The Doll's Alphabet
By Camilla Grudova
Coach House Books, 164 pages, $19.95
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Knopf Canada, 285 pages, $34.95
In her 1937 story The Debutante, the late English surrealist Leonora Carrington writes of a young woman who is reluctant to attend a coming-out ball given in her honour. An avid zoo-goer, the young lady confides her dismay to a hyena, who comes up with a rather innovative solution: The animal, being roughly the same size as the debutante, will kill the young woman's maid and, wearing the servant's face as a mask, attend the ball in the woman's place.
Anyone familiar with Carrington's (admittedly bizarre) story will doubtless experience a frisson of recognition – on the level of both style and substance – encountering The Mouse Queen, the second entry in Toronto resident Camilla Grudova's debut collection, The Doll's Alphabet. Grudova's tale contains a kind of sideways recapitulation of Carrington's scenario: The protagonist, after transforming into a wolf without any explanation, disguises herself as a human girl in order to travel about unnoticed. As with Carrington, the animal in Grudova's story commits murder, although where the earlier piece appears as a commentary on class division and a satire of upper-crust affectation, Grudova is more interested in themes of motherhood and the constrictions placed on women in conventional society.
These themes run throughout a number of the stories in The Doll's Alphabet, most explicitly Waxy, which is set in a strange bureaucratic dystopia where women exist primarily as companions for Men (the word is always capitalized) who earn societal approbation by sitting nebulous Exams (also capped as per regulatory mandate). The allegory here is stark and a bit too obvious; The Mouse Queen is less didactic and more uncanny, making it a more effective fictional construct.
Both stories, however, traffic in Grudova's preferred mode, which is fabulist in nature, and borrows elements from fable and fairy tales. In case we miss the point, the protagonist in The Mouse Queen, a mother of twins, reads her boys Aesop's Fables. The expectant mother in The Moth Emporium, whose husband bears the dreadfully symbolic name Wolf, is given a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales. (The child, when he arrives, is named Wilhelm.)
Grudova employs elements of the grotesque and the eerie in these stories, which inhabit a shadowy world that resembles fog-enshrouded Victorian England, but viewed through a steampunk mirror. The situations are fantastical and frequently outlandish: An octopus deposits its seed on a ship's carved mermaid prow, giving "birth" to a sentient wall sconce; a Hungarian decides to thwart potential thieves by having all of his possessions canned by a local factory; a woman whose artist husband becomes obsessed with the animals missing from an abandoned zoo gives birth to a strange, tuber-like form in her bathtub.
Perhaps as a means of counterbalancing the weirdness of the material, Grudova provides a cogent structure to her collection. Leitmotifs such as animals, dolls and – most especially – sewing machines run throughout the various stories, and the book as a whole evinces a kind of circular pattern. The opening story, Unstitching, features a woman who learns how to detach the outer casing of her body – her clothes, skin and hair – from her essential self. The closing story, Notes from a Spider, focuses on a man with eight limbs who develops an overwhelming preoccupation with a sewing machine he names Florence; he hires seamstresses to sew up the cuts he inflicts on his own body.
If the trajectory from unstitching to re-stitching would seem to imply a movement from chaos to order, Grudova disallows this more comforting reading by presenting the protagonist of Notes from a Spider as a grotesque, insane figure who murders successive seamstresses and disgusts his own doctor with the proliferation of homemade stitches fashioned by his beloved Florence. The notes end mid-sentence, and an editorial addendum indicates that there is an indeterminate smudge on the page, which may be "blood, ink, or alcohol." The element of contingency is an appropriate capstone to the strange and unsettling stories in this collection.
The stories in Jeffery Eugenides's debut collection could hardly be more different in tone and approach from Grudova's, although they do contain a kind of eccentricity in their details. Capricious Gardens, for example, shuttles among four people – two men and two women – and a thwarted act of seduction that has as its instrument the supposedly mummified finger of Saint Augustine. Baster is narrated by a man who attends a party thrown by his ex-girlfriend to celebrate her plan to artificially inseminate herself with a turkey baster.
The characters in this collection suffer malaise from disappointment and failure, be it financial, professional or amorous. Even when the protagonists get what they want, they remain defeated: The lovelorn narrator of Baster finds a way to regain at least part of what he had with his ex-girlfriend, though he also recognizes that he will never be able to enjoy the fruits of his (admittedly tainted) victory.
Two stories in particular stand out for their subjects and approaches. The Oracular Vulva focuses on Luce, an expert on intersexuality in humans, as he conducts fieldwork among an obscure tribe in Indonesia. The story, which shares thematic elements with the author's 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Middlesex, is one of the pieces in Fresh Complaint most likely to be branded "problematic," most particularly for its ending, which involves a sexual liaison between Luce and an underage boy from the tribe.
The encounter is not dramatized, and is presented in the context of the researcher's attempts to understand diverse sexual mores and practices: "Luce tried not to make value judgments about the sundry clinical paraphilias, and only when they were patently injurious (as with pedophilia and rape) did he object." Although the practice of boys providing oral sex to grown males is understood to be a rite of passage (the tribal belief being that it makes the boys strong, and Luce's belief being that it does no harm since it is not stigmatized in the local culture), there will no doubt be readers who find the ending of this story difficult to accept.
Readers might also be divided by the collection's title story, which closes the book. A sort of inversion of Zoe Whittall's novel The Best Kind of People, the story focuses on a 16-year-old South Asian girl named Prakrti who schemes to manufacture a sexual assault charge against a middle-aged, married professor. The issue is not so much that Prakrti lies about the incident; the story makes it fairly clear that the professor acts stupidly and is at least complicit in his own downfall. What is liable to be more contentious is the way the story is narrated. Half the story is told from the point of view of Prakrti, who does what she does in order to avoid a potential arranged marriage spearheaded by her traditional, conservative mother.
Fresh Complaint, dated 2017, is one of the two most recent stories in the collection. This is also the year in which a debate has sprung up among authors and readers as to the legitimacy of cultural appropriation and writing outside one's own background or experience. By foregrounding Prakrti and her family in this narration, then coupling that presentation to a story that hinges on a trumped-up charge of sexual assault, Eugenides doesn't so much wade into this debate as dive in head first. It is unclear whether his story is meant as a stick poking itself into the side of the zeitgeist, or whether it is merely tone deaf.
Steven W. Beattie is reviews editor at Quill & Quire and writes a monthly column on short stories for The Globe and Mail.