Poetry is a form of writing that some appreciate and others deplore. It’s true. There are folks who hate poetry with a passion rarely inspired by anything short of patricide, those who live and die by it, and others who can take it or leave it. The same goes for magical realism, another genre people tolerate at varying levels. One reader may revel in the uncertainty while another takes umbrage: “Why does that old man have wings?” he may demand. “Is he an angel? An alien? I’m not leaving until you tell me.”
There’s a good reason I’m mentioning these genres. Both of them, poetry and magical realism, are labels people throw around when talking about stories like the ones in Tessa Mellas’s collection Lungs Full of Noise. This is certainly not meant to diminish these stories. That would only be true if I considered poetry and magical realism lesser endeavors, which I don’t. But the beauty of poetry is that sometimes there’s nothing to “understand,” at least not in an objective sense, and occasionally, the language is the thing that bears watching, the images, the lyrical quality, the metaphors.
Things don’t always “make sense” in poetry, the way they do in other genres, and the same can be said about magical realism. Thing is, the stories in Lungs Full of Noise operate beautifully in these dimensions. Some people don’t respond favorably to that kind of thing. If you’re one of them, Lungs Full of Noise might not be the book for you.
Okay, now that those other folks are gone, let’s talk stories.
There were times when I was reading this book that I wished I had more time to spend re-reading the stories. As it was, I read almost all of them twice, and I feel sure I’ll re-visit them before long. They’re beautiful, bizarre, risky, disorienting, and often hilarious. Here are two of my favorites:
A young ice skater, eager to become the best she can possible be, takes the suggestion of her coach, shaves her entire body, and installs ice skate blades directly into her feet. After some practice, she and other girls find themselves able to perform the skating moves they could never before manage.
“Last year, the girls wore dance skirts on the ice,” Mellas writes, “sheer fabric tied at the waist, ribbons fluttering behind them—absurdly expressive tails. This year, they wear nothing. No skirts. No leotards. No tights. They skate naked, wind nipping at their nipples ice burn searing their thighs.”
Rather than being appalled, the girls’ mothers cheer them on, thrilled by their newfound grace. The skaters’ bodies begin to change, their colors altered by frostbite. Some of them leave, “the ones who weren’t willing to drill blades into their bones, who wanted to keep their hair, their skirts, their tights,” but the ones who remain go on to become sensations.
This story, with its altered girls, is a surreal take on the lengths young females often go to in order to meet expectations.
“Bibi from Jupiter”
When this story’s narrator, a college student named Angela, expresses interest in living with an international student, she ends up with a girl named Bibi who hails from, well, Jupiter. Yes, that Jupiter. The planet. Actually, Bibi comes from Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and she’s not technically a girl, but she sort of looks like one, so that’s how she’s received.
Once Mellas sells us on this premise, we’re thrown directly into the story, and it’s a fun ride. When the roommates first meet, Angela seems to be the only one who notices that Bibi is green. Sure, Angela’s parents so find it a bit strange that she comes from Jupiter, but not nearly as strange as we might expect. Once they rationalize the situation, they decide to go with it. Immediately, much to Angela’s surprise, Bibi becomes a huge hit. Students are drawn to her, especially the boys, Angela’s mother even sends Bibi gifts and, during Thanksgiving, she even teaches her how to cook.
Despite the fact that Bibi is brilliant enough to take nine classes at once, she’s socially awkward, as might be expected. Even the most basic daily tasks seem to baffle her, including closing the bathroom door: “No one wants to see how Jupiterians pee,” Angela says. “Actually, everyone was interested, but once they saw it, they didn’t want to see it again.” Bibi’s determination to not fit in, paradoxically, only seems to make her more popular.
This one is somewhat reminiscent of Vonnegut, in all the best ways. And without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the final line is a deftly planted tresaure, causing us to reassess what we thought we understood about the characters and their situation.