Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Cydney Chadwick's Flesh and Bone

So, I wrote this review back in 2001 and never placed it, which sucks. But Flesh and Bone is a most excellent collection of short stories. And Avec is a most excellent press.

Cydney Chadwick
Flesh and Bone, Stories (Avec Books, Penngrove 2001)

“In his room he is a famous poet…The further he gets from his apartment, the less well-known he is.” –“Mists”

“This is not unusual and in fact happens to everyone.” – “Flight”

Flesh and Bone, winner of the 2002 Independent Publisher Book Awards for Short Stories, is an elegant collection rendered in a succinct yet lyrical language. Told from the point of view of a “you,” “we” or he/she that always implicates the reader, these stories highlight the often-painful and opaque dynamic between the inner and outer fantasy worlds we create and project on others—and those created by others to which we are in turn subjected.

Flesh and Bone is bound to fascinate and make any reader slightly nervous: Cydney Chadwick exposes emotional secrets, explains sources of fear, and dismantles fantasies. But Chadwick’s understanding of how people emote and attempt to connect with one other is substantial. The stories in Flesh and Bone remind us that, though our emotions and neuroses are powerful, they are not necessarily unique:

“We believe something might be wrong with us or that we have gone crazy…We suspect we are disintegrating so we redouble our efforts to appear stable and competent” (69).

As readers, this statement is obvious and illuminating. The recognition that “we suspect we are disintegrating” is an admission of estrangement. Yet, it is this admitted feeling of alienation that circumscribes the reader back into a community of “we,” even as it articulates a sense of disaffection. Chadwick’s characters are sometimes admirable, sometimes despicable, and always ambivalent. They end up in situations they did not intend to end up in, and most of the time they don’t know why. They are characters whose perceptions of themselves, of others, and the world around them are skewed, but it’s impossible to know where the inaccuracies lie. Although not all of Chadwick’s stories are about “you” or “us,” the frequent use of inclusive pronouns and the narration of familiar emotions open up the possibility of connection, even with characters whose genders and social situations may be very different from that of the reader.

The book opens with a story called “Irritants,” a portrait of a single man who seems to work in a job with a high-paying salary, living alone relatively comfortably with a cat. Throughout the story he is plagued by irritants, both physical and psychological, yet he chooses to ignore them—he is unable to understand them, and maybe he doesn’t even know they exist. There are cat hairs in his eyes; the woman he plays tennis against is too good a player, he finds himself saying things he doesn’t really believe. The man cannot admit his general dissatisfaction, because to do so would be to admit his view of the world and of himself is inaccurate and at best opaque. He can’t get rid of his cat even though she bites him and uses his expensive shoes as a litter box. If he did, “he would be the kind of person who abandons animals and secretly desires to hit women with tennis balls” (16-17). That many of Chadwick’s readers are not single, wealthy businessmen makes familiarity of the character’s loneliness and dissatisfaction all the more uncomfortable and revealing.

Flesh and Bone is a feminist collection, though not in any blatantly ideological sense. Many of Chadwick’s stories are about women trying to live creative lives in a world hostile to both art and women. For example, in “An Adolescence,” the main character and her friend are approached by a man in a bookstore:

“The man says she does not have to talk about such lofty things as art. But I like art! she exclaims. Soon the man grows hostile; she and her friend are hurrying out the door and running to their car as he follows them” (118).

While the disturbing power of men relative to women is addressed in these stories, Chadwick’s view of female oppression is complicated and nuanced. Her characters, both male and female, are all subject to the anger, resentment and ignorance of those around them, but they are also complicit in it: everyone has fantasies. In “Hangman,” pubescent girls divide themselves into two groups, those who “have breasts” and are “wearing dresses and makeup,” and those “who are either pre-pubescent, wear braces, glasses, or have imperfect skin.” This second group of girls amuse themselves at recess by running around on the playground shouting “Ugly bitch…while trying to knock one another down in the dirt” (110).

Cydney Chadwick’s Flesh and Bone portrays a world filled with vulnerable people, often unable to recognize or articulate how enmeshed they are in numerous and conflicting relationships. An attentive reader cannot help but recognize the honesty of such a world as well as their inevitable entanglement within it—as readers, as people. Although at first this recognition creates a sense of bleakness, Chadwick’s stories also assert that being vulnerable and prone to fantasizing is not an entirely negative situation, nor is such a state of being completely our fault. The world of human interaction and emotion is substantially shaped by fantasy, but despite the opaque yet astoundingly common nature of human relationships, connections between people do in fact occur. In the world of Flesh and Bone, misinformation abounds, and misinformation mixed with fantasy yields less than expected results. But expectations are just another form of fantasy, anyway.

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