Reviewed By Jennifer Popa
- Black Cat (2018)
- 208 pages
At times, reading Ruth Joffre’s debut collection, Night Beast, feels reminiscent of the morning’s groggy dream state. In that half waking, we’re often unsettled, resistant, attempting to make sense of the eerie dreams through which we wade. This is the experience that Night Beast mimics, one which author John Gardner, who believes it is the writer’s job to immerse the reader in a fictive dream world through the consistent use of vivid details, would certainly applaud. Each story has a hazy quality where the reader dips into a dream only to be unceremoniously expelled by the story’s end. Those new to the practice of reading short stories might complain that each story just ends—presumably before Joffre delivers a resolution that neatly ties all the wayward strands into a conclusively satisfying knot. But Joffre’s withholding is deliberate and part of the magic of this fiction. It is meant to leave us in that liminal space, haunted by the lives of these characters, aware that the answer of what comes next lies just beyond the page. And while we may not know for sure, we know not to trust a “happily ever after” as any solace a character finds in these dark stories is fleeting.
The first of the eleven stories, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” sets the collection in a fabulist vein; Fiona lives in a world where every human has a timer embedded in their wrist counting down to the precise moment when they meet their soulmate. In the case of Fiona, she won’t meet her soulmate until she’s sixty-four years old. However, her timer becomes erratic, hiccuping, and mysteriously speeding up: “Her timer would ring out, as if she had just won a sweepstakes at a supermarket, and the numbers inside her wrist would flash repeatedly before fading quietly into her skin.” The timer’s behavior makes Fiona’s experience aberrant so she keeps this new development mostly to herself, savoring the sudden and impending arrival of her soulmate.
But Night Beast refuses to stay in any particular lane. It’s at times operating as sci-fi, speculative fiction, gritty realism, fantasy, but mostly it’s just marveling at the uncanny experience of being a woman. In “Go West, and Grow Up,” a mother and daughter live in their car and the child’s innocence is a luxury that the experience does not afford. In “Safekeeping,” a woman is sequestered in an underground bunker by her lover and her only company are the pixelated screens designed to reflect the changing seasons. In “The Weekend,” two actors find their performance in an avant-garde television show, blurring the line between their relationship as characters and their relationship as colleagues. Joffre complicates discussions of performativity, the male gaze, and the #metoo movement in the workplace, when, as a gag, the male actor turns up surprisingly naked in a scene—a nakedness designed only to provoke an on-camera response from his female colleague. These stories are about pretense, even when that posturing is for the character’s own sake rather than the sake of others. While the first story of the collection feels a bit misleading, as if it’s establishing this as a volume of unreal stories or stories of whimsy, this slim book leans mostly toward realism, its primary terrain being one of trauma and loss.
Central to this collection are the beasts that inhabit these stories. Joffre’s fiction repeatedly asks what kinds of beasts do women negotiate? What are their shapes and how do we know them when we see them? Sometimes they are benign annoyances (children who will not clean their room), but more often they move beyond disconcerting and cross into trauma and abuse of all kinds: physical, sexual, familial, emotional. Sexual abuse is a palpable threat in a handful of these stories, but it is rarely explicit. We simply understand something is being taken—something without consent. In “I’m Unarmed,” a story about discovering love and friendship during a time of concealed abuse, the speaker says, “I knew when my cousin reached for me that love was small and puny and that if I was to survive it would have to become something efficient, like hatred.”
The women populating these stories fall anywhere along the gender and sexuality spectrums. They are also mothers, wives, partners, and girls who are in that awkward coming-of-age space that is a quiet horror of its own. Joffre precisely renders the emotional landscape of each character—psychically we are very near these women and their interiority. These characters feel close; we can hear the self-consciousness of their breathing and there is an immediacy to their experiences. They are melancholy and detached—presumably a necessity of their circumstances. And while there are moments of diverting from their emotional space, even those moments feel deliberate.
Joffre brings great intention to this collection, which is perhaps why she refuses to pin down any character’s sexuality. Living in a time of labels like “bisexual,” “pansexual,” “homosexual,” there’s something beautiful about Joffre’s resistance to the act of naming. No sexual identity or preference is made explicit because like love and affection, it just is, without reason or definition. The line between pain and pleasure is also blurred. Love is violent and mingles with mourning, but it is also the experience that trumps all other circumstances. In the titular story, which closes the collection, we learn that Gemma is in a relationship with her brother’s sleepwalking fiancé who seeks her out for love making during the night. Gemma observes, “I think part of me has always believed love should be like this—painful and hidden, only making itself known when you least expect it and are unprepared for the damage it can do.”
Joffre’s debut is populated by dreamy, emotionally affecting stories that insist you move inside them. They sting and break your heart, but even so, you’re not quite ready for the waking of that final sentence.
Jennifer Popa is a PhD student of English at Texas Tech University where she teaches creative writing and literature and serves as the managing editor at Iron Horse Literary Review. Though she originally hails from Michigan, she found her way to west Texas by way of Seattle, Fairbanks, Austin, and Hiroshima. Some of Jennifer’s most recent writing can be found in Juked, Watershed Review, the Boiler, decomP, and Atticus Review. She can be found at www.jenniferpopa.com .