Elliott, Julia. The Wilds. Tin House Books, Portland, 2014. F;9/16.
Stumbling onto Julia Elliott in The Best American Short Stories 2015 felt like a find. I think she may be really good. This short story collection continues her strong and arresting fascination with a few specific themes and writing hooks. Not all of these eleven stories work perfectly (does that ever happen?) but there was enough variety and horsepower whirling around her repeating preoccupations to keep me interested and looking for more.
We see young people at puberty, men as wolves, disgusting skin conditions, science and technology, off-centre religion, and self-improvement again and again. But also everywhere is a fascination with smell – aroma, stink – sensuously driving the often chaotic dramatic message. This is reminiscent for me of Elena Ferrante, especially in Troubling Love. But at the same time in the best of these stories there’s a streak of crazy humour I last saw in Infinite Jest. And plenty of deep potentially angry irony, but offered ambiguously. It’s so ironic that there seems to be room for something much less cynical and more honest. Ironically not-ironic irony, if such a thing could exist.
Rapture brings two approximately 12-year-old daughters of trendy parents into an eccentric lowlife household where they are changed by strange experiences of the socially off-label characters. Jaws offers a dizzying essay on point of view. A dementing lady goes on a theme-park cruise with her family and experiences the clearly banal and mechanized shark thrills as fully terrifying. The situation is ridiculous, almost laughable, but putting the poor woman in the middle of it darkens it into horror, completely false and contrived but in the lady’s demented mind as real as a shark at her throat.
The Wilds was my favourite, and it was very good. I read short passages to my wife Robin that had us both laughing out loud. Again it’s about a madly chaotic eccentric family, this time half a dozen completely uncontrolled boys, described by an early-teen girl narrator next door. The mother is so overwhelmed dragging enough meat home in her station wagon to keep the boys fed that she’s plain not able to keep track of them. Everything smells, the place is a terrible mess, nobody changes their clothes, cats are everywhere, the boys are deeply into the kind of silly rituals boys would favour left to their own devices, and at one point in a terrifyingly ambiguous confrontation after the boys physically capture the girl narrator, one of the younger boys casually fires a knife at a cat. Of course she falls in love with one of the older boys, and their confrontation is eye-opening.
A voltage drop occurred for me in a couple of the later stories including Caveman Diet (focused on an absurd self-improvement program) and Organisms (delving into dangerous infectious diseases). Both of these were interesting but the narrative content and some of the style seemed to me not to quite stay on the roller coaster rails as well as most of the other stories.
What I loved about the story The Wilds is that it’s a non-political feminist point of view. It’s just a girl and a bunch of boys pared down to their pubertal-age fundamentals. I don’t think (maybe this is wishful thinking for me) Elliott is interested in good and bad here, she’s just deeply fascinated with the developing difference. Even if I’m wrong about that, there’s no question that how (and what?) these kids smell tells us how they feel. The sensuous identification in this rich story just says: this is the difference between boys and girls at the moment in their lives where they go from childhood to a terribly different world. Elliott’s sense of humour saves us from aggressive feminism’s animosity and lets us see both sides.
Julia Elliott is an original for sure. It’s hard to predict where she will go with her terrific energy. Certain things (the wacky humour, deep sensuous preoccupation, and irony that… ironically isn’t ironic) suggest great potential. I’ll certainly have another look when her novel makes it to Kindle, and beyond.