Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags: and Other Stories
I had read difficulty reading this book, in the best way possible. Lamaga’s fiction, a dreamscape of shifting lands and towering, beanstalk people, uses fantastic images and superhuman characters to pierce her readers’ expectations. Her surreal, André Breton-ish prose revels in keeping readers constantly back-footed and surprised. Reading her short stories resembles that moment when, awakening abruptly from a semi-nightmare, your flesh doesn’t feel like your own.
Lamaga’s debut collection compiles ten stories, written over a decade and change, the longest running sixty pages, the shortest, three. She uses familiar settings in an unfamiliar way: an Iowa horse farm becomes an unlikely refuge against laser-guided war, for instance, or the act of stripping away flooring reveals the primordial soup beneath civilization. Many stories are less sequences of events, than puzzles whose solutions arise from their readers’ psyche.
Stories range from slice-of-life vignette, to apparent free association, to out-and-out fantasy. Lamaga doesn’t link stories by tone or content; but they do share one theme, transcendence. A desperate office worker’s trials become her zen koan, and she becomes a Buddha. A suburban teenager abjures so many trappings that she becomes gossamer, drifting away on a train’s wake. A banker steps off a pier into the waiting arms of nothingness.
Or characters resist transcendence when it’s offered. “Waking the Dreamer” features a rich sybarite’s obsession with a Sleeping Beauty. But when his infatuation awakens her, she reveals hidden wrath that eradicates mere human fixations. Our nameless narrator realizes that “The snake did not deceive Eve—Eve was the snake.” Except his description, when Beauty unveils her true nature, reflects a completely different figure from Paradise Lost.
In “The Seduction of Forgotten Things,” a disaffected daughter dyes her hair purple, wanders city streets at night, and discovers the beating urban heart her parents forgot. When she meets a half-savage drifter, they form a naturalist family together. But when sudden illness threatens their unborn child, her wild-man husband returns them to her genteel origins, where she discovers she’s maybe tamed him too well. She’s become his greatest burden.
The title story jumps, comic book-like, around a world where metaphor has died. When somebody falls into a trance, there’s a chance they’ll break some bones. When a tsunami of trash crests on society, people drown on plastics and fumes they previously, heedlessly discarded. All the monsters and predators of myth linger in a dark, twisting canyon, waiting for our metaphor-free dreams to awaken them to our new, literal world.
Human dreams often reveal our dissatisfaction at civilized stability. How often have your dreams involved savage nature invading our world? Like me, you’ve probably fled waves, literal waves, of refuse returning to reprimand our profligate ways. You’ve probably wandered rain-slick streets where fishboys leap, glistening, from sewer grates. Lamaga billboards these dreams, these pre-human visions of savage, invasive nature, letting us bask in her radiant glow of terrified familiarity.
Probably most difficult for me, “Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter” spotlights an experience I share with many men. Young Frank Happy’s autocratic father used words and fists to expunge anything he considered “weak” (read here “feminine”) from his gentle, open-hearted son. Imaginative and playful, yet eager to please Dad, Frank tears himself in twain, the hardened, buck-hunting Korean War veteran everyone sees, and the sad-eyed artist behind the mirror.
Except, for Frank, this cleft isn’t metaphorical. Shuffling through life, broken-souled and desperate for approval, he discovers very late that there’s another Frank Happy, a top-rated children’s TV host. Everything our Frank lost, that Frank gained. Whenever fate flipped a coin, that other Frank won. Dad loved that other Frank, just for being Frank. So our Frank grabs a sniper rifle and goes hunting the life he should’ve had.
Lamaga’s storytelling—sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, always humane—eschews the limitations of reason and wakefulness, plunging us into the visceral ordeals everybody shares nightly. Replacing sentiment with sense, told in a range of languid, unhurried voices, she creates a hypnotic sub-reality into which we don’t climb, but fall. We drift in her stories like a slow-moving river, like an afternoon nap, like a womb.
When you begin reading, do me one favor: disregard the back-cover synopsis. Its one-sentence descriptions of selected stories don’t accurately reflect the stories, misleading readers to seek the wrong cues. Lamaga’s stories resist brief distillation. Like the dreams she channels, Lamaga’s stories deserve our full immersion, experiencing them as they unfold in full horror and grandeur. They eat you whole, and afterward, you thank them for it.