This blog post, which deals with Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeline will be number one of two that could fall under the subheading, “horrible stories about girls”—look for the second one, concerning Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky in upcoming days.
I like horrible stories about girls and I am also exhausted by horrible stories about girls. I understand horrible stories about girls. I remember their concerns—anorexia, promiscuity, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, hooking up with other girls, pregnancies and abortions, men in bands, “breasts” (a story title in Inside Madeline) “pussies” (same), denying or coming to terms with your body, relationships, passivity, mirroring yourself in other girls. All of those things.
Paula Bomer and I have more in common than that, too. The stories are set in Boston, where I grew up. The one named “cleveland circle house” conjures a neighborhood for me, a T-stop. She is also a crisp, smart, cold narrator whose casual alienation from the things she’s describing makes her good at her job. This is something I think about myself, in the (unpublished!) short fiction I write, and something I like in the fiction of friends—Alden Jones’s Unaccompanied Minors, another book of short stories about young people and sex, comes to mind.
These stories are page-turners, gripping, very easy to read in one sense, and difficult in another. I had a hard time with the gruesome body descriptions. “A week later her other nipple burst” about a girl growing breasts. “I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest. I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face. The girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself” in a story about anorexia. And then this, from the title story, “inside madeline”:
“When she bathed, she practiced more. The water lubricating her, in went one finger then two then three. Soon her hand slid deftly in. She then put bars of soap and within weeks, shampoo bottles inside of herself. Up went her rubber ducky. Up went the washcloth. Her mother would knock impatiently on the door…”
I cringe at this UTI waiting to happen!, but this story is one of the most difficult and best, about an overweight teenage girl who becomes obsessed with her vaginal capacity, and pursues the promiscuity to prove it. There’s a harrowing gang-bang scene that happens to one of the girl’s friends. The story is long, almost a novella, and the girl is cruel to herself in various ways, until she too ends up in the hospital for anorexia.
The two anorexia stories serve as brackets for the rest, rather nicely.
If my rapture is modified, I think partially I am just too old. I would really have identified with this in my 20s, found it ballsy and awesome. The cavernous Madeline scaring the shit out of everyone with her vaginal prowess is a clever idea, a great character, and also so sad. (Could this metaphor of absence, of ever-expanding internal negative space be played as empowering? I’m not sure and in any case Bomer doesn’t try. By the end of the story Madeline is anorexic, negating herself from the outside in as opposed to the inside out, the flip side of the same coin.)
But as a woman in my 40s I wanted more self-awareness in the narration, more character behind the characters. Some girls are really fucked up about sex and their bodies and womanhood, and some girls are not. Exploring the fucked-up terrain is awful and riveting. Bomer’s stories twist and thrash with it, kind of like a cat suffocating in a garbage bag (to steal an image from another Boston-area chronicler of halfway houses). Turn myself this way I’m tits, that way I’m a vagina, I’m anorexic, I’m fat, I’m obsessed with other women and also blind to them. I’m dying in here, in this feminine skin. But there are usually reasons behind these feelings, reasons involving love, family, community the particular details of a particular person’s psychology that make her herself, and not just a girl. Such reasons are the way in and also the way out of the bag. Inside Madeline doesn’t provide much in the way of reasons, which has a certain purity as a work of art, but also feels lacking.
Here’s my friend at Grab the Lapels reviewing another Bomer book, Nine Months.