There’s this thing that happens in books, wherein after about three or six months, they’ve been out enough that no one really looks at them or takes them seriously anymore, for the most part. Books have a short shelf-life in the public consciousness because so many wonderful books keep coming out. There is only so much time to spend on old books, when the shining and bright new things emerge, and anyway, perhaps the old books aren’t necessarily classics in the “canon” that everyone keeps talking about. Anyway, it’s easy to forget how we got here. It’s easy to lose attention to books that were out a while ago, from small presses, from authors who were not the literary equivalent of a household name.
Still, books last. They don’t disappear into thin air, or melt like a rotten cabbage. They stand and wait eternal, an architecture that never has to fall, and might be the things that redeems us in all the rubble and all the ruin to come.
I was recently asked to review an older book by an author that is not a household name, and I enjoyed it. I encourage everyone to reach back and seek out the things that they should have gotten to but didn’t quite have the time. In this spirit, I checked out Jennifer Pelland’s collection UNWELCOME BODIES. These eleven stories run the gamut from body horror to hopeful futures. One of the best stories is reminiscent of Eugie Foster’s award-winning work, where a brutal caste system demand elaborate facial paintings and masks and rituals, and two men from different castes carefully – very carefully – seek love. The author explains it away as a desire to write a story about pretty painted boys in love, but the echoes of authoritarian regimes and natural disaster and subtle acts of rebellion in a plausible, horrifying, well-constructed reality belie her minimalist explanation.
Another stand-out story involves an attempt to give the infamous elephant man a happy ending. He is stolen out of time, and thrust into a future world of aggressive body-modification. He watches with horror as someone who intentionally stole his horrific, painful body became a cultural icon-of-the-moment and celebrity for trading bodies with Joseph Merrick (a.k.a. “The Elephant Man”). Merrick is relieved to finally have a “normal” body, but is still oddly attached to his old one, and certainly doesn’t wish to see it everywhere, in all the screens and billboards of his new life in the future.
Body horror is a recurring theme, and alienation in one’s own body. The story that best represents this is probably “big Sister/Little Sister” wherein an abusive mother with two daughters – one very sick and one healthy – pays a black market surgeon to forcibly combine the sisters such that the sick one lives on past her natural death in the stomach of the healthy one.
The collection travels some dark roads. But, it comes around all right, in the end.