives at the destination, one of the American clients cries, “because he knew how important the hands of children could be.” At the end of the story, Anastasia is confronted with the option to eliminate an adversary, one who had previously wronged her. By now, she has climbed the ladder of the organ black market and has become her own boss. Before arriving at her decision, Anastasia considers “all the girls in the world who make transactions toward life away from death, buying time, buying hope, buying a chance or a way out.” If the collection has a thesis, this certainly gestures towards it.
The stories in Verge are stories that deal with the body, in all its beauty and grotesqueness. While reading Yuknavitch’s stories, I thought of the work of the artist Eva Hesse, specifically Hesse’s sculptural pieces, which most obviously engage with the body. Much like Yuknavitch’s stories, Hesse’s work gestures towards the uncanny: her series of sand-filled stockings that sink, sag, their weight pulling down on them, or her tangle of rope-like configurations that drop and drip, a body without organs. Her sculptures, like Yuknavitch’s stories, recall our working bodies, shown in an unfamiliar light. There’s something just a bit off. By casting the body in an unfamiliar light, Yuknavitch calls attention to the alienating experience that is being a marginalized body in public. There is little we can control, especially in the public sphere, where we are most vulnerable.
In “Street Walker,” a professor at a local community college invites a sex worker into her home to simply rest for an hour. When the stranger first walks in, the professor compares her to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture a Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” Yuknavitch excels at building friction between the life her protagonist leads and loathes with the life of the street walker, a life the narrator misses but knows she should not miss. The protagonist is an addict in recovery, but she longs for a return to the fast life. “Street Walker” also becomes a lesson on the accessibility of culture. Who is “high” culture for? Why do we place more value on certain aspects of culture and less on others?
I think of things I want to do for her, all of them filtered through my graduate school mind, and I write them down: play her Schubert, wash her hair, give her a foot rub, cook her a real French dinner with six courses, give her my vintage silk dress, watch European lesbian movies with her, read her stories by Colette, paint her fingernails, dunk her in a bubble bath, give her all the money in my savings account, buy her a plane ticket, take photos of her, hold her.
But quickly the narrator backtracks, instead imagining shaving half the street walker’s head and dyeing it, breaking into her neighbors’ home and drinking their whiskey, getting high and watching Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” music video. The professor realizes her mistake—that perhaps she doesn’t actually care about any of what she initially imagined, the things her education tells her to value more.
“Street Walker” ends with the professor taking in the peace and quiet of the neighborhood at night: “It is the hour of safe and sound. The streets are clean and cured and uncultured—no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant uncluttered.” You can work your way out of low culture and into high culture and still be miserable, sometimes even more so. But Yuknavitch is also aware of who her reader likely is. Ultimately, then, she’s asking us to take a look in the mirror and question the aspects of society that we’ve been told should be given more weight, to reconsider what we are conditioned to speak about as opposed to what we keep to ourselves. It’s only by closely examining ourselves that we can create a space of understanding and empathy for those society most often excludes.
The stories in Verge are sometimes brutal, often evocative, and many do not provide a happy ending. But there’s a sensitivity in Yuknavitch’s writing, in her character-building, whose absence would otherwise make them a dour read. Her prose is tight, her descriptions spare—the result is a precision that feels insightful, and truthful. Yuknavitch’s stories do not wander but are quick, fevered; she knows where each is going, and wastes no time getting there. Though the stories vary in length and scope, each cuts deep into a truth of humanity. There is something blunt in Yuknavitch’s prose when we do arrive at that moment. In “Second Language,” the protagonist with the disorder in which her organs are visible from the outside guts herself, and it comes as a reminder to “everyone everywhere how there is something from spine and ice that has yet to form a language, a yet-unfinished sentence, one those bought-and-sold Eastern European girls are learning besides English: They are learning to gut themselves open so that others will run.” Each story arrives at a similar moment, its raison d’etre.
Yuknavitch jumps from sharing stories of non-Americans to stories of Americans, always centering voices from along the margins. It’s a technique that helps truly universalize the kind of suffering we see develop within her characters, and one which adds gravity to what is at stake. This could be any one of us, Yuknavitch is saying, without ever slipping into the exploitative. She tethers the stories to recognizable moments: her characters are people who find a home in literature, who recognize the falseness and scriptedness in certain social situations, who identify the stressors of navigating everyday life. The result is a space for readers to sympathize and connect with the protagonists. Yuknavitch’s worlds are only unorthodox in that they are scarcely written about for a mainstream audience. This crystallizes an ethos at the heart of Verge—that we’re all just human, and, again, that this could be any one of us. Our lives are discomfiting, grotesque, beautiful, pleasurable moments rolled up into one. We suffer but bounce back, because we are resilient. We aren’t forever broken. Rather, we are forever in the process of mending our cracks.