Book Review

Lydia Conklin’s Rainbow Rainbow, published in May of 2022 by Catapult, is a groundbreaking collection of short fiction depicting queer life with remarkable depth and complexity. Conklin’s multidimensional characters are refreshingly, and sometimes disturbingly, prototypical, refusing to fit into neat categories. The myriad existential struggles and ethical dilemmas characters undergo lack tidy resolutions, and are all deeply tied to embodiment, place, and time.

Part of what makes Rainbow Rainbow distinctive is how Conklin juxtaposes place and time with evolving understandings of queer identity. The collection emphasizes place and time as not merely background exposition, but rather essential to examining the vicissitudes of being queer, gender nonconforming, and trans. Take, for example, the opening story, “Laramie Time.” Together for five years, Leigh and Maggie move to Wyoming from New York City to be in a “neutral zone” to contemplate having children. The narrator, Leigh, knows that Laramie isn’t a neutral place for a queer person, but, as she notes, Maggie was “straight until her,” and is not as bothered by Laramie’s history. Laramie complicates how the women’s different queer identities shape their relationships to the town, themselves, and their future together.

Conklin also consistently usurps expectations of protagonist and antagonist roles, which leads readers to question why they might have been sympathizing with a particular character. Perhaps one of the most surprising stories in this regard is “Sunny Talks.” Pretty much nobody gets anything “right.” The story follows narrator Lillia, who takes their fifteen-year-old trans nephew, Sunny, to a convention of and for trans YouTubers. Sunny is on the verge of being an “influencer” and Lillia starts to understand their own queer identity more clearly by watching Sunny’s videos. While at this convention, Lillia comes out as nonbinary, but rather than being supportive, Sunny instead expresses anger for having to pave the way for Lillia, despite being a child. Conklin’s stories aren’t moralistic, but, if there were a moral in “Sunny Talks,” it might be about the benefits and limitations of generational knowledge when understandings of gender seem to be changing so quickly.

It’s easy to focus on themes in Rainbow Rainbow because of how skilled Conklin is at the craft of writing. The language is concise, poetic, and lyrical. Characters are well-rounded and fleshed out—people you could imagine in the wild. Their first lines always hit. Even after finishing the book, lines and images will stick with you, making it unlikely you’ll confuse any two of these stories. “Pink Knives,” for instance, offers a kind of intimacy not present in other stories, in part because it’s the only story told from the first-person narrator directly addressing a second-person “you,” which creates a closeness between writer, speaker, and revelation. “Pink Knives” follows its nameless, nonbinary narrator who, because of the COVID pandemic’s isolation, has recently opened their long-distance relationship. “We meet in the plague,” the story begins, and later continues in a litany of what happens as it happens. “Pink Knives” focuses less on plot and more on detail, internality, and the rhythm between words. Even the title of the piece feels fleshy and vulnerable. The knives referenced in the title specifically refer to the design of “your” COVID face mask, but also speak to the narrator’s feelings of being caught between destruction and protection—guilt for indulging in pleasure while people are dying, coupled with relief in being with someone who doesn’t misgender them:

The mask on your face dances with tiny pink butcher knives. I’m obsessed with those soft pastel blades and I look the mask up later online and buy it and never tell you, even when my girlfriend buys it too, after seeing it on my face.

In typical Conklin fashion, while things are going to get messy, you can count on a discussion of gendered embodiment in equal measures of brutality and delicate honesty.

Although so much can be said of each of Rainbow Rainbow’s ten stories, we’ll end on the title. None of the stories are eponymous, but all provide varied glimpses of the collection’s name. The penultimate story, “Ooh, the Suburbs,” was, in fact, titled “Rainbow Rainbow” when first published in the Paris Review, and is about two middle-school-aged girls who travel to downtown Boston to meet up with an adult woman they’ve been flirting with in an AOL chatroom. To steer the predatory attention away from, or possibly to herself, one of the girls tells the older woman that she doesn’t need “mentoring,” because her best friend Kim was in a band named “Rainbow Rainbow” that “made girls gay”:

The name of the band, Kim had explained, symbolized two people side-by-side. The people, who were incidentally both girls, would eventually merge into one rainbow, or girl, but for now were separate ribbons of color, quivering in the lonely sky.

The name of the band is emblazoned on the book cover alongside inviting–not lonely in the least–and queer-colored rainbows. First the word “rainbow” appears at the top of the book jacket in all caps and white, ironically looking more like a cloud than a rainbow against a pale blue background sky. Directly below is a series of rainbows, three lines of them with four and a half rainbows in each line, each successive line a slightly different shade, the final one showing each rainbow is connected to the next, as if undulating in waves. A rainbow cover makes sense for a collection of queer stories, and for this book, it makes even more sense that none are traditional ROYGBIV rainbows. If you don’t look closely, you might even miss the trans color scheme: RAINBOW in white at the top, a hot pink RAINBOW below the rainbow waves, and Lydia Conklin’s name in light blue at the bottom. The book cover is a veritable ocean of multidimensional queerness. It’s both fitting and surprising that this version of “Rainbow Rainbow” is emblazoned on the book’s cover. Fitting because it makes sense for the outward invitation to a book about queer life to be joyful rainbow colors. Surprising because the book is named after a story that delves into one of the most extreme stereotypes of the “gay agenda”: that elder gays are out to recruit straight children. It’s bold to confront this trope so directly, and while there’s no getting around the discomfort, what’s so impressive is how Conklin, with this and each story, doesn’t fall into the binary of either kill-your-gays or positive representation. Rather, amidst the exquisite prose, they create a queer world that lives, like all humans do, in the complicated reality that nothing is ever as simple as people like to make it.

About the Reviewer

Allison V. Craig (she/her) is a writer and scholar living in upstate New York. Her recent creative work can be found in Entropy, F(r)iction, Brave Voices, and forthcoming in Alternating Current.

Kennedy Coyne (she/her) is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Virginia Tech. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast Journal, BULL, HAD, Moot Point, Michigan Quarterly Review Online and elsewhere.