The Animals are Hungry: A Review of Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker
By AJA GABEL | JUNE 14, 2016
The title of Maryse Meijer’s story “Love, Lucy” recalls our culture’s most iconic television Lucy: Lucy Ricardo, the untamable child-woman who schemes big but acts small, who is beloved despite her flaws, so beloved that the show’s title states it. But Meijer’s Lucy is anything but beloved. Lucy, like many of Meijer’s antiheroines in this debut collection, is cared for by a vaguely menacing father-but-not-father figure during her girlhood, though the matter of them loving each other isn’t a part of the paradigm, or even an underlying assumption or tension. There is a tension far more dangerous at play with Lucy. She is wild—and not just at heart. Lucy is literally feral, found in a shed and covered in fur, expelled from school (and eventually society) for acts of cruelty that seem to stem from and lead to a black hole of animal impulse. As she transforms from girl to woman (while remaining essentially animal) her merciless instinct sharpens. At the end of the story, after Lucy commits the ultimate act of violence necessary for her freedom, she skulks around the home she was raised in, touching the objects and thinking, “There are no animals, and there are no masters of animals.”
This blurred line between animal and woman, and the notion that these hybrid women cannot and will not be domesticated, runs through every story in Heartbreaker. Yet each iteration feels freshly uncomfortable, each rabid girl uniquely resistant to laws of man or nature that might bind them. So untethered are these girls and women that the stories more often than not occupy a surreal space between reality and fable. But forget the kind of magical realism that plays heavy with sentimentality or sweetness; any magic in a Meijer story serves only to reveal its raw, ugly underbelly.
In “Fire,” the woman is literally a forest fire embodied, devouring everything in her sight. The man responsible for her origin, who also falls in love with her, sees her come to life this way:
Leaping from my hand she shot through the parched undergrowth, becoming first a molten red line, then a skirt of orange, then rising, in an instant, into slender stalks of gold a foot high: gorgeous. She was a she, I thought, definitely.
Though borne of a man, her burning is what makes her female, destruction her only act. Her inherent violence quickly outpaces the man who sparked her, and her lawless fury grows far beyond his purview.
But where Lucy broke free of the human world, the fire woman is snuffed by it. And that outcome—where human vulnerability meets animal savagery—is the common outcome in Heartbreaker. In “Shop Lady,” a girl’s hopeful fascination with a store clerk ends in a tragedy of tiny violence. In “Home,” a girl’s emotional abandon spawns physical abuse. In “Fugue,” a girl raised from the dead ultimately cannot undo her male-caused pain. And in “The Daddy,” a frustrated housewife tries to expand the boundaries of a sensual relationship only to lose hold on her only outlet for her perversion.
Yet calling any of the concerns of these women a perversion feels false. After finishing the collection, it seems the perversion in these stories would be a woman who ignores her own nascent desires, however far outside the cultural norm. Not that the women here choose to indulge their desires. Their needs are as unconsciously recognized as one’s acknowledgment of urgent hunger, and as honest.
But men get their say in this collection as well—always clumsily, dumbly earthbound. They know no transcendence. While the girls burn and rage, the men bring only useless, tangible things: shelter, clothing, placating words. Which isn’t to say that the men in Heartbreaker are ignored or treated unsympathetically; they aren’t, and in some stories, their hunger for connection is just as raw and strange. In “The Daddy” and “Rapture,” men make deeply flawed but authentic attempts to forge bonds, but they stop short of the kind of recklessness that comes from a woman’s suppressed fount of desperation and desire. The men—even in their strangeness—eventually reinforce or accept the status quo that broils these women. Perhaps the men here don’t act out with the same kind of whiplash violence as the women because they inherently possess the power to do that without cultural reprimand.
The stories in this collection are as frank and strange and unpredictable as the girls and women they are about. The writing, never indulgent, takes sharp turns and steep drops, with flashes of Joy Williams and Eudora Welty in its unapologetic nakedness. More explicitly, the debut recalls other debuts from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and FSG Originals, including Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God, Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls, and Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing. The consistency with which the imprint embraces its bold aesthetic, celebrating fresh, relentless voices, and unusual, uncomfortable stories is admirable. Heartbreaker ensures that the dedication to those excellent but challenging stories continues.
But Heartbreaker does not want you to feel familiarity. Whatever or whomever you recognize in these stories won’t look anything like the smiling, powerless women on your TV. These women—and the stories that try to contain them—have an innate power that is hungry and insatiable. In “Love, Lucy,” after Lucy’s declaration that there are no animals nor masters of animals, she goes on to state her unruliness, in body, in spirit, and in cultural narrative: “These things are gone, along with the rest of the beauty of the world, which I despised, and only I remain, reigning over all I have unmade, the last bad daughter, free of all proud fathers.”
AJA GABEL’S short stories and essays can be found in The Kenyon Review, BOMB, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The University of Virginia and a PhD from University of Houston. Her debut novel, In Common Time, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is a copywriter.
Heartbreaker: Stories, by Maryse Meijer FSG Originals, 2016