Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness - Collected Stories byHeather Fowler (2014)

Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness; This Time, While We're Awake; People with Holes; and Suspended Heart. Fowler’s work was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her stories and poems have appeared in:PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South,Feminist Studies, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Please visit her

Sometimes a feel a great depth of sadness in accepting the fact that there are many wonderful writers I will one day end my reading life never having even heard about, let alone read.  I am very glad that Heather Fowler will not be among them.  There are seventeen delightfully disturbed and disturbing stories in the latest of her four collections of short stories (I hope to read them all in 2014).  All are first rate and some just amazed me.  Heather Fowler loves the short story and it shows in her work.

I find posting on collections of short stories a very daughting and challenging task.  Reviewers (which I am not, I just read stuff and post on it) seek overriding themes and concerns over different works often first written with no plan to place together in a collection.  

In the past I have used a kind of forest metaphor to describe collections of short stories.  Some forests are perfect for a weekend in a cottage, others for exploring the tropics. I see the forest of the stories of Fowler as not far from a once great civilization, now on its final stage of collapse into anarchy and chaos.  Few of the residents, and almost none of the elite classes have any sense of this.  Mental illnesses becomes the norm, plagues take hold, the poor begin to lust for vengence, the affluent seek escape in sensation. In the wake of this some begin to retreat to the forest, but for many who flee it is too late.  

In posting on collections of short stories i like to talk enough about the individual stories in the collection to give potential readers a feel for the book. After doing this, normally I attempt to generalize about the book as I will do that here.  My bottom line is a total endorsement of Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness to all lovers of the form, especially those with a fondness for the darker side of life.

"The Hand Licker"

"The Hand Licker" leads of the collection with a powerful tale of a mentally ill man who has not taken his meds for several days.  Evan imagines that he sees his ex-girlfriend, Sharon, in other people and even in objects.  We are there when he is lectured by his social worker and told if he acts out again he risks going back to jail.  In a really well depicted incident he he in a fast food place and he imagines Sharon is in the food of an old lady.  He approaches her and begins to seek communication with Sharon through her food.  The incident does not end well.  We see some of the roots of his issues in what we learn of his father.   His father told him you pay women like Sharon and kick them out when done.   In a scene that tells so much with so little, we learn what Evan did to a tapestry from the 16th century, for which he paid thousands of dollars.  Evan took revenge on his father for years of abuse.  I will leave the incident untold so you can marvel at it as I did.  Perhaps the story has a kind of happy ending, or at least a turn upward, and I won't spoil it for you.

"Losing Married Women"

"I am an unrepentant harvester of other people’s marriages."

"Losing Married Women" is a very intriguing and entertaining story about a predatory  lesbian. Told in the first person, it is the story of how the narrator seduced a married woman, ruined her marriage and then discarded her.  The narrator has a keen sense about when the love has gone dry in a woman's marriage and she knows how to move in for the kill.  In this case the woman was a neighbor in her forties. It started over a pitcher of  daiquiris.  "Losing Married Women" is an acutely observed slightly voyeristic story I throughly enjoyed reading.  

"Blood, Hunger, Child"

Set in Paris in 1789 at the start of the reign of Terror, it is the story of an ex-whore, her lover whose face was melted in a fire.  They have one child.  They love to see the heads of aristocrats fall, taking vicarious vengence with each execution.  As I read this story i was reminded of the old woman in A Tale of Two Cities who never missed a guillotining.  Fowler lets us see how the terrible conditions under which the narrator lived made her take joy in death.  We know this a consuming flame in which she will also be destroyed and I think she does not much care.  There is an interesting plot I will let you discover.  

"Con Yola"

"Con Yola" is a story I found personally very disturbing.  If were not my great luck to be married to a wonderful woman that sort of anchors me in sanity, I could be very like the central character in this story.  The man is a middle aged academic, never married, with a very strange toooo bonded relationship with a doll he stole from a child, though he tells us he did pay her.  The doll is ugly, he keeps it on a shelve and likes to fondle and caress the doll.  He has cleaning ladies come in to work on his place.  The latest one, a Latin heritage woman, has the same skin tone as his doll.  He begins coming home to watch her clean.  Then he pays her $700.00 a month to live in a cottage on his property, he is quite affluent.  One day he enters the cottage and the woman figures OK he pay be crazy but this is good money and he seems to want sex so she accommodates him.  He begins to regularly sleep with her and she raises her fee to $1000.00 a month.  He notices that she is repositioning his doll to reflect their sexual activities of the night before.  His world and that of the cleaning lady are very different.  There is a terribly painfull but quite hilarious close to the story which I will leave untold. I felt the man's pain and was glad that is not me but I acknowledge it might have been.

"Good Country. People"

I think maybe you do need to know Flannery O'Connors story "Good Country People" to fully relish the wonderfully macabre take on the story done by Fowler in "Good Country People.  Like O'Connor's  story it is set in the rural south of America among country people.  In O'Connor's story the central female character has a prosthetic  leg and a PhD in Philosophy.  In Fowler's she has a club like artificial  hand and has maybe been to the third grade.  In both stories the same predatory bible salesman @thereadinglife: The Reading Life: Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness - Collec... a big part.  I just can't tell more of this story which I hope you will have the pleasure of reading.  

"Mother's Angels"

Set in Florence, Italy in 1348 in the worst times of the plague that killed almost half  the people of Italy "Mother's Angels" is an account of the attempt by a woman and her daughter to escape the city.  I think historic short stories are harder to do than novels as you have less time to set out the background but in this and "Blood, Hunger, Child" Fowler pulls it off with great skill.  People did not really know what caused the plague.  It changed everything and all relations.  It reminded me of Daniel Defoe's great book A Journal of the Plague Years.  The mother has a blind pet cat she cherishes and her spirit is broken when the cat must be left.  It was just heartbreakingly sad for me when the mother imagined as they relocated that she heard the cat crying out for her.  This is a beautiful story about a terrible time.

"The Gray Fairy"

Several of Fowler's stories are about those with serious mental illnesses.  I have long been interested in fairies, spirit creatures and such.  I think part of my interest in Irish literature arises from the affinity of the Irish for such figures.  The story "Con Yola" is in a way about a dark fairy in the form of a fetishized doll.  Of course talking about seeing fairies is not a good idea at job interviews and such but is this a seeing into worlds beyond the mundane or is it a manifestation of personal issues.  Belief  in occult entities often shows up in defeated cultures and marginalized people, maybe it is the refuge of the half lost.  In this story, as you can see in the marvelous sample of Fowler's exquisite prose, the fairy is either an actual malevolent entity or it is how the girl refuse her trauma.  I found this a very exciting work and will leave it unspoiled. 

There are ten more very diverse stories in the collection.  Most deal with people pushed by pain, by needs hard to understand, by strange compulsions.  

From the publisher's webpage

"Heather Fowler’s fourth collection of fiction Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental  speaks the language of need. Desperate, obsessive, even demented need—both emotional and erotic—is voiced by characters ill or ill-advised. From cyber to stalker, illicit, explicit, tender and tedious, the relationships in Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness translate love and lust into disorder. How we hear our own need and the way it sounds to others proves in these enthralling stories an imperfect but utterly captivating conversation, a destructive yet dynamic discourse between well-being and disease, images and words."

I strongly endorse without reservations of any sort, this collection to all lovers of the short story.

Mel u

1 comment:

Mystica said...

Thanks for the review on a book which was totally new to me.