December 30th, 2008

Rose-coloured Reviews "Dead Girls" by Nancy Lee

It seems somewhat vulgar to summarize as delicate and precise and elliptical a story as Nancy Lee’s “Dead Girls,” from her 2003 collection of the same name. But such is the task of the reviewer, so:

We begin with a woman unhappily trying to come to grips with both the television news on a serial killer of prostitutes, and then the impending sale of her home. We learn first that the home must be sold due to the financial difficulties of the woman and her husband, then that it is her husband who is pushing for this solution. Only after these facts of their relationship are established is the character of their daughter introduced–they seem to have bankrupted themselves paying for rehabilitation treatment for her.

Gradually, it emerges that the girl, Clare, is not in the house, that the treatment has not worked, that her whereabouts are unknown. Gradually, it emerges that she is herself probably a prostitute, and that that is the central reason for her mother’s horror at the news reports on the unidentified bodies of prostitutes found in a mass grave. The mother watches the news compulsively, waiting to see if her daughter will be one of the dead. She struggles with the idea of packing up the girl’s clothes, books and stuffed animals before they move. She prowls the red-light district of her city, watching the prostitutes there offer their wares, always imaging each as Clare.

Yeah, see: vulgar, sensationalistic in summary, but tender and horrifying in full. I use terms like “gradually it emerges” because Lee does not trade in the shocking turn of events, the explicit reveal–instead she insert the reader in a life already going on, and leaves us the task of interpretting our surroundings. What the reader picks up on at what point depends on who that reader is, what sorts of details he or she is attuned to.

The writer seeks to immerse the reader as fully as possible in the story-scape: “Dead Girls” is written in the second person singular, the alway- imposing “you” is the protagonist, the one who navigates these tragedies and despairs. If you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, or indeed, if you’ve ever read a bad second-person story, you know how dangerous it is for a writer to make this choice–the attempt to conscript the reader into the story, if it fails, usually takes the whole piece down with it. If the reader won’t go where she/he is being shoved, he or she is left sitting in his or her living room with a book in hand, and that’s all.

I don’t usually like to be shoved: I balked slightly as soon as I saw the first line, “You are addicted to television news,” although I was willing to try to get into it. Quickly, I got why this was going to work: this is a protagonist who wants desperately out of her own situation, and out of her own body. Much as you might try projecting onto a listener when trying to explain a badly chosen action–“You know when you just panic and yank the wheel into oncoming traffic?”–this “you” could easily be the “I” of self-abnegating first-person narrator.

Does that explanation make sense?

It did to me, and still there were problems on first reading. I read too fast and got confused, thought it was the husband that was in rehab, had to go back. Again, I wound up ok with this, the in medias rez opening on a scenario to which there *isn’t* a logical explanation necessitating a certain amount of dislocation for reader and characters alike. The writing is spare and sure, it pulled me in eventually, into the quotidian details of disaster like, “…your husband is in the driveway in gloves and a toque, washing his car in the freezing cold. He offers to wash yours” and “You felt a small stab in your chest as if someone had slid a safety pin through your heart.”

The story takes its time, things evolve as slow as real life. When the central character sets up a continuous-play stereo in Clare’s locked room, the music resounds in the house for days as “a surrogate heartbeat,” an illustration of the narrator’s clinging to illusion, the return of the daughter of the shining eighth-grade portrait, not the grim and damaged teenager she is now. The protagonist often mishears, or doesn’t hear at all, what her husband says to her, and she is content with that; she won’t try harder, turn down the volume, accept his growing acceptance of the loss.

(How do you feel about reviews that tell what happens in the second half? Even if the piece is not overtly “suspenseful”, I still find kinda weird about revealing how it ends up. Yet I also feel I can’t really talk about the story satisfactorily without covering all the events therein. Consider yourself warned.)

To me, I think the story comes to be about the husband and the wife, and whether they can salvage anything of their love and their shared life without the physical manifestation of that love, their offspring. And thus, it hinges to a great extent around sex. There’s a long paragraph early in the story about why the bereft parents have stopped having sex, referring to Clare’s fate as rooted in her conception, “…an unspeakable crime…the shrouded crapshoot of chromosomes. So much easier to believe it all went wrong back then…” This paragraph steadily gains weight as we move through story, absorbing the misery of the sex acts ministered and absorbed by the working girls, by Clare herself, as her mother well knows.

When we come back to the sexual relationship of the parents at the end of the story, it is terribly sad, but—again, this will depend on who is reading—I thought cathartic. The story seems to question whether love is love when its object is lost; if love unrequited metastisizes, or can it still be salvaged as something worthwhile. I think the ending offers at least the possibility of hope.

Even if I tip my head and reimagine the ending as despairing, I still think this story is compelling, gripping, and not unlovely portrayal of those eternal twins, love and loss.

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