Burning River Press, 2011
The people in Michelle Reale's stories inhabit the text like ghosts: they are present and not present, both to themselves and to the reader. Often, they don't have names, or they seem interchangeable with the people in the adjacent stories, who are also disconnected from themselves and others.
These people try to make connections, but they fail. Except in two instances: in the title story, a fat girl and a skinny girl pair up after a happy, connective event; and in “Chicken,” another fat/skinny pair, this time sisters, comfort each other under covers after a doubly humiliating experience:
Her huge eyes were smudged. She had black streaks down her face. She crawled under the comforter with me and pulled herself into the fetal position. She closed her eyes, leaned her back against mine. I held my breath.
This is comfort and connection, but it is tenuous. In the next line, the narrator pulls out a bruised toenail: “[It] came off completely with one clean tug.” Even the connection to their own bodies can't be relied upon.
Much of the melancholy and distance that Michelle Reale creates comes from her use and repetition of pronouns. Who are these girls and boys, hes and shes whom we recognize but don't know? In my favorite story, “Corona,” a She moves to the West coast and lives in a man's house that he rents to women who come and go; however, this She meets none of them except in passing on the stairs. When she experiences her first earthquake, she is utterly shaken and seeks out the man, in bed with “a woman with golden hair like a corona.” The man leaves the golden-haired woman in bed and tries to comfort this She, even calls her a saint, but she's inconsolable and alone in a house filled with people and sun.
Other stories in this collection are so bleak they border on grotesque: a little boy who voices, obliquely, his fate to be a killer; the addiction counselor whose incompetence robs a family of help for their son; the disfigured bride who takes part in turning her reception into a nightmare.
Through all this bleakness and disconnection, the hes and shes and the occasional named people waffle between trying to communicate with others, and giving up. It's often in the silence where these bodies find each other and touch, and also in these moments when the people in these stories are closest to getting what they seek. I wanted them to connect and touch, and in small ways they did—never forgetting the pain and horror of their failures and their tenuous hold on each other.
Lena Bertone teaches literature and writing at Le Moyne College, Colgate University, and the Syracuse Downtown Writers' Center. She has an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and stories published in Puerto Del Sol, Redivider, NANO Fiction, Matchbook, Prick of the Spindle, and other magazines.