WHO I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE
By Susan Perabo
Simon & Schuster. 191 pp. $20
THE WOMAN WHO CUT OFF HER LEG AT THE MAIDSTONE CLUB
By Julia Slavin
Henry Holt. 192 pp. $22
Susan Perabo has clearly mastered the short-story form. Almost every piece in "Who I Was Supposed to Be," her first collection, is well constructed and told in unobtrusively expressive prose. While the book contains a great deal of genuine wit and some laugh-out-loud humor, the overall impression it leaves is of a quiet and penetrating truthfulness.
Perabo has a talent for endings. Each story seems to end with a kind of gravity and purpose, a gathering together of the preceding threads of event, image and dialogue. Some of these endings are so strong that they redeem a not entirely successful story, as in "The Greater Grace of Carlisle," where a wandering narrative concludes with an unexpected moment of tenderness and grace. On first reading, the premise of "Explaining Death to the Dog," in which a young woman who has lost her baby strives to convey to her dog the concept of death, seems fey, especially if Lorrie Moore's extraordinary story about a sick child, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," reverberates in the reader's memory. But again, a fine ending--simple, strong, utterly true--grants retrospective justification.
Perabo's dialogue, whether between father and son, mother and daughter, a feuding couple or two tired children and their irritated and irresponsible grandmother, is flawless. There are many moments of delicious wit. Take this description of a Hollywood wife who appears to make her living by laughing: "She laughed at parties and premieres and weddings and wakes with equal force, while Frank stood by with the bemused look of an overindulgent father whose child has just wet her pants in a crowded elevator."
There are many resonant images. In "Counting the Ways," for example, a young wife has spent her inheritance on one of Princess Diana's ball gowns. News comes over the television of the princess's death. As he watches the grim scenes--the crushed car, the white-faced commentators talking of bloodied bodies and stopped hearts--the husband holds the mannequin wearing the gown on his lap, smoothing and straightening her dress.
"Gravity" is perhaps the strongest story in the collection. A boy and girl play a prank that goes horribly awry; another youngster dies. The care with which the perpetrators pick their way through the days and weeks that follow, their incomprehension and struggles to cope, are subtly and wonderfully evoked. The reader knows, as they do not, that their lives are irrevocably broken.
Julia Slavin is a major discovery. Her writing gets into your bloodstream like a fever. The stories in "The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club" are surreal, fantasy colliding with fact, event dissolving into event with dreamlike inconsequence and inevitability. They are rich in invention. Many revolve around an extraordinary central image, a feat of intellectual and imaginative daring that in some cases seems excessive but which is generally pulled off by sheer inventiveness, intelligence and wit. In a daring extension of the concept of vagina dentata, a woman grows teeth all over her body. A man's external parts start falling off--first hair, then limbs. A woman has an affair with an oak tree. A man buys a huge, ancient lobster at an airport because he can't bear to think of its being boiled and eaten.
But the stories go far beyond these surprising propositions. Once you've grasped the central concept, you think you have some idea where you might be heading. You assume that the falling limbs, for example, have something to do with loss, potency, oncoming age. At the very least, you expect to be present when the fellow's penis drops off. But Slavin is far too original for that; you just have to follow, wondering, wherever she leads.
There may be a debt here to Bruno Schulz or Franz Kafka. But once Kafka has established a preposterous premise--the circus attraction that consists of a man starving himself to death, the singing mouse and, most famously, poor Gregor Samsa, who wakes to find he has become a giant insect--the stories unfold with relentless logic, in that precise banker's prose. But Slavin's work morphs like a hallucination, and her prose is as juicy, energetic, vigorous and exploding with invention as that of T.C. Boyle (with whom she seems to share a fascination with meat, and of whose "Filthy With Things" her "Babyproofing" is somewhat reminiscent). The stories are full of sensory details, and she has a knack for bringing the repulsive and the seductive, the grotesque and the lyrical into odd conjunction. So that when the toothed woman is given gold caps, for example, she becomes to her husband a treasure from King Tut's tomb, a gilded statue covered in jewels.
A couple of pieces are realistic--at least in the sense that nothing utterly impossible happens in them; some are tender; all electrify and evoke emotion. Slavin often favors a kind of Chinese-box effect, a story coiled within a story. A character tells a story about the talking stadium that fell in love with a cheerleader, got its heart broken and then realized--too late, because it had already caved in and killed everybody--that its real love was the hot dog lady in one of its concession stands, who had been there all along inside it.
Juliet Wittman, the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals."