Deft, Eloquent, Shiversome, and Timelyby Elizabeth Block
Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman: Stories
(University of Alabama Press, 2017)
Aimee Parkison’s new collection of stories, for which Parkison was awarded the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, outshines many contemporary literary conversations on misogyny, the “female body,” and women’s rights. Parkision’s singular style of #resistance literature deserves exposure well beyond small non-commercial literary circles, though it defies simple branding. Recent phrases like “pussy grabbing” disregard simple branding, deceptive as that may seem. Parkison scratches back against that now infamous phrase, by any means necessary. Parkison claws, and does not go gently into that good fight.
Aimee Parkison’s prose abrades, the kind of scrape on a blackboard that sends chills down the spine. One shivers long after the book is read, the reader has gone to sleep, and finds herself dreaming, not having a choice but to wake up in the Refrigerated Woman’s world. Or is it the Refrigerated Woman’s perspective? Though identified and published at an historical moment in U.S. history, Parkison’s collection proves timeless, if not gothic.
These stories are deftly constructed with masterful, unusual, and eloquent prose. Yet, the innovation is not self-conscious and striking to impress the author herself, and a few of her best writer friends. The story collection provides scaffolding, tension, the poetry of a metaphorical draught seemingly about to break. The reader enters, thirsty, perceives a gleaming mirage ahead, almost arrives at a glorious image, and just as she thinks her thirst will be quenched, the image water disappears. The reader is left parched, yearning for more. Parkison provokes the reader with riddles, non-answers, and possibilities to reinvent or transform endings. Is it at times absurd? Is the reader left depressed? Does the reader feel empowered? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Because the imagery and the ideas prove so powerful, what matters is that the reader will never forget.
In the story, “On Flooded Roads,” a vivid and fragmented tale specific to the genre of young female serial killing, Parkison pierces fundamental issues of her entire collection, and of existing as biologically female in an inescapably male-dominated world:
That night, more than anything, I realized how dangerous it was for girls to fall in love with men, especially the wrong sort of men. The wrong sort of men meant people would judge a girl’s worth in a different way. Even the rumor of her loving a certain type of man was enough to condemn her.
Each story hashes out an ongoing motif in grotesque, satirical, sexual, and dystopian story-fragments that could also be sort-of likened to Angela Carter and Rikki Ducornet, an inverse of David Foster Wallace’s short and mindful misogynies, the early abstractions of Lidia Yuknavitch, and slightly like the perfectly posed wording of Lydia Davis. Parkison also takes on taboo issues not easily dealt with in the arts: poverty and bisexuality. Both are pressing issues of the day, as queer liberation rightly asserts itself and the “B” in the acronym is often given lip service, as it is not easy to brand, and American poverty is in dear need of representation at this historical moment. Likewise, most artists who are given the largest spaces to speak are those for whom money is not an issue. Writers and artists who deal with elephant-in-the-room questions are frequently marginalized, even from the already outsider status of any “artist” who is lucky enough to attain a large audience platform.
Parkison’s slim collection is not conventional sequential storytelling with an obvious plot, a protagonist, an obstacle to overcome, and a villain. But if one repeatedly looks at the above cited paragraph, it is as precise, loud, subtle, and serious as it gets. It contains a protagonist, a villain, and an obstacle. But it does not cease and it relentlessly loops until nausea sets in. Parkison doesn’t spin it as a redemption tale, a woman doesn’t heal, a man doesn’t get punished (or get away with a crime), no one rides off into the sunset. She prods this predicament from every angle, yet still at a sharp shard. Parkison gives the reader a lens, opens and closes the aperture. She unleashes a bizarre yet sincere world (this combination is the author’s novelty and contribution), and offers cinematic images that tattoo the reader with the brightest of ink.
In real life, Trump becomes president around the publication release of this book. As a result, things are not getting easier for women, or for any living creature. Aimee Parkison’s stories grow even more timely. When her collection is read, Parkison will, delightfully and rightfully, pull the rug right out from under biological essentialism—not so the reader will forget it, but so that reading itself becomes its own kind of interrogation of what is a woman. Then, perhaps another question—and this is where the experiment grows ever important. Parkison makes this reader wonder, what is the responsibility of a writer to represent just what defines a “woman,” given the pressures and tectonic plates of social definitions, and particularly, of gender?
Is the Refrigerated Woman a “real woman,” and what is a real woman, after all?
Elizabeth Block is author of the novel A Gesture Through Time (Spuyten Duyvil). Also a filmmaker, she is currently writing a narrative feature film.