Okay Donkey Press ($15)
by Nick Hilbourn
Jennifer Fliss’s new collection, The Predatory Animal Ball, carries an eerie sentiment, like an abandoned location at midnight. Inanimate things take on the agency that people once held, concentrating space around them, and if humans enter they’re obliged to conform to the objects’ laws. In “Mise En Place,” for instance, a woman celebrates the birthday of her elderly father, who lives alone in a crowded house after the death of her mother. The story begins with the recipe for the dish she’s creating for the party, but quickly pivots into commentary: “1 tbsp paprika, and few strands of saffron, sitting delicately in a white ramekin. The strands are small and fine like microorganisms, they are potent despite their size. If I look through a microscope, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are actually alive.” What starts as a throwaway observation quickly becomes the condition for her existence in the space.
The characters in Fliss’s stories deal with complex emotions by transferring them into physical things, trying to satisfy a need for intimacy. The narrator in “Mise En Place” sees her “father tracing the lace design with his fingers,” his fingers searching for some type of connection. After the party, the narrator says, “I drive my father home. Install the chair in front of the TV.” Thus “my father” becomes “a chair” in relation to “the TV”; an exchange has been made. In this world of relentless reification, Fliss’s characters relate to a given emotion as an object outside themselves, dismissing it without experiencing the severe stress were they able to feel the original, complex emotion.
In “Just the Air They Breathe,” for example, a woman’s melancholia becomes “a mysterious squatter . . . in the terrarium [who] was unsure of how she got there herself, but she went about her work anyway. She spoke to the plants in soft whispers. . . . She nourished the air around them and they, in turn, took it all in.” At the end of the story, the lingering absence is never addressed except as “a quiet breathing” that fills the house. This is where the weight of Fliss’s fiction resides: the studium, the “quiet breathing” that saturates spaces.
In several stories, narrators are lists, evidence, data, or schedules. “Degrees,” a story of extinction and environmental collapse, is an annotated list of increasing temperatures. At 200 degrees, the absence surrounding life supersedes it:
The empty desert expanse undulates under its breath. The scorched earth was a map of three-dimensional hieroglyphics depicting the life that was. The phantom rolls up the sand, balls it up, feels the grittiness of it, and drops it down, down, down to the earth, burying bodies—ignored carrion—creating dunes where there were none.
The background supersedes the foreground. “The phantom,” much like the “quiet breathing” discussed earlier, sashays in to fill an empty space without fanfare. This piece is amusing in its deadpan, understated description of the apocalypse, and throughout the book Fliss’s sparsity and sardonic wit come across like a defeated sigh, her stories moving like thick night fog. There’s no beginning or end here; rather, each story is a positionality within a changeless space where the reader is obliged to sit, be quiet, and inertly watch. This is no longer your space; in fact, it never was.