by Alex Chasteen
Hold Your Fire,
Chloe Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 2021
Love Like That,
Emma Duffy-Comparone, Henry Holt & Company, 2021
TW: mentions of sexual abuse
Fiction, maybe, starts with transgression. Characters breaking rules, doing the forbidden or the simply unexpected, seems to be its frequent propellant. In his sessions at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, American novelist Ethan Canin put forth a theory that all fiction is driven by bad behaviour. A story starts with someone behaving badly — perhaps breaking a rule — and continues as this rule-breaking begets more bad behaviour. As a drafting technique, it’s brilliant: if a story isn’t working, try having your characters do more bad things, or having more characters do more bad things, and then even worse things.
Transgressive women — even violent and unlikable women — are in no way new in fiction, yet their prominence as protagonists seems to be on the upswing in recent years. In a societal context of widespread sexual abuse where there is increased public discourse as to what female victimhood means, this trend makes sense. Of course, people crave an alternate narrative to rape culture, which insists that a woman must be both pure and adequately resistant to be deemed a legitimate victim.
Fiction about difficult women can establish a space in which the dichotomy of likeability can be explored: is there a position between accomplice and victim, where women can grapple with their own urges towards self-destruction without implicating themselves in their own abuse? Two recent collections of short stories grapple with this question through a range of fascinating, transgressive women — Australian writer Chloe Wilson’s Hold Your Fire, and Emma Duffy-Comparone’s Love Like That, both debuts and 2021 releases.
Wilson’s collection begins with ‘The Leopard Next Door’, the first of several pieces of flash fiction that are interspersed with stories of more standard length. The narrator’s neighbour has bought a leopard and is keeping it on the ninth floor of their apartment building, a building already notorious for the frequent drug deals in its parking lot and the time a body was dropped onto its premises. The pair talk about the leopard daily, until the neighbour vanishes and the narrator hears a strange noise from behind his door. The narrator uses their spare key to leave steaks for the thing left in the apartment, never seeing the animal itself. ‘Maybe I should have called the police,’ the narrator muses, ‘but I didn’t want to get my neighbour in trouble. Besides, I liked the idea of having a leopard next door — someone who stayed up nights, someone else who knew they were in the wrong place but didn’t know how to get out.’
Only a few pages long, ‘The Leopard Next Door’ works almost like a trailer for a film, crystallising in miniature the themes that recur and reconfigure throughout Wilson’s collection. These stories have mysterious first-person narrators, who seem eerily aware of an audience. Usually stated to be women, they are engaged in precise and calculated games of withholding information. The narrator of ‘Powerful Owl’, a woman working as a live-in nanny after the sudden and violent death of her sister, suddenly finds herself impatient with the baby in her care: ‘This presented itself to me as a fact: I couldn’t tolerate [her screams] any longer. I needed to make them stop. Please understand that the baby survived. I hardly hurt her. I didn’t hit her or shake her. Please understand that everyone left alone with a small child has wondered what they might get away with.’ The narrator of ‘Powerful Owl’ withholds her actions from the reader (what precisely has she tried to ‘get away with’?), but it is the overwhelming silence regarding who our narrator is which grips us in ‘Leopard’. There, we know nothing about our female narrator’s identity, save a single comment on the type of building she lives in, which she reveals in the final sentence as the ‘wrong place’ for her. The absolute, subjective, near-but-not-quite-authorial control these women exert over their stories becomes claustrophobic. Part of the terror is that we are trapped there with them.
In her 1976 text Literary Women, second-wave critic Ellen Moers coined the term “Female Gothic” to inscribe the set of formal and thematic features of women-authored Gothic novels. These novels generally followed a pure, often virginal young woman, in a large house ruled by a strange man, as she unravels its mysteries, under threat of sexual violence and plagued by anxieties about woman- and motherhood. The framework of the Female Gothic has been critiqued and re-evaluated over the decades since Moers monograph: while the loose group of texts within this sub-genre often explores similar themes, the plot elements and ideological angles are not so stable. As critic Tamar Heller describes it, the Female Gothic is recognised by its ‘nightmarish figuration of the feminine experience within the home’, the site of ideological conflict or ambivalence.
