A peculiarity of the eighteen stories collected in Teresa Milbrodt’s Instances of Head-Switching is that in all but two of the stories the protagonist’s name is unknown. Almost all the protagonists are women. All but two tell their stories in the first person. The majority use present tense. The choice to deny the reader this most basic detail, and to operate in a mode that is both intimate and immediate, has implications. So does the choice to do it over and over again. Instances is Milbrodt’s fourth collection of short stories, and its stories have a great deal in common with one another. Like the title, which suggests iterations on a theme, this is not by accident.
Milbrodt’s stories have been appearing in small literary journals and other out-of-the-way places where genre readers wouldn’t normally look. (An exception: “The Pieces,” included in Instances, appeared here in Strange Horizons in 2015.) Milbrodt’s collections, and one novel, have been published by small presses, and are out of print or otherwise hard to find. Her first collection, Bearded Women: Stories (2011), upended the tropes of circus performers, focusing on the inner lives and struggles of the eponymous bearded ladies, conjoined twins, three-legged men, and other divergent individuals, treating them with sensitivity and humanity. Instances expands Bearded Women’s canvas but maintains Milbrodt’s unvarying focus on marginalized individuals in precarious situations. Indeed, precarity is one of the recurring themes in Milbrodt’s stories: her characters are nearly always in a struggle to make rent, pay bills, and eke out an existence. They work in shops, they deal with difficult customers, they have bosses. The difference is that their circumstances, and the challenges they face, are always fantastical, and often apocalyptic.
And she handles these situations with considerable nuance. “The Dreamlords,” for example, is a story where the job involves recording dreams for paying customers, but it’s very much about the sacrifices made for work, and the conflicted feelings that come with a job that is better than your family has ever had before—better pay, better working conditions—but exacts a heavy toll all the same. “The Monsters’ War” is a story about postwar survival where four disabled people form a chosen family in order to help sustain each other. It’s also a complicated take on what a war is about, who the enemy is, and who the monsters are—in this story “monsters” take on many shapes and forms, different definitions, different roles. They’re context-dependent.
But there’s no question that the monsters, whatever or whoever they are, are real. One constant in Milbrodt’s stories is that the fantastical is expected, even mundane. “The gods are real and they’re sick of being ignored,” says the protagonist of “Athena,” who’s been hired by the Greek god to run her publicity campaign (p. 76). Mythical creatures and fantastic abilities are normal: unicorns are something you raise on a ranch and have appear in a soap commercial (“White as Snow”); sphinxes are something you can take home as a pet (“Sphinx”). And no one blinks twice when in “Berchta” the eponymous god of the protagonist’s German grandmother brings home a dragon.
My boss loves the dragon right away—she scratches the dragon behind its ears and says he’s adorable—but she’s antsy about having an uncontrolled flame indoors. Berchta smiles and says that’s easily solved, since we can let him sit behind the restaurant where we have a smoker and outdoor grill. Both are tended by an economics-professor-turned-award-winning-barbecue-pit-master named Marcus. (p. 41)
Milbrodt’s reinterpretations of myth and fable veer inevitably toward the quotidian and the marginalized. And with a point to make, not at all subtly: Sisyphus bags groceries and staffs the till at a gas station, because Hades thought “an eternity of minimum-wage labor” was a more fitting punishment: “In the evening he came home smelling like grease and cigarettes, wishing for his old routine of boulder and hill” (pp. 120-121). But Sisyphus, Athena, and Berchta serve as foils, not protagonists: the story comes from the protagonists’ encounter with the power, latent or open, of these supernatural figures. Once again, they’re ordinary people—people who develop survival strategies when the otherworldly lands on their doorstep.
Emotional labor is another major theme, one that follows naturally from Milbrodt’s characters having service jobs. Two stories in particular are basically parables of emotional labor. The protagonist of “Marbles” works as a repo person, repossessing rent-to-own merchandise from customers behind on their payments. It’s emotionally harrowing work that brings her face-to-face with people in dire circumstances; to cope, she swallows marbles that artificially induce a desired emotional state.
