University of Massachusetts Press ($24.95)
by Shane Joaquin Jimenez
Is escape possible? This is the central question in Corinna Vallianatos’s debut collection, My Escapee, a winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. These are stories constellated around women: elderly, young, married, widowed, sick, alienated. While these women appear on the surface to be considerably different, they are bound together by a common desire for escape—from the world of men, from personal limitations, from life itself. Thoreau famously said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but Vallianatos asks whether escape is something that women can genuinely accomplish, or whether it merely numbers in a long list of thwarted desires.
We cannot discuss escape without first talking about the other side. Negative freedom, freedom from, means liberation from the various systems of control that bind us—from state power to the cultural forces that hold sway over our social lives. In these stories, the most pervasive system of control is the male gaze, which, in feminist film theory, is the tendency for the camera to assume a male perspective in framing women, reducing them to visually appealing objects. In My Escapee, this perspective becomes an active, living force, smothering the interior lives of our protagonists.
We discover this at maximum effect in the inspired story “Sink Home,” whose main character, Mira, is unhappily married to an aloof doctor who has long since lost interest in her. Frustrated, she escapes into an affair with Hugh, a civil rights lawyer who hates injustice in the abstract but can’t register the emotions of those around him. By arranging Mira between these two men, Vallianatos shows how she sees her life purely in relation to them, how she has become a void to be filled:
She struggles past a growing frustration, a white feeling that threatens to eclipse what she’s trying to say. She’s not a doctor-in-training, not a lawyer, not pleased with herself, not confident, not full of verve and vigor, not on fire, not at peace. She’s not sure of what she is, and this uncertainty feels to her like possibility, like space.
Mira fills this space with men, particularly Hugh. She senses distasteful controlling tendencies in him—he prefers to drive her around so he can be in “control of comings and goings”—but her resistances are overcome by the aggressive confidence with which he applies his gaze to her. She wants him to drive, she finds, “because she likes the feeling of him shepherding her places, as if she’s an arrangement of flowers that he’s delivering.” This kind of escape is not a pathway to freedom: when Mira internalizes the paradigms of the phallocracy instead of escaping their pressures, she becomes simply a passenger through her own life. When she discovers, with no great displeasure, that “she likes being corrected by him because he puts his arm around her when he does so,” the male gaze has become her own gaze, directed upon herself. James Brown may be famous for singing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” but it was a woman, after all, who wrote the lyrics.
At a crucial moment in the story, though, Mira gathers her two lovers together and declares, “I have something both of you want.” Is she accepting her position as a sexual object or using it as leverage to reclaim control? Is she embracing the male gaze or subverting it? The circularity of these questions betrays our desire for the forward momentum of a traditional narrative, where characters learn lessons from their actions and are forever changed by them. Vallianatos acknowledges our desire, but, in the end, stifles it, as if to say that our journeys are ultimately determined by such defeated hopes.
Elsewhere, Vallianatos shows that the system we seek to escape from is sometimes life itself. “Living a long time solves only one of life’s mysteries,” muses Ginny, the octogenarian narrator of the book’s title story, “and that is what it is like to be very old.” Stuck in assisted-living hell, she is haunted by the memory of her lifelong lover, Margaret:
When we were young, Margaret and I flew in a small airplane over the red mountains of Afghanistan. She had red hair then, too. It sprang rowdily from her leather helmet. We didn’t need men, we had our permeable selves. The humped mountains were as intimate as a tangled blanket on a bed. I knew that if the plane were to sputter and sink I would accept it, the softness below us made it possible, even tempting.
The inverse of negative freedom is the freedom to, the state where one is empowered to engage freely in the world and choose one’s own life path. Ginny and Margaret centered their lives not on approval from men but on the wild form of escape called wanderlust; Ginny has successfully escaped social systems of control, but is now struck down by age, senility, mortality. So she chooses further flight into the void: she chooses self-destruction. Positive freedom is not necessarily the power to choose life; it’s simply the power to choose one way or the other. It is to be one’s own master, unrestrained both socially and internally, and be able to live free or to die.
In Ginny, Vallianatos shows us a character whose desire for flight is so strong she is willing to accept destruction, the softness below, as a means of escape. This is a kind of freedom that’s impossible for many of the characters in My Escapee, who have to content themselves with the simple freedom to not be enslaved. But Ginny finds a way toward true independence, where one possesses the free will to choose fully for oneself, be it life or death, the stars or the void.
Vallianatos hopscotches between narrative devices—in “Shelter” she transforms a new bride into a colorful, deflating balloon—but she’s most poetic when she works with disconnection as a theme and not a structural device. For the most part, her stories have a light touch. At just 165 pages, including acknowledgments, My Escapee is a spare, precise book, vividly imagined with sparkly language, and it leaves us asking questions of both the world and ourselves long after turning the last page. Let us return to our central question: Is escape possible? Perhaps the beginnings of an answer can be found in the title of the book, considering the intimacy of the possessive pronoun “my” and the word choice of “escapee,” with all its connotations of captivity and disappearance, pursuit and longing, but also the most desirable of all things: freedom.