This ‘nightmarish figuration’, however, can err towards the conservative — articulating fears about the consequences of the collapse of family values and women straying from their homes — or the liberal — imagining the domestic sphere as a prison ruled by men concealing secret abuses. Mad women locked in or escaping from asylums is a theme that leans in many directions: as critique of the widespread pathologisation and suppression of female trauma, or a way of terrifying the reader with the consequences of a woman who does not think or act ‘correctly’. A staple heroine of the Female Gothic is Shirley Jackson’s Merricat, who is at once the brave virgin heroine of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the chilling mistress of a house whose terrible secrets are slowly uncovered. Wilson’s narrators also play this double role, acting as both the intrepid survivor and dangerous villain. Merricat, evidently disconnected from reality, performs compulsive rituals she describes as spells to keep her family safe; Wilson’s characters perform rituals of repressions, often compartmentalising tragedies in their lives to repressed mental spaces as they blaze forward with their strange, sometimes sociopathic, schemes.
In Wilson’s most successful stories, the psychological horror is built through the tension between above-ground action and psychologically subterranean activity. Thus, the cruelty and subconscious logic that are mostly kept out of the audience’s view begin to manifest themselves, warped around a sense of trauma or pathology only briefly glimpsed. Wilson’s first-person narrators range from restrained to actively unreliable, creating a relationship of suspicion between them and the reader. These women are rarely presented as merely deranged: the “underneath” suggestions of pathology or trauma are never quite concrete enough to absolve them. Their actions clearly follow a logic, but a logic that is opaque to us. The neighbour in ‘The Leopard Next Door’ seems to have obviously been attacked by his animal, but our narrator seems motivated primarily not to snitch, not even if it could save his life. In the first pages of ‘Powerful Owl’, the narrator quickly takes us through the brutally unexplained death of her sister, whose body emerged from the ocean in pieces, before doing the unspeakable to the child in her care — a link left for our narrator to neglect, but the reader to make.
Wilson’s narrators step in, as nannies, maids or patients, taking on the duties of these wives or the pathologies of their sisters. As with many Gothic texts, biological and environmental determinism becomes deeply troubling. In Hold Your Fire, we are met with a narrator disgusted by weakness and admiring of violence. A mother fears she dislikes her son and is disengaged with his upbringing, much more compelled by her work at a company developing weapons, until her son claims to have been punched by a girl at his daycare. The mother gets to hate and conspire against this girl, who has made a victim of her son, only for her to discover her son is lying. And yet this matriarchal violence enables the arms-obsessed mother to become closer to her son and his own violent tendencies. Much of the “bad behaviour” Wilson’s narrators revel in is enabled by the domestic space, operating in literally physical transgressions: breaking into houses, stealing blood, possessing or manipulating bodies. But in Hold Your Fire, the narrator’s worst action is helping bully a three-year-old girl for something she didn’t do. As with ‘Powerful Owl’, a grown woman antagonises a child: she strives to believe her son even when she knows he’s lying, admitting to not liking her son until he turned to shows of cruelty. In the complete family unit, a different type of violence emerges, one that relishes in the creation of a new victim outside of the familial group.
Hold Your Fire complicates the repetition of stories about women who have been wronged by men, who are seeking a sort of upside-down justice, and shows us instead a kind of woman who raises her son to be cruel, to enact the physical corollary of the more subtle interpersonal power she wields over his classmate. This title story suggests a more complex cycle at play than that of abuse begetting abuse, instead depicting a woman fostering violence in her son as defence against powerlessness in the world at large. Taken together, Wilson’s stories leverage a Gothic aesthetic of suspicion, mysterious motives, strange domestic spaces and uncontained madness to display more than the Gothic generic ambivalence towards women’s unhealthier behaviours, split into a dichotomy of behaviours of victimhood or of sociopathic manipulation. The missplaced coping mechanisms we are asked to unpick are, if not sympathetic, understandable. Yet they are depicted as wont to continue into the intergenerational fostering of violence.
American author Emma Duffy-Comparone’s debut collection, Love Like That, is also concerned explicitly with women behaving badly. The cover flap promises ‘stories about brilliant, broken women that are just the right amount of wrong’. Though obviously a play on right-wrong, the statement by extension implies that there are women who are the wrong amount of wrong. The stories in Love Like That track women’s inaction, not a true passivity but instead the choice of nonconfrontation or even complicity. Whether or not failing to stop something wrong is the same as doing said wrong becomes an ethical distinction between what is correctly wrong and what ends up too wrong in Duffy-Comparone’s writing. The story ‘Plagiarism’, for example, opens with the narrator discovering a student’s act of plagiarism and closes with her deciding to press on with their punishment. The story attends not to the confrontation with the student and her parents but instead the teacher-narrator’s deliberation: the mental acrobats underpinning her eventual decisions. She is frustrated with her teaching job, one from which she is not strong enough to quit but strong enough to let herself get fired by a headmaster who wants to ignore the plagiarism in order to maintain the donations from the student’s wealthy family. Where Wilson’s prose is lean, restrained, and shadowy, Duffy-Comparone is writing much more out of the domestic-realist tradition, rife with precise detail of suburban American lives. Neatly constrained in time and space, the stories are nearly maximalist in the detail of their particular worlds. In first, second and third person, her narrators are eager to share all sorts of irrelevant information so long as it covers up the underlying questions they are privately struggling with.
