Megan Milks’s Kill Marguerite is a collection that wears its power lightly, and as such, is quite a difficult book to write about in order to do it any justice. When I was asked to review this book, I was apprehensive because I wanted very much to read it, but felt like I was supremely underqualified to talk about it at length. A general search on Google will probably reveal various reviews that describe Kill Marguerite as a collection of playful, imaginative, weird, freaky, grotesque, queered-up stories that upend heteronormativity, stories that are irreverent of bourgeois norms of bodily discretion and propriety. Indeed, it’s all that. Kill Marguerite is slimy, gooey, inappropriate, and (metaphorically) shitty. I am incredibly squeamish and can’t deal very well with expectorating orifices, and here in Kill Marguerite was a girl with expectorating orifices. I am embarrassed to admit that part of my initial apprehension about reading this book had much to do with how disgusting it would be.
But Milks is not a writer in it for the shock or the cheap transgressions and Kill Marguerite is a rich, bizarre, and unpredictable collection of stories that break genre boundaries of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative myth retellings. In a thoroughly engaging discussion with Anne Yoder in Newcity Lit, Milks explains her obsession with bodily fluids as something that is concurrent with her obsession with shame:
There is something very threatening still about the grotesque leaky ‘feminine’ body, especially as opposed to the closed, impenetrable ‘masculine’ body. Many of the stories are interested in the transgressive, heroic properties of the grotesque female body. Others actually cut against the feminization of the grotesque. Some of the leaky (and penetrable) bodies are (hetero) masculine bodies—the figure of the father, for instance, gives birth, is impaled, et cetera, in a number of ways.
Her ability to render these abject bodies, with a tenderness and intelligence that cuts through the shame in an attempt to reach some kind of truth, is a testament to the strength of her writing. What are these leaky, disgusting, hysterical bodies trying to say? In stretching the limits of narrative form, Milks isn’t merely playing around with structure, writing clever stories that may impress upon first reading but quickly become forgettable. Instead, the structure informs the content, so much so that the body is not merely made transgressive, but is opened up, stretched out, and expanded until it becomes the very landscape of the story—like in “Swamp Cycle,” where the “(hetero) masculine body,” to use Milks’s phrase, of the narrator’s father is rendered penetrable and mutable, indistinguishable from the narrator’s body and the swamp that surrounds them.
“The Girl with Expectorating Orifices” is a title that suggests that the story is fundamentally interested in the leaky, feminine body, but when the unnamed narrator tells us, “Now, I’m the expectorator. I am crying and wheezing and shitting and puking and there is no one around to absorb it” (p. 182), it becomes clear that Milks is also dealing with excess, the too-muchness of being, which is always gendered feminine, and always represented as weak, or as a form of malfunction, like hysteria. This excess suggests an inability to comport oneself with dignity in the world. To be constantly secreting fluids and emotions is to be a constant spectacle—with the attendant assumption that one must not be able to reason, or think one’s way out of a situation. Women can’t do anything, hence they cry and bleed and scream. That’s a very basic stereotype, and perhaps no one really thinks this way, even the most hardened of men’s rights activists, but the basic, crude stereotype sets in motion various cultural and social assumptions about the excessiveness of the feminine, and the impotence of the masculine should it demonstrate the same. In Milks’s story, the girl with the expectorating orifices is possibly also the narrator, who is possibly also unreliable, and who may or may not be telling you a “true” story. “There is no one around to absorb” the fluids, and no readers willing to enter into a story, no people willing to risk themselves in love. The story then becomes a meditation on both the impossibility of love and of writing, perhaps, if there is no one around to absorb what one has to give. In juxtaposing the excessiveness of the body against the “hyper”-emotional, Milks doesn’t just use the body as a vessel to get to some higher truth in her fiction or focus on a mind vs. body duality, but instead looks imaginatively at how both body and mind produce the other.
Another story that deals explicitly with the feminine body and its disgusting emissions is “Floaters” (co-written by Milks and Leeyanne Moore), one of the most subtly painful stories in the collection. The narrator is (presumably) a regular white guy who also happens to be a stand-up comedian, and his Korean girlfriend’s bulimia becomes the subject of his highly successful routines. (The audience laughs and laps it up.) The boyfriend is long-suffering, having watched and heard his girlfriend puke her guts out after a meal, having had to stare at the remnants of her laxative-consumption in the toilet bowl—hence the title, “floaters”—and come upon the remains of her vomit in a pot in the kitchen. It’s so unremittingly gross, and it’s telling that for someone like myself who tries not to look at her own bodily, er, emissions in the toilet bowl, that these were the details of the story that my brain fixated on. “Floaters” hurts because of how easily appropriation of another person’s pain occurs, especially when one half of the partnership considers himself the creative one, the artist (the writer and stand-up comic being no different in mining their life experiences for stories that would gain them an adoring audience). It also hurts because it deftly brings to the fore misogyny, white privilege, and racism without letting the reader off the hook; in reading the story and enjoying it, one is participating in the narrator’s appropriation of his girlfriend’s illness. The Korean girlfriend exists not only as the laugh-a-minute stereotypes that the narrator peppers his comedy routines with, she also exists mainly as the contents of her body: shit and puke. How awful to be reduced to your gender or your race, and objectified in those terms. But how much more awful is it to be reduced to one’s shit? While reading the story the reader knows, and feels, the white male narrator’s pain and confusion—but whose excrement is held up as a matter of contempt, and the subject of comedy? It’s a story that forces the reader to pay attention to power and its effects, as well as to the intersections where disgust and desire meet. The girlfriend’s illness is erotic, which is partly why the narrator still hangs on to the relationship: things can be really bad, but if it makes you come, people are willing to endure a lot for the pleasure. This self-deception, about the reason why the boyfriend hangs on to the relationship and turns his girlfriend’s illness into an object of comedy, lays bare the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality.
