September 20: “Clothed, Female Figure” by Kirstin Allio

Say hey, Story366! I’m not sure why I haven’t brought this name up before on this blog—well, maybe I have, but not nearly enough—but Dan Wickett is sure a Jim Dandy of a guy. I’m a bit biased because I know Dan, which means I automatically like him, and he was the editor of Dzanc Books when they took my first collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom oh so many years ago. Dan’s original place in this crazy literary world was as the proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network website, a blog that liked to post articles about books, specifically literary fiction books and literary magazines. The EWN would print reviews of stories that appeared in journals, and that’s how Dan and I found each other, because EWN reviewed a piece or two of mine. That’s how we eventually discovered that I had a short story collection that needed a publisher and he was a publisher (he formed Dzanc with Steve Gillis soon after starting the EWN) who needed short story collections. Maybe that makes me biased, but on the other hand, it definitely makes me biased.

More importantly to this project, Dan’s posts about short stories is the main inspiration for this blog. I’d done a couple of posts for him in the past, namely for Short Story Month, which happens every May, my first foray into single-story response/critique/close reading. Having done a handful of those over the course of a couple of years of course meant I could do 366 in a row—that was my thinking this past New Year’s Eve, anyway—so I have Dan to either thank or strangle for sending me down this path.

And now Dan is working on a new project, putting together a list of every short story collection published in 2016. I think he got inspired by the list I posted here on September 15, so now he’s trying to get a comprehensive list, every single story collection out this calendar year. I’m especially appreciative of this effort because, you know, I need to know these things to write this blog.

Anyway, long story short, Dan Wickett is a gift to everyone who writes or reads short stories. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I bring a lot of this up because I’m doing a Dzanc book today, Clothed, Female Figure by Kirstin Allio, winner of a Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. I’ve seen Allio’s name here and there—she had a big novel, Garner, a few years back, but I’m not sure if I’ve read anything buy her before. I generally like all of the books Dzanc puts out, which sounds like me being a homer, but really, I think that’s why I had a book on their press, because of our aesthetic kindredness. Anyway, I read a couple of stories from Clothed, Female Figure today, including the title story, which I’ll focus on here.

“Clothed, Female Figure” is about this Russian woman, Natasha, who’s living in New York and working as a nanny. The story starts with Natasha telling us (in first person past tense) that she isn’t supposed to have favorites, but there was one girl she looked after, Leah, whom she obviously remembers, whom she’s telling the story about now. Leah’s mom is a lawyer and her dad an artist and Natasha watches Leah so the dad can spend time on his art, the mom’s job lucrative enough to pay her. Leah is a precocious, if not spoiled child, but Natasha, as implied, takes a liking to her, and is saddened, five years into the gig, when the money dries up and the marriage dissolves and her services are no longer needed.

Jump ahead a dozen years or so and Natasha is working for a new couple, another upper-middle-class New York professional couple. Out of the blue, she gets a letter from Leah, a freshman at college, who just wanted to reconnect, get in touch. Structurally, Allio includes the full text of this letter in the story, offset with an indent and a smaller text. It seems like Leah is doing well and that she sincerely misses Natasha. In fact, it seems as if Leah cites Natasha as a major influence in her life. Natasha is obviously pleased.

The story then becomes a series of letters from Leah, all of which Allio writes out for us; in fact, the story becomes more Leah letters than Natasha narration. She reacts to the letters, places them in time and context, and judges Leah, who eventually tags along with a sculpture professor and his family to Italy, where she serves as nanny to his two children. In a lot of ways, “Clothed, Female Figure” becomes Leah’s story, via this correspondence. Even the title is influenced by an art project Leah describes to Natasha, to make a woman-sized woman sculpture that is wearing clothes, which she thinks is harder to pull off and sexier than a nude.

One other thing to note: Natasha never writes Leah back. It’s something that Natasha states in her narration and Leah remarks on in her letters, not that it stops her from writing them.

Eventually, Natasha stops reacting to Leah’s letters and the intermingled paragraphs of Natasha’s interior monologue are about her life before coming to America, when she had a husband and a baby. The narration becomes dueling monologues, Leah going on and on about her life in Italy, all the things she sees, all the people she meets, while Natasha’s backstory comes out, her life as a neglected and verbally abused wife and mother back in Europe. I won’t go any further into the plot—the story rises quickly to climax at this point—but I’ll note that Allio does some really interesting things with the narration, along with reliability, a strategy you’ll have to read the story to understand (without me giving it all away, or at least my theory of what “it” is). All in all, I really liked this story, the interesting format, the intensity of Natasha’s personality, and the general patience that Allio exhibits in telling her tale (it’s over thirty pages long and worth every word).

Clothed, Female Figure is brand new, the latest from the fine people at Dzanc Books. The reviews for this book are vast and overwhelmingly positive, making me think I’d better keep going, read the rest, not that you’d have to twist my arm.

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