“The Woman With No Skin” by Sarah Layden

Happy Halloween, Story366! I’m sitting here on an overcast Wednesday, a bit bummed out because it’s supposed to start raining here at the exact time trick or treating starts in Springfield. I’m also sad because I haven’t figured out a costume yet. I took my kids to Party City yesterday and got them set up, but cheaped out on myself, as adult costumes were forty bucks each and me and the Karen both needed one and I started thinking how it’s only a few hours of … I cheaped out. Big time. I bought an inexpensive, extensive grease paint kit instead and convinced myself I’d do some elaborate makeupcentric costume before we head out. In the pouring rain. That’s my plan. Sigh.

I remember Halloween two years ago, during the everyday Story366, driving back to Missouri from Chicago, the Cubs having just won Game 5 of the World Series, Halloween the travel day, the next two days two of the most exciting, nerve-racking, and happiest days of my life (the bliss to end, with a vengeance, just over a week later). On that trip, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble in suburban St. Louis, planning on buying Stephen King’s story collection to cover for that day’s post, only to buy and post on Neil Gaiman instead. I made it back just in time to usher my kids into the neighborhood, full of hope and soon to be full of candy.

Today, two years and a much less stringent posting schedule later, I read Sarah Layden‘s new short-short chapbook, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, just out from Sonder Press as the inaugural winner of its chapbook competition. Not a bad way to spend a rainy morning, reading a really cool chapbook—I didn’t even plan on reading the whole thing, but that’s how it turned out, as Layden’s writing pulled me through the forty-eight pages. I read most of the stories twice. I enjoyed it that much.

It’s not often I read an entire book before posting, so I can literally pick any story to focus on here today. I have to admit, however, that today’s choice isn’t all that organic, despite my options: I picked the story before reading, based on its title. I knew I wanted to post today, that I’d have time this morning. I also knew that I would want to post on a Halloweenesque story, meaning I’d either have to run to the local B&N for that King collection (which I’ve still never done) or some other horrorish book; or, I’d have to scour the dozen or so books I have on deck here for something that sounded like a Halloween story. I’d just received Layden’s book in the mail last week, so that was near the top and I circled in on “The Woman With No Skin” right away. I flipped through the ToCs of the other books and found one story with “blood” in the title, but decided to go back the first book I picked up. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, “The Woman With No Skin” isn’t as much a horror story as the title might imply (at least to me). I mean, having no skin would be pretty horrific, right? How painful would that be? I’ve watched Game of Thrones. I’ve seen horror movies. I’ve skinned my knee. Ouch!

But that’s not what this story is. In Layden’s tale, a woman finds herself without skin. Or really, she’s never had skin, so it’s not some Gregor Samsa thing where she suddenly wakes up like that. It’s just what it is from the get-go. When she looks at herself, she sees all the muscle that we think she would see, that person from the medical textbooks, pink and strong and meaty as all heck. Holding it all together—so she doesn’t, like, fall apart—is a thin, clear membrane, almost like cellophane, that does the skin’s job—except for the visual part. Oh, and the membrane is permeable to things from the outside, like pollen and gum wrappers, which stick to the woman almost as if she’s flypaper.

Our hero’s problem isn’t that she’s some horrific freak who would no doubt live her days in a lab, if not a circus. Instead, she just doesn’t want everything and everyone to see inside her, to break that barrier that we all have (literally and figuratively). You could say she’s the anti-exhibitionist. In her case, however, it’s hard to call her shy. Clothes don’t work because she can feel the fibers digging into her tissues. Considering, she’s pretty calm about the whole thing.

A scientist friend constructs a brown polymer suit, one that keeps everything out, though makes her look frumpy, like a gingerbread person. She perseveres, but Layden throws her another curve: People’s words, and their thoughts, seems to stick to the polymer suit, printing themselves as if she’s taking dictation. Soon, she is walking around looking like a newspaper, random fragments about her printed across her body, along with random facts not about her. She sucks up everything and carries it with her. Wears it. This, to her, is even worse than everyone seeing her guts, all that stuff clinging to her innards.

Remember, this is a short, meaning we’re already pretty deep into the word count at this point, so I won’t go any further, reveal anything else. What I will say is that this character, unnamed but otherwise exposed, uses her situation, her predicament, to explore herself, to see what everyone else is seeing, to obtain a more objective view. This allows for Layden to hint at, use, and exploit a coterie of thematic connotations: this character allowed to see inside herself, to see who she really is, etc., plus all jockeying of the exterior vs. the interior, as well as notions of violation, what it means to be exposed and vulnerable. Still, there’s no lesson, just a creative, fun (if not Halloweenie) conceit, one that gives the author a chance to explore her character, a character that achieves a better understanding of herself via this unusual condition.

That’s what Sarah Layden does in most of the stories in The Story I Tell Myself About Myself. Protagonists find themselves in a peculiar circumstances, outlined in the first line or two of the story, then Layden just explores, has fun with the concept. There’s a story about a couple having to have timely sex, as prescribed by cycles and baby doctors, and how that weighs on their relationship, their desire for children. There’s a story about a woman who’s a house—complete with siding, gutters, and little tchotchkes on the inside. There’s a guy waiting for a comet. A woman who is dying with a baboon waiting for her heart. A woman waiting to hear the secrets of the rest of her life. This style/approach reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Aimee Bender, how she just throws her wildly creative and wonderful concepts out in the first sentence, then goes from there—I’ve tried to copy that for the last twenty years or so, to varying degrees of success. Layden is way better at it than me. That’s why I like this book so much, I think, because it reminds me of what I love about writing, what has always inspired me, what inspires me today.

