Julia Elliott shows that the future is not all meteor-mining and space operas; sometimes it's a retirement home offering exoskeletal limbs, and sometimes it's radioactive teenagers in love. The Wilds is a short story collection that brims with untamed energy and exults in the unknowable shadowland between today and tomorrow. It's a world where grandmothers still eat Tootsie Rolls and throw revivalist storytelling sessions about the rapture. It's also a world where robots can fall in love and women occasionally start tribes of neo-Neanderthals. In short, it's a whirlwind tour of an electric forest where you can still hear the call of the wild—v2.0.
Having won a Pushcart Prize, Elliott's wings aren't untested. They've weathered the solar winds, and she's beamed us little snippets before—the story "Regeneration at Mukti," for instance, was previously seen in the magazine Conjunctions. Published by Tin House Books, The Wilds is her first short story collection, and it's fully charged with a riot of emotion. Each story is textured with lush imagery, from the grotesque to the gorgeous.
In “The Whipping,” you'll want to commit to heart the poetry of a small bird being butchered. When faced with weeping pustules and burst boils during "Regeneration at Mukti," you should be prepared to put down your fork. And "Jaws" will squeeze your throat with a turn of phrase from a daughter discovering her parents' terrible frailty: "you feel a raw throb of emotion crawling up from the cellar of your heart like a fleshy, red mutant from a horror flick" (p. 111).
For all the color and life Elliott imbues in her writing, there is the occasional let-down. Not her prose—her prose is flawless, her prose will be your next lover—but in her endings. "Organisms" literally ends with a mysterious boy gazing at the protagonist and then willy-nilly running down a hill. Not in a meaningful way; just running away, like he's going to the JCPenney to buy a new pair of pants. Such an abrupt ending can be jarring, and not just because Elliott's writing is a new form of contact high. The ambiguity doesn't feel earned; it feels like an ellipsis, like it's just trailing off and drifting away in a half-dreamed ether.
Elliott's stories do benefit from a sense of non-localization—though a handful of her stories are explicitly set in South Carolina, they could take place in Anytown, USA—but this quality of unfinished thought can be problematic. It makes you feel unanchored, and not in a way that feels deliberate. Instead, you get the sense that some of her less successful stories have been offered up as curiosities, found objects that might have imagined myths behind them but no true history. It forces the reader to read between the lines without enough context to excavate meaning, as though the author is uncertain of where the story truly lives.
This not-ending happens a few times throughout the collection, but you'll forgive Elliott for them because when she nails the landing, she really hits it through the baseboard. "Regeneration at Mukti" is one of these, particularly successful because it forces you to develop an opinion about the characters and their destinies. A basic summary of "Mukti": a bunch of rich people go to a VIP spa where they get the latest and greatest treatments, which taken together promise a total cellular facelift. Unlike other spas with their cucumber eye masks and lavender-scented bubble baths, though, Mukti specializes in pumping clients full of a cocktail of the nasty stuff: bacteria, viruses, fungi, plague, and other agents of pestilence that turn the beautiful and desperate into walking scabs, human-sized boils waiting to be popped by the hand of God.
Where "Mukti" gets really interesting is in its themes of superficiality, spirituality, and privilege. The characters are arrogant, glaring darkly at the waiting staff when the organic salad is missing capers. And yet, whether or not it's because of a fascination for the abominable, you can't help but feel sorry for their folly, pity the fact that they would put themselves through several circles of manmade hell just to achieve an idea of physical perfection. You wonder if the main character drinks the Kool-Aid and truly believes in the spiritual nature of her journey, or if she's just afraid of old age and cellulite. As she practices her breathing, the spa's resident guru drops gems of wisdom in her lap, such as, "reach into the core of your misery ... and you will find a shining pearl" (p. 172). She seeks enlightenment in the Skandha Center and is told that, "The Self you cling to ... is an empty No Self" (p. 192). She pictures herself as Buddha, emerging from her shell, and then in the next pages, she wonders if her lover, Red, will leave her for a younger, suppler blonde.
