With deceptive quietness, Hollis Seamon’s second collection of short stories, Corporeality, offers a penetrating look at ten sets of lives. These lives are stunningly beautiful, despite or—in Seamon’s hands—because they are ordinary.
In the first story, “SUTHY Syndrome,” Seamon takes an unflinching and heartbreaking look at two teenagers dying of cancer. She does not shrink from showing the ugliness and wastefulness of their dying. Nor does she try to redeem their deaths with an offer of some silver lining. Rather Seamon simply shows with utter plausibility how a person might bear the worst of it all for just a little while.
Indeed, this dedication to the unvarnished truth dominates all of the stories in Seamon’s collection. They confront some ugly part of life, and then, rather than sugar-coating it or trying to make it beautiful, the stories embrace the ugliness. They show how these painful aspects of life fit organically alongside what is beautiful, the two inseparable.
Several of the stories in the collection can be loosely thought of as fables in that they include subchapter titles such as “Wolf” and “Prince Charming,” start with a protagonist’s birth and end with her death, and evoke death and evil in personified forms. In contrast to the way fables traditionally function, however, the characters in Corporeality are very specific individuals, albeit ones who sometimes temporarily assume archetypal roles. These individuals, moreover, are ones we can easily imagine knowing in our own lives. Seamon portrays each character with such compassion, even as she insists on brutal honesty, that it’s easy to empathize with their plights.
For example, in “Leave It Lie,” the protagonist, Gary, an eighteen-year-old garbage man, rescues a newborn from the trash, but also finds its deceased twin. Gary feels the touch of the dead baby and the suckling of its live twin against his skin long after he has relinquished them to the proper officials. The story is breathtaking because, in the aftermath of the rescue, with only a few quiet scenes, we see clearly what Gary wants from life, as well as his understanding that he lacks any ability to get it. But in Seamon’s hands, Gary’s heavy-hearted self-assessment is a sad kind of poetry that we are paradoxically happy to have experienced:
You’re out there grabbing bags as fast as you can with your hands all clumsy in their frozen leather gloves and you see warm yellow lights in the big brick houses and sometimes you want to break in, sneak your smelly, trash man self into their houses and sit in front of their fireplaces, get warm. Then you’re back in the truck and your gloves start to drip and stink and then you’re back outside.
This story—as all of the stories in this collection—uses straightforward language that still, at times, is staggeringly lyrical. In that way, the style of the telling very much echoes the thematic content of the book: finding the sublime in the ordinary.
In “Praise Be to an Afflicting God,” for instance, a small group of people live in a few dilapidated houses on a small street. The houses are sinking into floodwaters and no one seems to care. These forgotten people—the no-longer-young woman looking after her elderly mother; the fat, drunk lawyer who makes a claim to a sliver of both African American and Native American heritage despite his very Caucasian appearance; and the man rendered half blind and crippled by lightning in his childhood—find sparks of life in what little they have left in their small corner of the world. And Seamon captures these sparks in gorgeous, elevating prose:
She didn’t think she would, but sometimes, you’re just not in control, no matter what you think. Because exactly as she was thinking that there was no way it was going to happen, her body opened like a flower and she came, and came, and came, raining down. Raining sweetly down.
There is nobility and redemption in the pity these lost souls have for each other and, to some degree, themselves.
There is a wide spectrum of stories in Corporeality—realistic, fantastical, surreal—and not every story may appeal to every reader. But whatever the subject, Seamon’s beautiful and inclusive prose, carefully wrought characters, and unflinching examination of the dark side of life consistently hit the mark.
About the Reviewer
Amanda Moger Rettig is a writer living outside of Boston with her husband and two children.