The story ‘Marvel Sands’ begins with the following paragraph:
After my dad ran off with a bank teller with great teeth, my mom and I moved in with this guy, Ronny. I was fifteen and needed money, so I took a job at Marvel Sands State Beach. During the day I sat in a booth at the entrance of the parking lot and sold tickets. I liked it out there, especially in the morning when sea smoke curled around the booth.
We readers see a little more of Ronny, a lot more of the beach and the narrator’s boss there, and nothing more of the absent dad. If he can just run away, in turn ruining the nuclear family, the subtext suggests, then why can’t she? Nestled in calm observational detail of her job and its associated mundanity, the narrator loses her temper with a mildly rude woman and subsequently has a sexually charged encounter with her far older boss. Like ‘Powerful Owl’, the psychoanalytic link between inciting incident and seemingly unrelated lashing-out, between effect and cause, is presented to the reader without the catharsis of revenge, only that of an ill or traumatised logic.
But Wilson and Duffy-Comparone’s characters share an inscrutability. In Wilson, narrators tend to describe their own lives, inner or otherwise, as little as possible. Sometimes Duffy-Comparone’s narrators admit to a lack of self-knowledge: in the opening story of Love Like That, protagonist Anita wonders aloud why she has involved herself with her much-older past professor and blown up her life. If these women do understand the logic behind their actions, they simply don’t bother sharing such insights with the reader. Wilson’s effect is eerie horror, as if the narrator wears a mask; in Duffy-Comparone, the narrators instead seem depressed or dissociative, repressed above all. The first line of ‘The Package Deal’ says it all: ‘You know he has a kid, but right now it’s whatever’. ‘Whatever’ speaks to a dearth of internal deliberation in Duffy-Comparone’s narrators, a possibly non-existent logic to the reader is never made privy in the first place. The only thing we can know is the ethically dubious result of their thinking processes. Wilson’s narrators are alienated and isolated while Duffy-Comparone’s are intimately, painfully connected in family matrices, and yet the end result, their interventions into others’ lives, are similar outbursts of sudden, un-premeditated cruelty.
Nothing in Duffy-Comparone’s domestic-realist style itself suggests the Gothic — if Wilson’s stories explore the nightmares of feminine experience, then Love Like That is waking up to the cold, bleak morning. But the questions generated by centuries of Female Gothic writing are litigated here in similar terms: young women entering male-dominated spaces, often into relationships with older and more powerful men, and wondering if abandoning the life their mothers wanted for them is liberating or damning. In ‘Plagiarism’, the Gothic lineage is made explicit — our English teacher narrator is made more upset by the fact that no one bothered to even read Jane Eyre, her “desert island” book, than the act of plagiarism itself. As she becomes more distraught, she begins to speak as Jane about Rochester instead of as herself about her deadbeat boyfriend, Tim. It’s the recognition that she isn’t living a Gothic romance, that she hasn’t found the love like that which she reads about, that pushes her to disobey her male boss in going ahead with the punishment, get herself fired, and explode, if not destroy, her life.
It is absolutely a relief and a joy to read women who behave in complicated, even wrong ways. Both the Wilson and Duffy-Comparone are full of bold, self-assured, excellently structured portraits of fascinating people. I do ask myself, however, why so many of these stories feel the need to hinge on the logic of the damaged or ill woman being mysterious and inscrutable: why must the motivations for their actions remain unknowable? Much like the space between the self-destructive and the villainous, there must be a space between inscrutable and diabolical, between the right kind of wrong and the wrong kind of wrong, between these narrators and Gone Girl or a Euripidean Medea. There are so many women in my own life who understand the harm they cause, or at least recognise their patterns, and I believe the great modes of fiction which have so long been dominated by women — Gothic horror and domestic realism being just two examples — can encompass these experiences again. Maybe then the actions of wronged women will move from the unspeakable to the justified.
ALEX CHASTEEN reads some, though not as much as they'd like in the last few months. They've been watching more movies, and recommend Laura, Edward II, and A New Leaf.
Art by Izzy Fergusson.