Whether examining divorce, infidelity, shaved genitalia or historical re-enactors who forget they’re acting, Victoria Redel’s prose tramples fiercely over safe and familiar conventions. Zany, powerful, and at times downright heartbreaking, her raw and luminous characters set out from territories that, at first glance, seem anything but exotic. And yet when they arrive, their destinations (and destinies) are always sublime.
A poet as well as a fiction writer, Redel has just released a new story collection, Make Me Do Things, with Four Way Books. This marks her seventh book; she has three previous books of poetry and three of fiction. And though her language and imagery are always sharp and rich, there’s a tidiness about her prose, a self-contained urgency, that makes each of the eleven stories in this collection taut and trenchant. It’s not surprising that Redel studied with Gordon Lish, or that Lish published her first book. In an interview, she credits Lish with “the belief is that the story works from the first sentence on, and if it doesn’t, then you fix the first sentence and go back.”
The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.
This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. ‘Look out there,’ he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. ‘We’re all that’s left.’
Notice the parallels between the daughter’s question and the lover’s remark. Note the physical space of the two scenes—both set in bedrooms, Sasha twice poised on a bed but for very different purposes. Juxtaposed as they are, the scenes render an almost diabolical rhythm to the story. And yet Sasha still loves her husband. A connubial bliss somehow survives. After having passionate sex with her husband, she thinks, “if she told the women in the Muffin about the lover, they would be surprised most of all that she had no complaint about her husband.”
Later in the story, when Sasha discovers that her morose lover is secretly obsessed with her daughter, she is faced with an extinction of her own. The scrim standing between fantasy and reality becomes suddenly much thinner than she imagined:
Heat coughed from the pipes. The room was broiling. What instinct gone kerflooey would put so much at risk? He was making survival kits, three of them. ‘Come with me, my love’ he’d said. She was wrong; she hadn’t stepped into unexpected weather. She was her own catastrophe. Her own bolide collision. No, there were catastrophes much larger—unseen shifts to the system—she hadn’t considered. Extinction. The underlying cause, the failure to adapt to changing conditions.
All the elements of this story—the obsession with dinosaurs, the passion, the infidelity, the presumptions of reality, the premise of extinction—resonate throughout the text in wonderfully intricate patterns.
Again and again, Redel plays for the highest stakes, and she delivers with remarkably clever stories that haunt us long after the final words are sounded. In “The Third Cycle,” two seemingly innocuous albeit infertile women are sitting at a café having lunch. They decide to assume new identities:
‘I could use being someone else today,’ says one of the women.
‘You? Call me Polly and I’ve got to be happier than who I am,’ the other woman says, squeezing at her arm.
‘Polly? Right. That’s perfect. You’re Perky Polly and I’ll be a Susie,’ says the new Susie.
They order fresh, viable eggs for lunch. “‘Eggs! Eggs! More eggs!’ they shriek. ‘Lots and lots of them!’ And both of them are laughing now, unladylike, practically snorting water right at the waiter.” The set up is rather breezy, with humor and a curious energy. Like Lorrie Moore, Redel blends humor and sadness seamlessly, each hinted at in the characters’ refusal to say the word ‘baby.’ But Redel never particularizes this sadness. We don’t learn these characters’ histories, and the residual gaps work to set up expectations.
Then the Blue Woman, pushing a pram, sits down next to them, and things suddenly go off kilter. Polly and Susie offer to hold the Blue Woman’s crying baby and the two friends transform into, well, witches of a sort.
Redel is summoning Angela Carter here, and retelling a Slavic folktale, “Baby Yaga,” in feverishly inventive ways. When the Blue Woman asks for her baby back, Polly and Susie refuse to relinquish the infant. There’s mounting evidence that these two women have the darkest intentions: “The baby is plump, with full, plum cheeks. ‘Is this delicious or what?’ Susie says, leaning over the baby, making smoochy nibble kisses.” We refuse to believe that these women are about to actually eat the baby, but it certainly looms as a possibility. A storm ensues, a maelstrom of biblical proportions, replete with torrents of frogs and plagues of vermin. “Of course, slaying of the firstborn has been, if not mentioned, already considered.”
Perhaps what’s most surprising about Redel’s fiction is how masterfully compelling her twists turn out to be. What began as a relatively simple opening—resting on assumptions of maternity, infertility, wish fulfillment—turns dark, intriguing and utterly unexpected.
It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.
In the final story, “Ahoy,” a husband and wife, after selling an internet startup company for a fortune, move to an island for a year. Their idyllic plans and their marriage quickly begin to unravel, primarily due to the husband’s incessant partying and budding cocaine habit. Then, Olivia takes a job at the Hardwick House, a historical home where she plays the part of a sea captain’s wife. She becomes pregnant, and for all intents and purposes, starts living in the nineteenth century.
This story is rich with dreamy details, conjuring up John Fowle’s novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which actually takes on a prominent role in the story. Like the novel, the murky line between reality is driven to a desperate, dramatic convulsion. The husband even begins to assume the role of Captain Hardwick.
This, the end of my story: like me, it’s wobbly, more often than not unable to walk a straight line. I have been away, at sea, adrift. I wish I came home bearing exotic gifts, tales of the South Seas and perils of rounding angry Cape Horn, but I never left port.
Like Redel’s narrator, we journey through this book as Redel builds a geography of textured prose that emerges from her lush and prolific imagination. Endowed with an amazing gift of wit and wisdom, she offers variations on themes and reconfigures the richness of life, story and memory. Her words rush out from familiar shores toward the unsettled shoals of ontology. Her characters are wonderfully and arrestingly broken, seekers in the best sense of the word. Innocence coexists alongside wisdom, hope alongside despair, love alongside lust. Somewhere in these stormy seas, Redel navigates us through these vivid and irresistible stories, and we, the beneficiaries of her work, never have to leave port.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.