The katabatic short stories in Laura van den Berg’s new collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, are haloed by a certain hypnotic aura. With a perfect ten for technique, the primarily first-person narration — with an occasional close third — maintains a constant narrative distance, a not-quite-intimacy you might feel watching, say, Cleo from 5 to 7. Though the stories are not linked, they belong to the same universe, in the way of comic superhero stories. And the world van den Berg has built is one of ghosts, of absurdity, of life at the edge of horror. She explicitly references Cocteau, Godard, Poe, Gogol. The first pieces are set in Florida, land of the weird, where if you wish upon a star your dreams come true, maybe. It would be easy to classify the bizarre unease of this world as “Florida creep,” and it does bear comparison to Lauren Groff’s Florida and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!.
True story: A few years ago, my friend’s cat was dying of cancer. My friend’s sister came for emotional support on the last day, stroked the cat as my friend showered and got ready for the trip to the vet. She slid open the glass door to let the cat relieve itself — it preferred the silt lip of the retention pond to a gravelly litter box — and watched an alligator surge out of the still water, snap its massive jaws around the precious pet, and take the cat under, never to resurface.
What is absurd about Florida isn’t the exoticism of its wildlife (alligators, venomous snakes, rabid bats, armadillos that carry leprosy) or the violence of its geography (hurricanes, sinkholes, bottomless muck), but the continuous confrontation with obliteration. I say “obliteration” and not “sudden death” or even “the void” because such an end is not only traumatic for the pain of unanticipated loss, but because the manner of that loss defies reason, negates narrative. If we find meaning in stories, the horror ex machina looming at the edges of every Florida map is a reminder of the essential meaninglessness of it all — and therein lies the absurdity.
In “The Pitch,” the narrator becomes fascinated by a dadaist ballet by Jean Cocteau. (I searched for a recording to no avail, so all my knowledge of it comes from contemporary news articles, Wikipedia, what van den Berg describes in the story itself, and traumatic flashbacks to the next-closest thing to a dadaist ballet—Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.) According to “The Pitch,” during the performance a lion eats one of the dancers. What does that mean for the ballet? Well, because this is Dada, we know it means nothing. But what does it mean for this story? Dada took as its goal the end of all art: it strove for meaninglessness. A story, by definition, by its very existence, does not do that.
These are not all Florida stories. The narrators travel to Iceland, Italy, Australia, Mexico. Wherever they go, they find the same disorienting, ghostly mythology. “Volcano House” seems both an inverted “Young Goodman Brown” and Jacob and Esau retelling. “Cult of Mary” perverts the Mary Magdalene trope to devastating effect. “Friends” transpires almost entirely in the liminal realm between death and life. One is tempted to call the collection surreal, to describe its world as absurdist. Obliteration is a theme. The perils of life in the Sunshine State are not the real threat; they are an illustration of it, as are a volcano in Iceland, an earthquake in Mexico.
The real threat is misogyny, the casual violence of men. It is also systemic sexism, the way a man can ask his wife for a baby after a traumatic miscarriage, or hold himself back from her when she needs love and support, not out of cruelty but out of a lack of imagination.
“Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought,” declared André Breton in his Surrealist Manifesto. This collection centers “previously neglected associations,” both aesthetically and literally: each story portrays women, their associations with each other, with the men who circumscribe their worlds. Van den Berg employs the vocabulary of surrealism: no fewer than three of the stories take place at least partly on trains, more if you count passing references; the dream is a steady through-line. Photographs are the window to the true and the supernatural and the supernatural, in the language of these stories, reveals the truth. There are recurring instances of magical knowing, where characters intuit, with no build-up from the plot or character development, key insights into the meaning of climactic scenes, which work (when they do) only because of the heavily oneiric aesthetic of each piece. But classic surrealism is more earnest than van den Berg’s use of its signifiers. Perhaps this is because surrealism defines itself in terms of superiority, a kind of essentialism, whereas van den Berg’s nouvelle vague feminism cannot. On the contrary, she interrogates symbol, narrative, objectivity in a seamless pairing of form and content. It is one of the elements of magical realism, of Gogolesque grotesque, to begin with a donné, an unquestioned given piece of the supernatural world. In Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” a simple raiment can confer humanity, distinction, a subjective inner world that those of lesser status are deemed not to have. Van den Berg spins a new twist on this story in “Your Second Wife,” but that is not the only given that ought to be questioned. In “Lizards,” there is the LaCroix dupe; in the title story, a plastic name tag. The theme is not coincidental but essential: throughout the stories women are gaslit — sometimes with their knowledge, sometimes not — and the very act of narration is a defiance, a reminder to question what’s in our drinks. Where Cleo from 5 to 7’s genius is the inherent tension of waiting for life-changing medical test results, the inherent tension that carries this collection is the feeling of walking to your car, holding your keys like brass knuckles.
In his manifesto on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus explained, “We always perform within the absurd, but our happiness lies in our ignorance of it.…[I]t is tragic only at the rare moments it becomes conscious.” The absurd, for Camus, was futility: the futility of practicing an art one can never perfect, the futility of trying to express oneself. One answer to this near-nihilistic take was absurdist theater, where actors sat on stage and, for various reasons of plot contrivance, waited to do whatever it was they were appointed, or simply waited for Godot. In this collection’s “Lizards,” the man’s job is waiting in lines, a marvelous passing use of the genre. But van den Berg’s collection is a rejection of the absurd. It is a conscious meditation on meaning-making, on the ways women, faced with the obliterating violence of patriarchy, assert agency, tell their own stories. Van den Berg shows a world in which women, though they may at any moment be shot, kidnapped, drugged, or driven to suicide, persist nevertheless.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
by Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 28, 2020