Friday, June 8, 2012
Binding Ties: Lindsay Hunter's "Daddy's"
(NOTE: Some of the citations are NSFW)
Like anyone else, the problems that plagued my early attempts at fiction writing were a lack of experience, a minimal understanding of craft, and the delusion of accomplishment. I'd imagine a scenario, write it out over the course of a few days, and consider it done. I'm not implying that my current work is anywhere near where I need it to be, but after years of questionable output, I at least have a better realization of how my work evolves and how it needs to be fixed. Why am I introducing someone else's work with my personal assessments? It's because, upon reflection, the stories written by Lindsay Hunter are full of themes and scenarios often mangled and overdone by beginning, inexperienced writers. Hunter is a great example of why craft is such a hard skill to master: her works tend to focus on complicated sexuality, strained families and friendships, and unsettling transgressions. I'm sure her early years of writing were full of the missteps every writer goes through, but it's rare to find a storyteller with her skill and confidence in tackling unsavory details in such a vibrant manner.
I recently finished Daddy's, her 2010 short story collection. My initial readings of her work were limited to a couple of other stories, but I was intrigued and affected enough to want to read more, and all but one of the pieces in Daddy's were new to me. The pieces are generally linked by extreme circumstances and the meticulous personalities of her characters, and the situations and dialogues blend and stand out between varying levels of dark humor and stark discomfort. This rarely happens in my readings, but the opening paragraph of the opening story is an excellent microcosm of the emotions that will be encountered throughout. "My Brother" opens:
"My brother tells me monsters set up shop in his closet among his Reeboks and hidden Playboys. Yeah, he says, leaning back and stroking his chin, yeah, you can't see it but something's coming for me. Big whoop, I tell him. We drag his record player out and aim the needle at the middle of 'Rocket Man.' He makes something up. He says, I got two sisters and they're both girls. He says, I'm bored to death with all these nightmares. He says, I'm pretty sure Dad's a pussy (Hunter 16)."
That example is more on the humorous side, but the underlying emotions and potentially unspoken thoughts are heavy. The stories seem to grow more intense as they come, but there is never a feeling that Hunter explores the various scenarios for shock value. Another early example is "The Fence," an excellent story about a woman's sexual experimentation with an electric dog collar and and invisible fence. The details are explicit, but not done for any titillating thrills. In the midst of the actions, the emphasis is on the protagonist's emotional makeup, and much like my cited sample from "My Brother," this is aided, not hampered, by the carefully placed details.
"When Tim left for work, his hair still wet from our shower, his fingers playing with my zipper, I turned Animal Planet on for Marky, removed his collar, and went to the fence. It runs the entire length and width of our property, but I have my favorite corner, right where the gravel driveway stops and the grass starts, where I can see the road and if I stretch I can touch our mailbox. The fence is invisible, but it's there. I wind the vinyl part of Marky's collar around my hand, holding the plastic receiver in my palm, and then I press the cold metal stimulator against my underwear, step forward, and the jolt is delivered. Like a million ants biting. Like teeth. Like the G-spot exists. Like a tiny knife, a precise pinch. Like fireworks. I can't help it-I cry out; my underwear is flooded with perfect warmth. I like back in the grass and see stars (Hunter 33)."
In Hunter's literary worlds, limits are meant to be tested, literally and thematically. In "Unpreparing," a woman and her boyfriend push each other to dangerous extremes, getting high off the rush of potential damage. There's a psychological edge to it as well as sexual. The reader, however, is the one who ultimately has to decide whether these actions are done for genuine thrill-seeking or are marks of serious psychological damage. With an objective reading, there's the potential for both hypotheses.
"That evening he picks me up from work. The radio is on so loud that the seat underneath me is throbbing. Over it he yells, The unexpected is everywhere. Danger is our only real home. I just want you to be prepared. Then he accelerates, offroads it, drives us into a tree. I feel my ankle and wrist snap, almost at the exact same time. My neck starts to stiffen. When I look at my boyfriend he's grinning at me, blood pouring from his mouth. My face hit the steering wheel, he says. I think I broke my nose. A sprain at the very least. I've never seen him so happy, so alive (Hunter 48)."