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“They Would Be Waiting” by Donald Quist

Hello, Story366! Been a while, about ten weeks, about how long since the semester began. Maybe even longer. I remember visiting my family in Chicago, having read several stories from a book and being ready to write a post … but then something happened. It maybe have been my battery dying in my mother’s driveway, me not yet knowing it was the battery, me and my boys delayed for a few hours while I tried to figure it out. After that, it may have been some other mini-emergency, and after that, me deciding I’d have to reread the stories from said collection before posting, then me not being able to find the book. Soon after, prep for the semester loomed, came, was done, followed by the semester itself, which, ten weeks in, has not been an easy semester. In any case, it’s been a couple of months.

Oddly, I also just noticed that September and October have been the two busiest months, in terms of traffic, for Story366 … ever. What makes that odd is I haven’t posted or even thought much about this blog, yet it’s posting strangely high numbers. Weird.

I come back to you today because, firstly, it’s been too long and I’ve been itching to read some new fiction. Also, my semester has calmed a bit, between workshop rounds and publishing projects for Moon City Press, so I have time to read and write about books. But more than anything, I wanted to get this post in because today’s featured author, Donald Quist, is reading at MSU this evening—in a little over an hour—and I’ve been excited about him, his book, and his reading.

Today, Quist journeyed down from Columbia, where he’s in the PhD program at Mizzou (studying with my pals Trudy Lewis and Phong Nguyen, the lucky bastard). He visited a class on campus today and will visit a couple more tomorrow, and then he’s off to Texas for the Texas Book Festival. But we’re lucky to have him for a couple of days, for him to share his work, his knowledge, and his experiences with our students and community here in Springfield.

I’ve read a good hunk of Quist’s new collection, For Other Ghosts, just out a week or two ago from Awst Press. I’d not read much of Quist’s work before that, just a story or two online. After working my way through Quist’s eclectic, sensitive, and carefully crafted stories, I’m so glad to have come across this work, so glad to be celebrating the book’s release tonight. The stories were easy to gobble up, one after another, each of them completely different from the previous. Yet, at the same time, Quist is able to keep to his theme: the ghosts, or the people that his protagonists have lost, the ones who have stayed with them.

I could have written about any story in For Other Ghosts, and almost picked “Lolita Rattapong’s New Microwave,” a story made up entirely of interrogatives, one in which Lolita’s new microwave, the fabric of our universe, are questioned. Quist gets really philosophical and even metaphysical in other stories, such as “She Is a Cosmos,” stories where there isn’t a whole lot of action to the plot, but a whole lot of action in the characters thinking about things. Quist’s whit and smarts and delicious prose make it all work.

Today I’m writing about “They Would Be Waiting” instead, the lead story to the collection, one that has a pretty complicated plot. The story takes place in Ghana, where our unnamed narrator sits in a van with thirteen of his relatives, escorting his grandmother, inside her coffin in a tailing pickup truck, to her burial, back in her home village. The convoy has already stopped for sodas and bathroom breaks and a couple of military checkpoints, but the story opens with a third checkpoint, one that doesn’t go so smoothly. Immediately, I was grabbed with the setting, the situation, the whole conceit, which is undeniably great fiction writing.

As the soldiers at the checkpoint examine the driver’s papers and question the purpose of their travel, the narrator introduces us to his relatives, a colorful cast of … well, it’s a group of relatives in a van, which is a lot like a group of relatives convening for Thanksgiving dinner, only in a van. And in Ghana. With armed soldiers. There are oddballs, stalwarts, and people who are less noticeable, but when mixed together, in a tense situation, interesting things are going to happen. And they do, in the van, outside the van, and when the two intermingle.

Among the family members we meet is Uncle Aric, the Danish professor who married the narrator’s father’s sister when she was 19 and studying abroad, a man who was described by his new wife as  “foremost expert on the African continent,” without irony; Uncle Aric is, as you may have guessed, a white foreigner, and a loud, arrogant, opinionated one at that. Maybe he’s not the best person to be talking for the group, interacting with the soldiers—who again, have machine guns—while the narrator’s father just wants to get to his mother’s funeral on time and without embarrassing, let alone tragic, incident.

Because this is a short story and nothing should ever happen that’s easy, the soldiers are not so kind to the caravan, asking a lot of questions, asking for everyone’s ID, and when they produce ID, asking for more and better ID. Eventually, the driver is removed from the van and taken behind the wall of a makeshift building, where … well, you can guess what happens to someone who’s giving soldiers a hard time at a checkpoint.

I won’t go into any further detail on “They Would Be Waiting,” except to say that Quist throws us a curve at the end of the story, deciding to end his tale less than simply. He doesn’t finish the story of the checkpoint, not in a direct way, but at what appears to be the climax, jumps ahead in time, shifts perspective, and provides us with another type of ending entirely. Still satisfying, and probably better than seeing the traditional narrative through, a nice choice, letting me, and other readers, know what we’re in for in For Other Ghosts.

I’d like to pontificate on why I like Donald Quist’s writing further, but really, I have to slip some shoes on, grab some quarters for the meter, and pick him up for his reading, which is in forty minutes. It’s great to be Story366ing again—I should welcome an author into town every day!

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