After so much detail about the main character's interior life—and stomach-churning descriptions of her viral treatments—the ending is shrouded in the kind of ambiguity that'll make you stare at the pages in a kind of sickening, satisfying disbelief. "It can't just end right there!?" you'll cry. You'll want justice or redemption for the characters, or at least some kind of closure. And when you crawl inside the sentences and dig around for the answers, you'll be fabulously frustrated because you'll know that that's the only way it could have ended.
It is not all good news, however. There are occasional missteps in the collection. As you would expect from something called The Wilds, Elliott explores the dichotomy of the manmade and the natural. This results in some howling at the moon (twice!) and some rants about the agri-industrial complex (once! at a buffet!). In "End of the World," Lisa rejects the wilderness but contemplates its allure and her ex-lover's simpler way of life. "Caveman Diet," meanwhile, is about a woman who decides to go to a paleo diet camp to escape dealing with marital strife, and in "Feral," a sharp contrast is drawn between a lackluster husband and a wild paramour who runs with a pack of dogs. All these clear-cut comparisons of "the wild" with so-called civilization can come across as a bit heavy-handed and repetitive at times, and the lines between the two often seem too starkly drawn. This never entirely causes a disconnect, but there is a sense of "check your wristwatch" deja vu. In a book only eleven stories long, the repetition can feel too much like filler.
Indeed, "Caveman Diet" is particularly ho-hum, not quite adding anything special or offering a new perspective. On top of the recycled theme, there is a needless love triangle. It can seem from time to time that Elliott relies a little too much on the "romantic tryst" angle to flesh out her characters or provide them motivation. It feels like a rather shallow treatment of the main characters' emotional reality, especially since the romance usually only serves to cause them the same kind of advice column anxiety. Does he like Woman B more than me? Was this a mistake? Why isn't he paying attention to me? But what about my boring husband, who reminds me of stale phyllo dough? Another example of this misstep, though far more egregious, is "Organisms," which takes too much time describing the relationships and half-romances between characters—and doesn't spend enough time on actual plot. We learn that teenagers are being struck down with a mysterious illness that causes them to become obsessed with video games and the Internet—but instead of developing this further, thematically or otherwise, it feels like the rest of the story is taken up by characters' insecurities and their poor romantic decisions.
It is far from all bad news, however. One story that successfully integrates romance into the very cybernetic fiber of its being is "The Love Machine." The titular descriptor clearly does not belong to the story’s stale phyllo-dough husband. The story is instead about a robot, named CD3 as robots are, who is the subject of an experiment in "the relationships among love, knowledge, language, and consciousness" (p. 313).
CD3 has a whole host of books, sonnets, and etymological studies downloaded into its brain, and then the study’s shady principal investigator has him fall in love with various subjects. Somewhat farcical in nature, the story definitely plays up the comedic value of its android protagonist, who happens also to sport a pair of luscious hot pink lips. However, the real genius in "The Love Machine" is the way in which CD3 struggles to express itself, to understand the confines of identity, and the way in which it is ruled by irrelevant biology. The robot is "[b]urdened with the whole sad history of men and women," and thinks about love in curiously gendered ways, even as it's aware of just how artificial those constructs are (p. 316). There's some serious pathos and existential angst here, and of all the stories in the collection, "The Love Machine" introduces the most interesting concepts about a far more intriguing area of ”the wilds”—in this case, the borders between human instinct and artificial intellect.
Not all of the stories in The Wilds include elements of science fiction, but the collection is at its most successful, then, when they do. The presence of technology provides a foil and focus that some of the stories sorely lack. "Regeneration at Mukti" and "The Love Machine" are far and away the most cohesive and complete stories, using science fiction as a way to amplify their characters' struggles. In comparison, stories like "Organisms" and "Caveman Diet" seem all the more anemic, with bare-bones characterization and motivation—and tired scenarios that fade, unremarked, into the background. In this way, the best stories in the collection offer us a glimpse into futures which are a little too disturbingly similar to our own present, populated by intensely human characters that are plagued with universal emotions. These futures are not dystopian, then, but perhaps painfully perceptive. Elliott's writing really soars when it shines a light on kernels of honest emotion in unusual contexts, whether it's the distress of a woman searching for a nanotech fountain of youth or a robot who simply wants to be loved.