The stories are a careful balance of the realistic and the slightly fantastical. But in every case, Hunter is exposing complicated personalities and thoughts. Even something as simple as the aftermath of a one-night stand has several layers that need to be peeled back.
"There's coffee, you say to the man in a louder voice. You want to get the ball rolling. You imagine yourself enjoying a quiet morning once the man has left, staying in your T-shirt until the late afternoon, and then who knows. Maybe dinner in front of the TV. Maybe a stop by the bar. It all seems like years in the future. You are pleased at the thought. The man starts playing with himself. The man is left-handed and this fact seems to render the man special somehow. You think the words Handicapped, Disabled, Special. No one in your family is left-handed. You realize that maybe you've only ever encountered left-handed people on the TV. Don't drink coffee, the man says. I drink something else, and there's that hole in the gums again, he has apparently said something suggestive to you but you're having trouble picturing exactly what he means (Hunter 88)."
Family relationships in Daddy's are just as complicated. One of my favorite stories in the book is "Tuesday," a piece exploring the interactions between two different sisters. One of them has been thrown out of the house and coaxes her way back in. The conversation reveals the differences between the two girls, but even the supposedly "good" sibling is just as sympathetic and complicated as the troubled one.
"Hey, she said, and when I turned she was holding our mom's economy-sized bottle of Tylenol. She was chewing. White powder clung to her lips and shirt. Hey, remember when I pierced your ear and we used ice to numb it? She tipped her head back, poured more pills in. You bled like a motherfucker. She coughed and a pill flew out of her mouth and hit my shoulder. She picked it up and wiped it on my shirt. Popping it back in her mouth, she said, Come outside and sit with me.
We sat on the porch and stared at the yard. Her lips were chalked in Tylenol. Light this, she said, handing me a cigarette. Don't inhale or you'll turn evil. She blew smoke rings. Look, she said, halos. She said, you're really annoying, you know that? Good grades and virginity don't count for shit.
Her words were slurring. She held the cigarette up and missed her mouth.
I'm sending up a flare, she said. She pointed at the sky. You see that? I'm sending up a flare. Here I am. Here I am. Here I am (Hunter 146)."
This may seem like a drastic shift, but it's also rare that a book's packaging and design seem as integral as the contents. Daddy's is designed like a tackle box, and is set to be read sideways rather than upright like a standard book. On a more obvious level, it gives the work the feel of a chapbook or a notebook, but upon further reflection, the tackle box motif seems to be a wonderfully subversive layout. I'm at a loss for any obvious metaphors, but it's possible that it was done to be more eye-catching than normal, even if it doesn't immediately conjure any of the stories. It's worthwhile to acknowledge the folks behind Bleached Whale Design. They've done multiple book designs, and at the very least, they highlight the collaborative nature of book publishing, especially from an independent standpoint. From the author to the publisher to the designer, Daddy's is a work by people who (as I mentioned with my piece on Matt Bell) worthy of wider attention.
Are Hunter's stories for everyone? It depends on what one expects from their fiction, and these works will definitely turn off anyone who expects safety in their narratives. However, Hunter is a major short story talent, and Daddy's is a refreshing change of pace from some writers who want to shock and upset readers just for the sake of a thrill. First and foremost, Hunter is an extremely talented writer, story-wise and craft-wise. Again, none of the stories are uneasy for the sake of being so. Many writers claim to be exploring human conditions, but Hunter does this in unexpected ways. She respects her characters despite their unsavory tendencies, and creates portraits that are above all honest. The reader might not "enjoy" what goes on, but that's not the point. Psychology and sociology works in strange ways, and we should be grateful that Hunter isn't afraid to hold back. Many writers attempt what she does; very few manage to do so in such original, real ways. Anyone who claims there is nothing new to read simply needs to investigate these types of stories and collections. As I will likely keep mentioning, independent literary publishing needs more exposure. This is just one example, and the stories are hard to shake, for better and for worse, and I mean that very positively.
Hunter, Lindsay. Daddy's. Copyright 2010 by Lindsay Hunter.