I mixed and matched the marbles depending on my work schedule. Sometimes I had to take pride (light blue) and forget about humble (peach). Other days it was better to have assertiveness (light pink) but not aggression (crimson), and extra kindness (spring green) and compassion (lavender). Even jealousy (indigo) was useful in certain situations. It added to my drive, and I didn’t feel so bad about repossessing a huge flat-screen TV that was much nicer than anything I could afford. It wasn’t a good marble to swallow every day and regurgitate at night since it caused a slight burning sensation in my esophagus, but I don’t know how I could have survived the repo side of the rent-to-own business if it weren’t for the marbles. (p. 11)
The act of swallowing marbles—a metaphor for emotionally distancing yourself—wreaks havoc on the protagonist’s personal life when she brings them home. “Switching Heads” offers another solution: different heads, with personalities tailored for specific circumstances. “Three is compassionate, Seven has a no-nonsense demeanor, and One is philosophical, though that means she’s best worn after school,” the teacher protagonist observes (p. 62). In Milbrodt’s hands, emotional labor becomes tangible, the metaphors literal: you’re swallowing your feelings, or showing the world a different face. If this isn’t on the nose enough for you, consider “The Pieces,” a parable of emotional regulation in a family context, where the protagonist’s father literally goes to pieces when he flies into a rage.
As the premise of “The Pieces” might suggest, Milbrodt’s precarious situations leave their mark on the body as well. Many of her protagonists are disabled, yielding another vector of marginalization. Poor vision recurs: the protagonists of “The Monsters’ War” and “The Dreamlords” are functionally blind without glasses; the protagonist of “You May Mistake This for a Love Story” and another character in “Costume Control” are blind in one eye. Other characters lose body parts: temporarily in “Feet”; permanently in “In the Dim Below,” where children discover a hole that, in exchange for a finger, imparts immunity from falling bombs. That’s an example of the disability immunity trope; the disability superpower trope is at play in “You May Mistake This for a Love Story,” where the protagonist’s blind right eye can see into the future.
As such I would have reservations about how Milbrodt handles disabled characters, except that Instances also includes “Body Spirits,” a story that, in its handling of its characters’ relationship with chronic pain, its understanding that “how often being in a body is equal parts pleasure and negotiation” (p. 52), left me feeling absolutely seen. Because that story reflects my relationship with chronic pain. In “Body Spirits,” chronic illnesses are anthropomorphized: they’re given the form of elves, imps, and witches who must be mollified or warded off.
My witch is too calm about his possession, sticking me with pins when we take our daily walk downtown on my lunch break. Walking is supposed to help my arthritis, though sometimes that just means longer discussions with the witch. Other times I give up on constructive conversation, just eat my steamed broccoli and drink turmeric tea. She ignores that these foods are supposed to ward her off. I know my witch is genetic—my grandma and grandpa both had arthritis witches, though I was just a little kid and couldn’t see them. My doctor says that sometimes people inherit weak cartilage, and witches. No drug has proven effective against them, though they’re working on clinical witch-prevention trials. (p. 50)
In this case at least, and for this reader at least, Milbrodt got it right.
Subject matter, moral issues, political questions, theme, even story structure—these have a habit of turning up again and again in a writer’s work. This becomes all the more obvious when multiple variations on the same themes are presented in a single volume. A short story collection agglomerates an author’s preoccupations: sometimes this is a feature, sometimes a bug. In the case of Instances of Head-Switching, the repetition of theme is deliberate. The stories and protagonists that share narrative style, voice, even story length, are clearly meant to do so.
But this is a double-edged sword. A collection of stories that share theme and voice can reveal the limitations of an author’s range. How often they resort to the same tricks, the same tools. Even the most distinctive and unusual of voices—R. A. Lafferty, to pick an obvious, if over-picked, example—can become routine, even tedious, in a collection: a single Lafferty story is singular and distinctive, but every Lafferty story is the same kind of singular and distinctive.
This is not to say that Milbrodt’s literary tricks and tools even remotely reminded me of R. A. Lafferty’s. They didn’t. Or that Milbrodt’s voice is tedious and repetitive. It isn’t. But the patterns and preoccupations exist. They’re enough to say that there is such a thing as a Teresa Milbrodt story, and to define its characteristics fairly precisely: an unnamed first-person voice, a concern for the marginalized working class. But this also is to say that while a Milbrodt story can be distinguished from another author’s, it is somewhat more difficult to distinguish one Milbrodt story from another.