Meg Tuite, Lined Up Like Scars, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press, 2015
Reviewed by Sean Lovelace
Early in there's a potent voice, a young-to-escalating, a raspy, eager throat, a cutting eye/remark, a little Betty Rizzo syntax, a little diction Maud Gonne (they say she wore live hawks on her shoulders), a little Pussy Riot, a little Lisbeth Salander meets Lydia Lunch, maybe even a little Molly Ringwald (which makes little to no sense in this gathering of names, but I mean to emphasize a certain vulnerability [and then again, Ringwald does play the Princess of Darkness, a variety of villain, in the Rainbow Brite remix]), a little anger, yet a simmering one that fuels, a shredded braggadocio laced with glint of self-pity, but only the type of angst that jolts you into looking for more, relentlessly, as in "...if we have the stamina, and we do..." that propels, pisses off, picks at the scab, pains us, the type of voice that seeks a way out the present situation into the possible world, a voice that moves along, perceives, percepts, reports, "whips the yellow sky," storms into artistic rages, turns and then, yes, rips those pages...You don't so much listen, as chase down this voice. Where is it going, where has it been? Let's see.
And later, on page 14 (my favorite number, in case you don't know [and I can't see why you would]), the voice alters. It flattens a bit, slows, possibly even mellows; it ages (by page 22, it even suggests fatigue), becomes calmer, more controlled, still biting, still vibrant and acidic (even mean), yet a tad bit more open, and this is sharp flash fiction technique. By modulation, the literary voice is creating what poet Mary Oliver terms, density. Literary artifacts—words, phrases, tropes, techniques, and so on—that do more than one thing, that echo, that allow compression/context/a form of condensation, in poetry, in flash fiction. Here (and I mean here, as in the entire text) the voice characterizes; it also expresses chronology/change; establishes attitude; it furthermore encompasses a shifting worldview, the essence of the character and the individual flashes and, yes, the collection entire—the theme, I suppose. All of the voices carry this crux, a keen, detached observation of the deeds and misdeeds—primarily as survival mechanism, as shelter in the disequilibrium (what poet David Shumate would call the Tornado of life) of the daily world (whether child or adult)—and then a delicious twist, imagination and language as a possible answer (or shall I say response). To watch closely, so intensely, and then to not just have lived the horrible, but to live it, actively, to name it.
Family life: "One Bathroom shares us." (note the syntax) "...rip the crazy out of our essence." "...chaotic clacking..." "Dad's bath is filmy, sly, and clogs the drain with his creepy cauliflower skin and the boils that rack his back, planets plump with hatred and secrets."
How many moves do you see here? Sundry.
Alcohol: "...like a sunburn on the inside." "...retched over in an alley or belted down..." "He drinks shots of Jameson and waits for the ugly side of himself to get back into bed." "Shapes inside mom that expected a certain recipe out of us became shadowed, spongy cotton that absorbed and cushioned the blows when she was drunk."
Note the skillfulness. Note how our author takes that voice, goes metaphor, extends that metaphor into its own little universe.
Sexuality is "Some girl with raven tattoos on her arms, the stench of patchouli and ashtrays hovering around her, and a blast of perfection tilting toward zero gravity walked her kick ass over" and "...a man shuddering on top of her" (detachment, detachment...) and "...a fucking mirage of orgasms, unable to comb my hair."
The imagery leaps, pops, makes vivid. Observes.
Goodbye from a leaving lover are "The winded words howled like a migraine stuck inside my chest."
And "...even his bones moved like sunsets I'd never seen."
Memory: "...shattered pots glued together in museums."
At the hospital, "...nurse blow in and doctors blow out," while, in yet another wonderment of phrasing: "One word lights my cigarette. Morphine."
This attention and imagination, this serious play, is essential to Lined Up Like Scars. When nothing holds and all of it—from Wonder Bread to bleeding ears to hidden vodka/hidden wine and "pores screaming"—spins and spins away, language is everything.
What else do I admire?
- Dark humor. Humor of this type—of Martin Amis, of Lorrie Moore—is an indicator of authorial intellect. And of life. (Humor is a statement of stoicism/hope.) Once again, Tuite shows keen control of technique, and isn't humor appropriate here, the emergency room brand, the morgue, laughter in the face of the unfaceable? The only authorial missteps are when she goes for the easy joke, the irresistible play, something "...longer than a Stephen King novel..." (low fruit), a man named Dick who is eventually insensitive, a jerk, a "dick," (groan...), but these minor moments are few—Tuite shows just as much seriousness of craft and control with humor as she does with a multitude of other literary techniques. In these pages, humor engages the reader, shifts the context, expresses.
- Sentence variety. Sounds basic, it is not. Every writer has their set few, their arrows in the quiver. They get monotonous: arrows dull. Yet Tuite has many, many sentences, varied in length, composition, subject/word choice, type, rhythm, opening, transition, juxtaposition, and so on. Tuite is the best (or most aware) of sentence variety I've read in a good while, a little Annie Dillard/Joan Didion, a little attention/care.
- Literary use of socks.
Hemingway often rolled them up and used them as indoor baseballs. Toni Morrison has characters who refuse to wear socks, who run/jog in only socks, characters who actually fear socks (Vestiphobia, basically). Many writers name cats. Tuite? Her characters eat socks. It's an interesting use of another fiction technique, the significance of objects. First, the socks are observed/admired aesthetically: "October was when I first eyed a gym sock in a way I'd never imagined." It then becomes, in the mind, "exquisite." It is studied, taken, swallowed, ingested: "transformed." The sock is aligned here, again as element of character, as object/signifier. As technique. As voice.
Meg Tuite asks us to pay attention, to observe and open. To empathy. Tuite asks, "Can You Hear the Fog?" Will you allow this voice; will you listen for a bit to the significant "Haze of Us"?