March 27, 2020: “The Dead Girls Show” by Sarah Harris Wallman

Friday again, Story366!

Last week I made a post where I said I would no longer talk about what would have been, no more references to what I or we would be doing if not for the coronavirus quarantine. In the eight days since, I’ve kept to that. It’s a good idea, not worrying about what’s not going to happen, what’s in the past—only it’s not in the past: Just the idea of it is. I’ve focused on the today and the tomorrow and I’m proud.

Today I’m going to go back on that for just a second, as yesterday would have been MLB’s Opening Day. The day came and went without me thinking on it at all, but when I logged into social media before bed, I couldn’t get away from it. For a few minutes, I felt genuinely sad, as opposed to worried or anxious, my new norms. I’ve documented my feelings over this whole quarantine, almost daily, how grateful my family is that it hasn’t affected us, yet, as much as it’s affected others. Since we got to go for a hike yesterday—which we had thought would be off limits—it really seemed as if we were going to go about our lives as normal (save being able to visit my family). When I’d made those claims, I hadn’t considered baseball, my beloved Chicago Cubs.

Today—which, ironically, would have been that stupid mandatory second-day off day—I’m admitting that I could use some baseball right now. The sun is out, my allergies are ripe, and my internal calendar has filled me with the hope that this will be a Cubs championship season (so far, I’m 1 for 46 in that department). I know people are dying and people are sick, miseable in Army hospitals set up in warehouses and dormitories and on fairgrounds. But I wish we’d have baseball, like we did after 9/11, during wars, and during this Trump administration nightmare. We could all use the distraction now, right? I remember them cancelling a game or two after 9/11, but then it was back to business. Saturday Night Live aired a live episode, in downtown Manhattan, four days after the attacks. People needed that. And I wonder, as we head further into this dilemma, if people won’t need baseball. I think they will. I could surely use it, even now.

Today, I get to review a book on its release day—yay!  Hearty congrats to Sarah Harris Wallman, whose debut collection, Senseless Women, is out from the University of Massachusetts Press as the winner of its latest Juniper Prize for Fiction. I’ve gotten to know Wallman a bit on social media, but hadn’t read her stories before today. So, on the book’s birthday, here we go.

I started reading today by tackling the opener, “The Dead Girls Show,” To employ a terrible pun, it’s a show-stopper. “The Dead Girls Show” is about a high school sophomore named Carly, who wonders into the seedy side of town—full of strips clubs and the town’s least-expensive dentist. One club stuck between the more conventional Girl! Girls! Girls!-type places is the Dead Girls Show, where actual dead girls make up the bill. The girls in the show all died gruesome, sad deaths, including the girl who hung herself, the girl raped and dismembered by a serial killer, and the girl who died from anorexia. It’s a morbid venue, but Carly is drawn to it, a sad girl herself, an orphan, relating to the tragedies that took all of the girls’ lives. It’s kind of a sick, gothic version of tweens at a Britney Spears concert, only Carly doesn’t wish she were a pop star. To note, the show isn’t really about sex, but most of the girls are naked on stage (which is weird, as they’re all way underage—I guess statuatory laws don’t apply to the dead). One other person is in the crowd, a large, older man, who heckles the show—he’s a regular and his banter with the dead girls has become part of the acts.

Wow, right? This is high-octane fiction and I was hooked from the start. I usually post on the title story, which I’ll sum up later on, but I couldn’t stop myself from using “The Dead Girls Show” as today’s centerpiece.

Carly, so moved by the dead girls, goes backstage and tries to meet with them, with their manager, and as fate would have it, the manager, Milo, runs her over in the alley, killing her. Our protagonist is dead four pages into the story.

Lucky for Carly, she died at the exact right place and in the right piece of fiction, as Milo is not only the manager, but he’s the one who can resurrect the girls. Really, time travel gets more of an explanation in Back to the Future than resurrection does in this story, but that’s not what this piece is about. This piece is about Carly moving from live fan of the Dead Girls to sort of a viable candidate for the marquee. The girls try to find a way to work Carly into their act, “ironic car crash victim” unmarketable. For a while, Carly takes on the role of stage manager and understady.

As much as Carly geeks out on the girls—some nice passages describe “life” for the Dead Girls while not on stage—she also teaches them a few things about the living since their demise. Part of this includes a field trip to a neighboring club, where they cause a ruckus, of sorts. Worse, the strippers from this club decide to visit the Dead Girls Show the next night, basically to start a fight, to bring the shit down on the Dead Girls,. Territorial pissing is a thing even between living and deceased sex workers.

This visit by the live dancers leads us to the climax, which I won’t reveal here. Wallman has set up quite a scenario for herself, but with her climactic scene and denouement, she fulfills the promise of her premise, making “The Dead Girls Show” one of the most exciting, unique, creative, emotional, and overall great stories I’ve read this year. It’s messed up because it’s about underage dead girls being exploited, but that’s just the metaphor, the cover for what’s really happened to these poor souls when alive, the tragedy of the lives, but especially of their ends.

The second story is “One Car Hooks Into the Next and Pools,” which is mostly from the point of view of a train that suddenly becomes aware. Along with some observations on the state of itself, how its passengers interact, and sheep, the train focuses on one woman in particular, her brief affair with another passenger, and the resulting aftermath of their schism.

“North of Eden” is a really great shorter piece about a college dorm that goes all Eden—mixed-gender dorms and bathrooms—the hedonism that ensues, and how society falls apart when one dude’s python gets loose on the floor. Love this piece and will use in classes in the future.

I then read the title story, “Senseless Women,” about Miriam, a nurse at a coma-care facility. Miriam’s job is pretty easy, as her patients either lie there and do nothing or die, hence the book and story’s title (though there’s double meaning ther of course). To pass the time, she monitors their involuntary exhaltations, little noises and words they utter while vegetating. Things get shook when a new patient, a Jane Doe, arrives and won’t stop talking. Miriam dubs her “Lady Voice,” and while recording Lady Voice’s utterings, tries to solve the mystery of who put her in this state—she was poisoned! Along with the answer to that question, Miriam discovers a parallel to her own life that forces her to change her own existence as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Senseless Women, the daring plots, the absurdity, the careful attention that Sarah Harris Wallman gives to her characters. I love the mixture, how she defines her protagonists by their reactions to the absurdity, making all these pieces particularly memorable—I could have written about any of the stories in this book, I’m sure. This is what we in this business call a “stunning debut,” a book I can’t recommend enough.