THE DANGERS OF SMOKING IN BED
By Mariana Enriquez
Translated by Megan McDowell
187 pp. Hogarth. $27.
There’s something thrilling about other people’s suffering — at least within this collection’s 12 stories of death, sex and the occult. Horrors are relayed in a stylish deadpan. “It’s not exactly practical to try and strangle a dead person,” one woman narrates upon seeing the reanimated corpse of her great-aunt, who died in infancy. “But a girl can’t be desperate and reasonable at the same time.”
Enriquez’s plots deteriorate with satisfying celerity: In “The Cart,” a curse strips an entire neighborhood of its livelihood within approximately three pages. “The goodwill went all to hell,” she writes. “Coca ate her cat, and then she killed herself.” Bad odors emanate throughout, rich and visceral and disgusting, one “like rancid meat forgotten in the fridge and turned wine-purple.” Twice, people defecate without warning on the sidewalk.
A journalist in Buenos Aires, Enriquez sets most of the stories in and around her home city, and populates them with South American mysticism. One story features San La Muerte, a saint who takes the shape of a grinning skeleton; another a statue of an Afro-Brazilian spirit.
Largely it’s insatiable women, raggedy slum dwellers and dead children — those who are ordinarily powerless — who wield unholy power in this collection, and they seem uninterested in being reasonable. And Enriquez is particularly adept at capturing the single-minded intensity of teenage girls. Obsessed with sex and with a hunky older boy named Diego, the adolescent friend group in “Our Lady of the Quarry” speaks in first-person plural and stews in a jealousy that eventually turns murderous. But it’s the young female fans of a dead pop star, in “Meat,” who perform the book’s most appalling act.
If some of these stories end vaguely, the best ones close on the verge of some transgressive climax, as when a woman who masturbates while listening to irregular heartbeats on her MP3 player confesses to her lover that she wants to see “his heart stripped of ribs, of cages, have it in my hand beating until it stopped.” To Enriquez, there’s pleasure in the perverse.
MILK BLOOD HEAT
By Dantiel W. Moniz
202 pp. Grove. $25.
Life’s inflection points, mundane but universal, mark the Black and brown Floridians who populate these stories: the 11-year-old who begins to accept her absent mother for who she is, the 13-year-old who realizes that her overbearing mother might see her more clearly than she thought, women on the verge of adultery or immobilized over whether to have children or plunged into grief after a miscarriage.
But in Moniz’s collection, the ordinary experience of being female is laced with a kind of enchantment. That 11-year-old girl collects animal bones and watches “a forest of women undulating under a full harvest moon” at the festival her grandmother throws in the backyard. Two best friends drink milk mixed with blood, ceremoniously, to mark each other as blood sisters. (“Pink is the color for girls,” one of them notes.) Entire stories seem bathed in a warm radiance: the “low golden light” of a restaurant in which the bartender finds unexpected grace on a cold night, the way a 17-year-old becomes “incandescent” with newfound power and knowledge. One can glow with both love and rage.
Many of these stories draw their force from a well-honed righteousness that turns, at times, into a double-edged sword. In the particularly delicious “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” a mother who can’t seem to get anything right takes down her daughter’s predator with extreme finesse. “Exotics” — a story that takes the notion of eating one’s young to its logical limit — is sharp on privilege and complicity. But some stories become one-note in their effort to make a point. In “Tongues,” Zey’s foes are nothing less than patriarchy and the church. “The Loss of Heaven” — the only story told from a male point of view — is a cutting portrait of Fred, who wears “expensive-looking things” as armor, thinks women owe him attention, and can’t bear to be alone: “He was wanted here; she wanted him, and Fred regained his swagger.” It’s women and girls who really hold sway in this book, their cares and secrets and self-delusions.
By Dorthe Nors
Translated by Misha Hoekstra
124 pp. Graywolf. Paper, $15.
None of the characters in these 14 compact, bracing stories are fully satisfied with where they find themselves, whether it’s an abandoned fairground or a Copenhagen swimming pool or a ferry crossing the North Sea. Nors’s protagonists take refuge in their memories or in their wishful, imagined dramas; they fixate on relationship-ending snippets of conversation. “Nobody knows that he told her that — that her love couldn’t be genuine,” Lina thinks of a recent breakup in “By Sydvest Station.” She’s going door to door collecting funds “for the Cancer Society,” but her pretenses are false: She isn’t affiliated with any such organization; she simply has the disease herself.
This kind of acute situational irony — the distance between thought and reality — animates all of Nors’s stories, particularly those in which nothing actually happens. The entirety of “In a Deer Stand” is devoted to a man stranded in the wilderness with an injured ankle. He’s just had a fight, but he refuses to reckon with the seriousness of his own circumstance: He’s only imagining his wife fretting about him in their home. “There are black birds overhead, rooks he thinks,” Nors writes, “and she’s pacing around in the yard, restless.” Nors’s book is full of these midsentence swerves, succinct diptychs of external and internal.
Other characters are ruled by their compulsions. The spurned woman pacing the fairground with fire on the brain is armed with a can of gasoline. The old man in “Hygge,” filled with contempt for his also-aging companion, still ends up having sex with her in a particularly twisted sendup of Danish coziness.
The collection’s epigraph has the comforting ring of advice, tinged with a depressed sense of humor: “You can always withdraw a little bit further.” The line is drawn from the story “Manitoba,” whose speaker is a reclusive former teacher who “no longer has any wish to regulate his abnormalities” and wants only to flee to an even remoter cabin than his own. It’s less advice, it seems, than a statement of fact, or a reminder: These stories are a dark reflection of all of us, blinkered by our hang-ups and our insistent desires.
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