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Book Reviews The characters in Elise Levine’s This Wicked Tongue have substance that will stick

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  • Title: This Wicked Tongue
  • Author: Elise Levine
  • Genre: Short Fiction
  • Publisher: Biblioasis
  • Pages: 172

The publisher of This Wicked Tongue suggests Elise Levine’s new collection bears stylistic kinship with the short fiction of Joy Williams and Karen Russell. For those unfamiliar with these writers, here is a small taste.

In her story Taking Care, about a preacher whose wife is in hospital, Williams describes the sense of emptiness in the family home: “The room is full of lamps and cords.”

Russell’s Orange World, published this year, contains this gem about Joshua trees: “they look as if they were on drugs and hallucinated themselves.”

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A story is not a bowerbird’s nest of blue objects, but isn’t one of the pleasures of short fiction these sentences that sing?

In Levine’s new collection, my favourite sentences both come from the story The Riddles of Aramaic. In the first, a runner, Em, is frustrated by her poor body alignment: “She can tell that her form is off-kilter, strides uneven and inaccurate, shoulders jutting far forward in front of her hips like some weird animal concoction. A jackalope with citrine eyes and an amethyst for a heart, unnaturally animate, its locomotion strained and awkward as it transports itself.”

The new collection by Elise Levine, seen here, bears stylistic kinship with the short fiction of Joy Williams and Karen Russell.

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Running is not actually Em’s job. She’s a young divinity student returned to her hometown and her parents’ house for a residency at the local hospital, where she offers non-denominational spiritual care to patients reaching the terminal stage. But in the obsessive way of some runners, everything that is not running is filler.

The filler category includes Em’s parents, whom she thinks of as “wallpaper, elevator music … flour and fat bound with water.” Em might not turn out to be a bad person – she’s just a self-aggrandizing twentysomething who has yet to grow out of a juvenile tendency to equate suffering with worthiness. She therefore blames her parents for her happy childhood, which brings us to the second-best sentence in This Wicked Tongue, regarding the objects of her parents’ devotion: “There was seemingly nothing they couldn’t overcome, except for the fact that they were dogs.” Imagine this sentiment tinted not with admiration but a disdain-fear combo, and you have an idea of Em.

Em is representative of the characters in Levine’s book: in Armada the emotionally abusive husband, who might also be the needy, cheating Eddie in the story Death and the Maidens; the clueless, self-involved cop who doesn’t recognize his marriage troubles in Made Right Here; the entire family in The Association. This last story is about a divorce: deadbeat dad, controlling mother, hostile 11-year-old Martin, less responsive than a robot.

Whether you want to spend time with these people will probably indicate if this book is for you. Martin, for his part, wants to keep as far away from his childhood self as possible. We meet an adult Martin in a later story, when a crisis with his partner brings on flashbacks of the person Martin once was. With some shame over his internalized fatphobia, he imagines child Martin as a weight on his chest, a ghost boy he can’t shake.

Of the authors quoted at the beginning of this review, to me This Wicked Tongue feels much closer to the offbeat Russell, whom many readers might know principally as the author of the novel Swamplandia! but is at her best in the short-story form. Some of This Wicked Tongue’s more outlandish elements bring to mind Paige Cooper’s Zolitude, also published by Biblioasis, from last year. Cooper has a talent for making real the surreal. In her story Spiderhole, for example, humans mistreat dinosaurs like any other beast of burden. Like those of Cooper, several of Levine’s stories explore the bizarre and fantastical: the postapocalyptic world of Alice in the Field; the very strange teenage relationship in Public Storage, Available Now; and the animism that permeates a 14th-century anchoress’s account in the titular story.

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A comparison with Zolitude draws out one flaw, however. The difference between how Cooper and Levine treat these stories is their length – with Levine, the shortest ones are the strangest. These stories have their own grammar, yet as readers we don’t get to stay long enough in their worlds to really parse their syntax. In All We Did, for example, the narrative “we” remains enigmatic.

Several of these stories will stay with you – the startling conclusion to The Riddles of Aramaic; the structure of Death and the Maidens, which makes you want to stick with Eddie, even if you don’t like him; and then there’s Martin’s choice in As Such – but these are given room to breathe. I wish the others had been given as much.

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