In "Mer," the first of the gorgeous, limpid, and hot stories in Nymph, by Francesca Lia Block (released in paperback this summer by Circlet Press), a former surfer down on his luck after an accident walks down a deserted beach boardwalk and sees a girl in a wheelchair riding towards him out of the grey morning. Her legs and feet are wrapped in "tight silvery fabric covered with half-moon shaped spangles." When he sees her, the surfer "feels as if he has swallowed a mouthful of salt water and it is caught in his throat." And then she runs her fingers over her breasts and pulls off her T-shirt. The whole book is reflected in the line that comes next:
"Crazy perfect, like him, alone in the rain, pulling off her shirt for a stranger."
There is a deep vein of sadness in these stories, variations on weariness and persistence that I recognize as essentially human. There are spirits, magic, an erotic undersea rescue that spills out onto land, linked dreams, and a powerfully wicked pornographic surgeon. When a dancer in a strip club waves her many arms like tentacles, I was reminded of Tanner Sack, the amphibious Remade in China Mieville's The Scar. But the stories in Nymph don't take the reader to another, distant world, but deeper into the unspoken places of this one.
Each story is small and radiant, with delicate, precise language and spare settings that open into hidden recesses of consciousness and sexuality. A nurse has an erotic response -- not her first -- to a dying patient. A young woman taking anti-depressants feels helped by them, but has lost interest in sex with the man she loves. Her best friend has an unusual gift. A man can't get over a woman who has left him. The situations sound simple, but each one is nuanced and charged with subtle observations of behavior, intense emotions, and explicit sex.
The transformative power of sexuality is both undeniable and elusive. It is no coincidence that the book opens with a quote from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Carmelita, the narrator in the final story, "Change," is obsessively jealous. "In school she is reading Ovid and she wishes that, like the women in the myths, she could be changed by her feelings into something else. If she can't change into another more beautiful woman, she would like to at least be a tree, or a flower, a fountain or an animal, so that she wouldn't have to think of any of this anymore."
Carmelita channels the power of her jealousy into actual transformation as she describes beautiful women to her lover as her body clenches around him like a fist, and "she is infused with all of them, with their beauty, with their power, with their wholeness." She takes them in as she takes him in, and becomes, the story tells us, wholly herself. When, in another story, a woman overcomes obstacles to sex with the help of powerful, subtle, and very present ghosts, she also lowers her hips over her partner, "and then all of a sudden in one plunging thrusting suction motion, he's inside. But also it feels like she is inside of him. Can't tell the difference." This is accurate magic, made up of the forces that hold the flesh to bone, and the forces that make it fly off into compelling, ordinary mysteries.
Plum, a character who appears in several stories, was my favorite. In "Milagro," we meet her with this declaration: "From the time she is very young, all Plum wants is this: to be loved for who she is with complete and awesome devotion." After the prom she goes to the camp splendor of the Villa Milagro motel with her beloved Santiago, he of the intense beauty, devotion, and eye make-up, where she discovers a strange power. It isn't a super power, and it doesn't get her exactly what she wants, but it spills over into more joy for the people she loves. It also crosses traditional gender and relationship lines and results in some of the most deliciously wicked sex in the book.
After I finished Nymph, I thought of the strange, dangerous powers of stories like "Mrs. Jones" and "Acceptance Speech" in Carol Emshwiller's Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories or the spooky elusiveness in Kelly Link's collection Stranger Things Happen. While I was reading it, though -- obsessively, lingeringly, much later into the night than I had planned -- I thought only of these beautiful stories, and nothing else.
Copyright © 2003 Susan Stinson
Susan Stinson's latest novel, Venus of Chalk, will be out in May 2004 from Firebrand Books. Other books are Martha Moody and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. She has published in Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Curve, and Diva. Stories and essays can be found online at Blithe House Quarterly and Nolose. To contact Susan, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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