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October 28, 2013

Red Girl Rat Boy Stories by Cynthia Flood

red-girl-rat-boyAs much as I am pleased that we all love to celebrate the short story, the idea of “the short story” amuses me, as though it were only just one thing. To anyone who might imagine this to be so, I’d like to toss a copy of Cynthia Flood’s new short story collection Red Girl Rat Boy, which is likely to be world apart from the last short story collection you encountered, and is even worlds apart from the last short story collection by Cynthia Flood that I encountered (which is 2009’s The English Stories).

“This isn’t one of those stories puffed out with data about parrots or antique clocks or saffron… What happened, the doings that took me every-and nowhere-in this story, that’s all I intend.” –“One Two Three Two One”

These are stories without signposts, no smooth path laid out for the reader to find her way. Instead, we’re thrown blind into the mix, and we’re guided by voices, the illogic processes of the human mind. Some of these stories hang on specific hooks: the archaic technology of the answering machine in “Such Language”, in which a woman uncovers a terrible secret about her marriage, almost inadvertently, and then finally she has a story tell her friends at book club, who’ve felt that the security of her situation has implied that she thinks she’s above their problems. Real estate in “Addresses”, about a marriage that fails to progress (and is a great piece of circa 1970s’ high rise lit). Family photographs in “To Be Queen”, which reminded me of David Sedaris’ recent essay in The New Yorker. The dark and hilarious story “Care” is about the residents of a nursing home and their underpaid, under-respected aids–how those in both roles are exploited and abused, and how each undermines the system for their own devices. “Care” might as well be speculative fiction for how it takes the reader into a whole other universe.

I could cloak my criticism of this book in theory, perhaps, but with “the short story” in particular, I think it usually comes down to taste. The stories I liked in this book (including all those mentioned above) I liked a great deal, and those that didn’t work were those where the work required of me as a reader didn’t seem to come with a payoff. Flood’s two stories about members of a far-left political group I just couldn’t get into; no matter how many times I reread them, the context was elusive. So too the story of man managing a grow-op while failing to contain his exotic cat–their weren’t enough people misunderstanding one another in this story for my tastes.

I mention the cat and the grow-op to make clear that Flood’s narratives knows no bounds. Like the cat itself, her stories break through barriers, surprise at turns, and Flood herself is the hunter shooting right between the eyes.

 

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