Several years ago, bookstore shelves suddenly seemed crammed full of story collections about twenty- and thirty-something mini-skirted women who were unable to love, unable to hold down a job, unable to commit, unable to lose weight, unable to find a boyfriend. After tearing through four or five of these collections–all interchangeable, really–I found myself unable to read anymore. The characters in these books were little more than overwrought, angst-ridden, boozy versions of the girls on Friends, and at some point I wondered if book publishers were starting to suffer from the same disease as record labels, the disease where they find one band or album that’s a hit, and then try to recreate it, over and over again. This formula works well for creating popular books that sell, but probably does not work so well for supporting art.
What a shame, then, for Lauren Groff, because Delicate Edible Birds is art. The nine stories in this collection all focus on women at different stages in their lives, at different points in history, even in different countries. These stories read like tiny novels, self-contained worlds, even as ideas bounce and echo between them, so that the collection as a whole reads as a sort of palimpsest, a complicated history of women’s experiences that transcends both the personal (or domestic) and the political and enters a sort of nether region: these stories read more like allegories or fairy tales–an element Groff relies upon heavily–than traditional short stories. Groff reminds me of another favorite writer of mine, Margaret Atwood. As in Atwood’s work, there always seem to be darker forces at play, bits of magic shaping fortune.
If I did not have to return this book to the library, I would keep it and read it again, probably more than once, because I can find no way to come at it head on. This collection is like some complicated piece of furniture from the Eighteenth century: it looks like a table, but flip that lever and up pops a set of shelves, some drawers. Open the drawers or pull another lever and find more drawers, little slots, secret removable boxes. It’s both wondrous and infuriating, because I feel as though I’ve taken it all apart, but I have no way to put it back together again so I can show it to you.
So I’ll talk a bit about the stories. Although I enjoyed almost every story in the book and would like to talk about all of them, I’ve picked a few: “Lucky Chow Fun,” “Majorette,” “Sir Fleeting,” and “Blythe.”
In “Lucky Chow Fun,” a young woman, Lollie, looks back to tell the story of a sex scandal that gripped the small town where she grew up; “The year,” as she puts it, “we natives stopped looking one another in the eye.” Like a lot of teenagers, Lollie believes herself to be wise beyond her years: “I imagined myself a beautiful Cassandra, wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophecies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them to come tragically true in the end.” In truth, Lollie is always looking in the wrong direction, imagining danger when there is none, and missing the most obvious signs. For example, her younger sister, Pot, owns an ever-expanding collection of taxidermied birds, but Lollie never stops to wonder how Pot–a fourth grader with no friends to speak of–is adding items to her collection with such regularity, even as she worries that Pot will be abducted or raped by someone in the woods. And at the Lucky Chow Fun, the Chinese restaurant at the core of the scandal, she thinks only of the greasy food and whether one of the boys on the diving team will ask her to the winter dance, missing altogether the signs of what’s really happening.
After the town scandal breaks, Lollie tells her mother, “ ’…I don’t think people are made to take truths straight-on, Mom. It’s too hard. You need something to soften them. A metaphor or a story or something.” Lollie is the person who needs the fairy tales, the folklore, and the myths. She cannot face the truth of her father leaving, of what happened to her town, even as she looks back as an adult to tell the story.
“Majorette,” my favorite story in the collection, outlines the life of a woman from birth into middle age. Such a simple thing, it seems, a life where nothing spectacular happens: siblings arrive; parents drink and fight; girl discovers a dream, dates, stops dating, studies, twirls, goes to college, meets a boy–meets the boy–marries, has children of her own. Everything about this girl–she has no name–is in the details, the moments Groff chooses to frame, from the banal to the resplendent:
“On Saturdays the girl pushed the littlest three in the swings at the park when her mother was in the church basement, waiting for a boxful of dented cans and dandruffy cake mixes. At home, there were endless projects, her mother bent over the sewing machine crafting trousers out of curtains, remaking some little Anabaptist’s dress into something the girl wouldn’t hate, perhaps even a skirt the other girls would finger with envy, wondering what boutique it was from.”
“She took that hollow ringing in her and twirled it away, twirled in the basement in the foulest weather, when her hands stuck to the metal in the cold and she could not practice on the lawn. In her bed at night, her fingers flicked imaginary batons in the air. She sent batons spinning up like whirligigs into the night sky, batons flipping around her body like ions to her atom, batons spinning about her like glittering wings. She twirled through her legs and over her body as if her batons were her very own limbs.”
“Sir Fleeting” tells the story of a woman’s involvement with a rich playboy throughout the course of her life. The woman–we never know her name, only the playboy’s moniker for her, la bergere, or the shepherdess–meets Ancel de Chair on her honeymoon with her first husband in Buenos Aires. She says of her husband: “I knew my husband, knew he had always congratulated himself for seeing the allure of a farm girl he thought other men would overlook.” But the truth is, throughout the story, even through her second and third husbands, after she has dropped weight and gained money, after several–if you will, fleeting–encounters with Ancel de Chair, after she finds herself in a high rise apartment with a respectable art collection, preparing for her granddaughter’s wedding, she still thinks of herself as the farm girl, and it is her final visit with Ancel de Chair that releases her from the spell, enables her to see herself as she really was, really is.
My least favorite story in the collection was “Blythe,” and I admit this is probably because the sort of dysfunction on display in this story holds no interest for me in life or on the page. In this story, Harriet, a lawyer-turned-housewife, attends a poetry workshop where she meets a fellow student, Blythe, and is swept up into a tumultuous friendship. Blythe resembles some sort of Anne Sexton feminist** nightmare: smoking, drinking, pill-popping, plagued by anorexia. She becomes a performance artist, in a very Cixousian “write the body write the blood” sort of way, and as she develops and performs her pieces, alienating her husband and her children, growing ever more uncontrollable, Harriet trails along behind her, picking up the pieces and putting them back together again, sublimating her own wishes to write for the sake of her friend, which she explains as “midwifery”:
“I admired how Blythe used her body, the shock of her, there was too much Milton and Frost in me for my own stabs at such dramatics to be anything but undignified. While Blythe created new pieces at a fevered pitch throughout the summer and fall, I wrote of gardening and politics, of sense and memory, of things safely domestic. I saved the secret thrill of transgression for Blythe’s work, proud to help her birth her strange little creatures, because it was midwifery. I was the one to contact the galleries, to drive Blythe to the theaters, to call the press, to organize. I was the woman behind the camera for the videos of her performances, Blythe’s very first audience. All the while I scribbled poem after poem in the ragged notebooks I salvaged at the end of my daughters’ school year, and only dared show Blythe the best.”
She’s like a stage mother of the damned. Of course, I didn’t skip a page. The writing was too good, and the whole time I was reading these stories, I worried that I might miss something. I’m sure there are drawers I didn’t open, knobs I missed, buttons and levers overlooked. Read this yourself, and see if you can uncover all the secrets, scrape away the layers, find the magic.
*image from amazon.com
**I have nothing against Anne Sexton, by the way, or feminism