Online Edition: Winter 2010/2011

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 Slut Lullabies

 Gina Frangello

 Emergency Press ($15)

  by Spencer Dew

The need for a hole—as one character in this collection describes sexual desire—is not about lack, but fit. It’s a hunger for resistance, for such close envelopment that any metaphorical “hole” or space between two people might, as they merge together, seem temporarily erased. Yet the phrasing, in stripped down and brutal slang, already exemplifies part of the problem, reducing a human to an object and an absence, and suggests the clutter of metaphors, myths, ideals, and cynicisms that swirl around our articulations about sex. In Slut Lullabies, Gina Frangello proves herself an observant student both of need and of lack, and has crafted a collection of stories that examine the tangled nuances of each condition.

These tales skirt pain and terror, abandonment and independence, offering slices from the center of life, oozing fruit. A teenage girl plots to seduce her English teacher, or fantasizes about it, then performs it, threatening to extort him—but power dynamics shift swiftly enough to cause motion sickness. “I don’t want to hurt you,” the man says, pressing above her, preparing to take her virginity. The girl reassures: “I’ve been hurt before.” Another young girl, as a romantic gesture, mails her travelling boyfriend “a bottle of Chicago rain, and later, my dishwater-brown ponytail wrapped in a blue ribbon when I got my hair bobbed.” Such gestures fall short, or come across as macabre and creepy. In Slut Lullabies, couples try to communicate, or they do things that look like communicate, or they simply exist in the proximity of each other, sometimes speaking. One lover “listens, rapt,” as Miguel “regales” him with fragmentary anecdotes of his own childhood, full of suffering. Misunderstandings solidify, like cement, and “the looming mountain of truths he does not know can only be called Miguel’s fault.”

Indeed, like the severed chunk of hair, things can signify in so many ways, spun by random interpretation. In the story of Chad and Miguel, the banality of wedding planning becomes an allegory of the couple’s dissonance. Early on, the two men are told they should consider simply shaking hands at the ceremony’s conclusion, out of sensitivity to those guests who might not want to witness a kiss. Phrased in terms of contracts, a legal biting of thumbs, “pandering to homophobes who might vomit paella from witnessing two men kissing has been translated into a subversive act against the anti-gay policies of the State of Illinois.” Chad’s family serves Mexican food for Miguel, in a confusion of countries and cultures, and the men ride together across Chicago’s south side, Chad admiring old buildings he owns or wants to own, “crooning” over the turrets and facades while Miguel sees vacant lots and liquor stores, weeds “just tall enough to rape a woman amid and not be seen.”

Confinement breeds interior distance, as in the tale of two couples on an Aegean cruise, the masterful “What You See.” While it reads at times like a field guide to sex lives, in dream and application, this story becomes much more than a chronicle of the warps in what people want. Quick with a well-turned phrase about medical conditions and circumstances of abuse—about how, in this particular case, “both women have TMJ and dentists who pretend not to understand why their jaws never improve”—Frangello is a compassionate chronicler of her characters and their lives. The book has its flashes of titillation and some partly declawed cattiness to its humor, but the author has no interest in celebrating gloss or indulgence in the crass. Here are humans, striving and enduring—as when a woman on her birthday watches the Navy Pier Ferris wheel over the shoulder of her lover, composing a to-do list in her mind as he thrusts inside her. Nothing in such a scene is simple in Frangello’s telling. She traces out the knottiest of conditions with sympathy and care.

Consider also the title story, featuring the familiar teenage manipulations of girls, friends—one of whom has a knack for digging under the skin. “I did not understand people,” the narrator says, “I believed what I wanted to believe,” whereas “Sera believed in turning human need to her advantage. And need would always win out.” Yet what is more multivalent than need? Even the rapist’s need, in Frangello’s treatment, is various, awkward—violent and timid, brutal and foolish, wounded even as it wounds. And the narrator comes to a lyric appreciation of a whole different register of human connection, tentative and stumbling and somehow pure. “One summer afternoon when we were eleven, on the hottest day of the year, I chose to accompany Mom on the bus to pick out linoleum rather than go with Sera’s family to the beach,” she says, a moment that will wrench tears out of the most calloused reader. As meanings are transformed, polished down by the covetous caress, our heroine comes into a new revelation, a new relation with the past and present:

The clarity of that fury drained from me, and I couldn’t remember what was so bad—so inexcusably shameful—about being the neighborhood slut, anyway. With an intensity so rough it doubled me over, I missed the long-past squeaking of my mother’s bed, the muffled, complicit adult laughter that excluded me, that rhythmic pounding on the wall our bedrooms shared—the lullaby of my youth.

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