In an interview with The Southern Review of Books, Chelsea Stickle describes her new chapbook, Everything’s Changing, as focusing on “women and girls as protagonists of their own stories … They want to solve a problem, and the only solution is for things to get a little weird.” It’s a neat encapsulation of this witty and finely crafted collection of twenty feminist flash fictions. In “AITA for falling apart at a dinner party?” the narrator tells us that, due to the isolation of the pandemic, “I’d been holding myself together with paperclips and a prayer for the last eight months. I was becoming strange.” We have all felt our selves changing out from under us these last few years. Stickle captures that feeling with brio and panache, creating small scenes of despair and transformation that will stick in readers’ heads for much longer than the hour or so her chapbook takes to read.
Many of the included tales are marked by disappointment; the melancholy of broken promises and unfulfilled potential. In “Modern Ghosts,” we are told that the newly dead struggle to adjust to a life without the internet:
Being a modern ghost is tricky. We’re so used to a never-ending stream of information that being deprived of it one day is like running into a wall you didn’t know existed. It’s a bigger shock than dying. Dying is inevitable. No one knows there’s no shitposting in the afterlife.
This paragraph builds up a palpable sense of loss which the final line undercuts tonally even as it reinforces a greater sense of absence. How much of modern life is defined by shitposting? How genuinely might we feel its loss? The story elaborates on this central mood, telling us that after death, “The people you love become stories that you left unfinished. The desire to know their middles and endings can be all-consuming. It’s the simplest way to become a poltergeist.” This metafictional turn is both amusing and desperately sad, and the whole thing culminates in a clever punchline: “And then you have to find someone else to haunt. Maybe a therapist.” This is Stickle’s craft at its best: wry, fleet-footed, but powered by genuine feeling.
Another highlight is “Jesse McCartney Wants You and Your Beautiful Soul.” The titular Jesse is a mid-00s pop singer whose nostalgic fans “flock to his mansion … when adulthood proved to be a total letdown.” The narrator tells us that “[l]etdowns lead to meltdowns and there’s nothing like the warmth of nostalgia when icy reality threatens frostbite.” Upon arriving at Jesse’s house, the protagonist realises that the flock of dancing women there have all given up their souls. This process is described in the consumerist language of convenience and faux individuality: “You get to choose and decorate your own jar. The extraction machine is less than a pinprick. Then you can stay forever or as long as you need.” It’s an archetypal scene of toxic fandom, but the story gains a poignant edge when we meet some of the other fans:
You’ve never experienced so much peace and happiness radiating from a crowd. One girl bumps into another, apologizes and neither of them seem irritated. Accidents happen. You talk to several Ph.D.s, a few doctors and a whole mess of teachers. No one ever kept their promises to these women. No one except Jesse.
The story’s overwhelming impression is not of Jesse’s cruelty, but of his fans’ loneliness. It’s a strikingly economical summation of what draws us back into our childhood fandoms, and it makes the protagonist’s ultimate surrender all the more moving.
A sense of powerlessness suffuses many of the stories in Everything’s Changing. “Medusa Wasn’t Born a Monster,” for example, creates a deliberate parallel between the main character’s treatment by mortal and immortal patriarchs. Early in the story, we are told that, “[w]hen gods decide what to do with you, there’s not much you can do.” A few paragraphs later, and despite the best efforts of her new protectors, the snakes, we learn that “Medusa understood what would happen next. The men would come for her. When men decide what to do with you, there’s not much you can do.” The motif of being frozen in time comes to a head in “Postcard Town,” in which a picturesque town and all of its inhabitants are literally frozen in place, “all so you could take a piece of our town, a piece of us with you.”
It’s tempting to read these images of cruel stasis politically. In the interview quoted above, Stickle says that “I wrote most of these stories in the Trump era, and it’s definitely evident upon re-reading. The absolute insanity of everyday life from 2016 to the beginning of the pandemic rattled my brain. It turned me into a fabulist.” That sense of powerlessness in the face of the absurd will certainly be familiar to anyone left of centre these days. But Stickle does not advocate for stasis, nor for a return to any previous status quo. In fact, she argues that “chaos is rife with possibilities. It can teach you who you are, what you want, what is essential to you, etc. In chaos, there’s room for growth.”
This growth takes a decidedly literal form in what is probably the collection’s best story, “I Told You I Would Take Your Hand.” The opening sentences set the scene brutally:
Everyone had heard about the girl whose body changed and grew sharp objects. The way she cut off the finger of the boy who touched her without asking was legendary. The other girls wondered whether it would happen to them. When it would be their turn to manifest their raw ferocity on their soft outsides.
Notice the elegant slide from the individual to the collective, the escalation from the boy’s casual violation to the aspirations of a community of young women. Sure enough, more girls start breaking out in strange “red mounds,” which dermatologists initially suspect to be full of pus.
But it wasn’t pus. It was paring knives, switchblades, machetes. They poked through skin and worked like new limbs. Now boys and men stared at them for different reasons. Their objectified bodies became objectively terrifying. The new girls adopted the first girl’s rule: Three strikes and you lose a hand.
The implications spiral out from here. The girls make their community into a tourist attraction as “Women flock to a town where men face consequences for shitty behavior.” Faced with the reality of patriarchal violence, these women have done what Stickle advocates: they have solved their problems by getting that bit weirder. And the story moves towards its own kind of happy ending, and another bracing punchline:
The women—for they were women now—landed stimulating jobs and married decent men. When the first woman gave birth to a daughter who grew sharp objects while teething, the others were relieved. It was never too early to start.
It’s a fitting capstone to this bleak, strange, but ultimately liberating chapbook. For, however disempowered we might feel, however hopeless our situation may appear, Stickle tells us that there is always something we can do. We may be baffled, but we need not always be inactive. Everything, after all, is changing. Including us.