Debut stories by Julia Slavin: deliciously insane domesticity

On Books

July 25, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I read 65 or 70 books thoroughly each year and read significant parts of several hundred others. When I find substance and pleasure in something that is unheralded and unexpected, it gives me a near-ecstatic delight.

Such a book is "The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories" by Julia Slavin (Holt, 194, $22). It is a collection of short stories that are, individually and together, improbable, outrageous, fanciful, captivating and somehow for all their horrific touches of surrealism very, very cheerful.

Julia Slavin has never published a book before. Some of these stories have appeared in relatively obscure journals, but not in the main stream. She has worked in television, including as a producer for ABC-TV's Prime Time Live. She is now living in Washington with her husband, and working on a novel.

For a debut, and from a young author, this is remarkably mature, polished work. A lot of it is surreal -- sometimes openly a matter of dreams, declared as such, but more often in the manner of having fantastical events or circumstances suddenly come into an otherwise entirely realistic narrative. On one level, Slavin's stories are bizarre, even grotesque. But another, equally strong, facet of most of the pieces is the mundane -- an almost, but never quite, dreary domesticity.

The core plot of each of these stories can be distilled to a simple, direct sentence or two. Though things happen, people change, conflicts develop and are resolved, these are not stories of elaborate action lines.

Those simple plots are not, finally, what the stories are about at all. They are, rather, the vehicles on which Slavin rides -- whooping and dreaming, in delight and in terror -- while she examines some of the most universal and familiar circumstances of life: marriage, parenthood, obsession, work, self-doubt, compassion, loneness.

The circumstances of most of the tales are familiar: tedium and sexual fantasy ("Swallowed Whole"), getting on with neighbors ("Blighted"), the bitter ironies of sustained marital infidelity ("He Came Apart"), the deadening routine of a fast-food joint ("Rare Is a Cold Red Center"). But in each, playing against that mundane, apparently central, theme there are literally impossible -- surreal, fantastical -- elaborations of a totally different texture.

"Dentaphilia," for example, is a story about compassion and human decay. As such, it is almost an orthodox lament. But not quite -- no, not at all. Its opening line declares, "I once loved a woman who grew teeth all over her body."

Near the end of that story, at the very worst of times, the narrator-husband is soothing his thus afflicted wife, by telling her stories as she lies immobilized and unable to speak.

There is a passage that suggests the intensity of Slavin's use of imagination: "There was a giant turnip that crushed a big city, the eyeballs that took over the world. Her favorite was the talking stadium that fell in love with a cheerleader, got his heart broken, and then realized -- too late, because he had already caved in and killed everybody -- that his real love was the hot-dog lady in one of his concession stands who had been there all along inside him."

Make of that whatever you will. There are no directions or rules -- not worthwhile ones anyway -- for dealing with such flights from soundly grounded reality. For me, they were -- quite simply -- enthralling.

Somehow or other, these stories, even the most apparently terrifyingly black-magic intrusions on real and reasonably blameless lives, aren't scary. They almost should be frightening: Many of the characters live in states of defenseless abuse or assault as to drive a reader to thoughts of Kafka.

But there is a texture of a sort of poisonous playfulness. There is no effort to soothe. But the success of Slavin's prose seems to me to ride on its unrelenting naturalness. She is an extraordinarily attentive and selective -- and subtle -- reporter. Details are lean, precise, uncluttered, fine-edged tapestry weaving.

One story, "Babyproofing," is a wonderful exploration of the anxieties of new parenthood in the voice of a first-time, put-upon father. The parents hire a company to advise them on what should be done to childproof their home -- which suits them very nicely, thanks, before the birth.

As the Baby Safe inspector proceeds through the house, furiously scribbling notes, the narrator muses, rather cheerfully, that "any minute the Gestapo will burst through the door and whisk Sara and me off to the basement of a building where we will be judged by a panel of babies in fiberglass bike helmets."

The reality turns out to be far, far worse. Baby Safe -- once it is under contract -- does things that you really don't want to know about -- excesses and intrusions that are not useful for me to relate here.

Reading the story is another thing. It works. It grows into an utterly delightful fugue-- exploring and interweaving themes of bureaucratic and corporate officiousness, parental anxiety, the arrogance of social engineering and the dread of helplessness in the face of authority that, at some level, virtually everyone on Earth fears.

Wonderfully strong, delightfully readable stuff.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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