The unsettling, disturbing facets of desire are also a feature in “Slug,” a story I truly expected to hate, but of course ended up loving. There is an element of the fantastic and the grotesque which Milks, the skilled writer, is able to control and manipulate very well without losing control of the structure and the narrative. The body doesn’t take over Milks’s stories; even at their grossest, these stories are self-aware and cognizant of the limits of fantasy. “Slug” seems to me the perfect narrative to a world in which desire has gone rampant. Sex sells everything in contemporary capitalism; it is abstracted from actual social relations between people and is fully exploited and commodified, and held up merely as exchange value. How does an individual “get in touch with their own desire,” so to speak? It seems quite impossible. In “Slug,” Patty’s fantasies are ludicrous, at parts reading like the at-times sad and humorous captions and video titles on porn websites, and they become all-encompassing until she literally loses herself. But as with all Milks’ stories, it’s unclear if she has lost herself or merely transformed into the kind of being she really needs to be. But slug Patty gets no happy ending, either. When all avenues for exploring desire have been exhausted, when one has turned oneself inside out and become the cock that one really needs, what is left?
This makes it seem like Kill Marguerite is an entire collection of stories about slug sex and excrement, but it’s not. Some of the other stories are intertextual puzzles in the best sense, intensely creative in imagining possibilities beyond a heterosexual, able-bodied, white, and affluent vision of life and thus serious about what it intends to interrogate: heterocentric romance narratives, compulsory heterosexuality and its attendant forms of femininity, aspects of affluent white teen girlhood. As a writer, Milks is able to combine the sly humour and farcical, almost carnivalesque aspects of fantasy with some heavy themes because she takes both her work and her readers seriously. The Sweet Valley Twins-Choose Your Own Adventure mashup story, with bits of The Babysitters Club and My Teacher Is an Alien thrown in, is an absolute delight because of how it plays with both YA and science fiction genre conventions, but also taps into the underlying sadness of the formulaic ghost-written stories of the Sweet Valley series that is most often felt by the readers who identified with Elizabeth Wakefield. But then, are there Sweet Valley readers who didn’t identify with Elizabeth? (Presumably those who identified as Jessica would have been too busy Living Life to have wasted their time on boring activities like reading.) Still, identification with a white, blonde, upper-middle-class American teenager can only go so far for the thousands (millions?) of brown-skinned, dark-haired, not-so-middle-class readers of Sweet Valley and similar-themed YA fiction in both the “first world” and the “developing world,” and this is something Milks is shrewdly attentive to, deploying the standard repetitive clichés of the ghost-written books in a way that draws attention to its own ridiculous unattainability. This is also skillfully explored in the anthology’s title story, which combines the structural elements of video games with the seemingly standard narrative structure of YA girl stories into a subtly powerful meditation on the impossibility of escaping the trap that is teenage gender trouble. Mean girls are a symptom, not the cause, of adolescent gender and sexual relations, but sometimes, like Tori Amos in “Waitress,” you can believe in peace and still want to kill.
Other stories, like “Dionysus” and “My Father and I Were Bent Groundward” are speculative fantasies that wrestle with the patriarchal hero-worship narrative of Greek myths, while “Earl and Ed” is an utter heartbreak of a story, dealing with the love between a wasp and an orchid, but bringing to the surface all the fears and confusions that surround non-normative relationships and the difficulties of “love” to sustain and flourish a relationship outside of the dictates of capitalism’s reproductive futurism. “Traumarama” is the least story-like of all the stories, being a compilation of various confessions by the writer’s friends; interesting and quite disturbing for how, in the midst of “cutesy” traumas that fit the teen magazine narrative framework of “something embarrassing, not too horrific,” there are stories that crack open the framework to reveal, as it were, too much, throwing into question the entire edifice of the traumarama-industry of the teen girl magazine: Your trauma is a media company’s profits, so learn to view your pain and the pain of others through the prism of ease of comprehensibility and disposability! In next month’s issue . . .  In Milks’s collaborative version, though, there are stories that remind the reader that there nothing easy or disposable about a narrative of trauma.
About a quarter of the way through writing this review, around midnight two nights ago, I was suddenly overcome by chills, dizziness, and nausea. Two hours later, spent and exhausted in the bathroom, I was the girl with the expectorating orifices, with my feverish forehead pressed against the cool tiles of the bathroom wall. At some point I must have been so tapped out that I fell momentarily asleep in this awkward position, and awoke to feel as though my clammy forehead had been sucked into the bathroom walls, and I thought for a second, and I had a brief vision of Catherine Deneuve’s apartment walls in Repulsion and a more insistent thought: Oh my god, I am a Megan Milks story. Reader, it turned out to be ordinary gastroenteritis, but for that moment it felt like I could not give the author a higher compliment than to feel as though I had not only absorbed the book, but the book had absorbed me into itself, too.
Subashini Navaratnam lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and has published poetry in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara, Aesthetix, and Sein und Werden. Her writings on books have appeared in The Star (Malaysia), Pop Matters, and Full Stop and she has published nonfiction in MPH's anthology, Sini Sana and Buku Fixi's KL Noir: Yellow. She tweets as @SubaBat and blogs at disquietblog.wordpress.com.