(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Julia Slavin’s stories are quirky and hip, revealing a quick wit and close attention to the language. Often, Slavin seems to select an image, metaphor, or slang phrase and follow it to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. In so doing, her writing at times resembles Donald Barthelme’s surreal flights of fancy. Slavin’s language is generally straightforward and uncomplicated, in keeping with her suburban settings. This down-to-earth language, however, contrasts with the sometimes absurd, sometimes fantastic situations in which she places her characters. Thematically, Slavin’s stories run more deeply than the humorous and quirky situations might suggest. Indeed, these little stories often embody complex psychological issues and fears. Using figurative language as a starting place, Slavin constructs stories that behave in ways similar to dreams by revealing the inner workings of the human psyche.

With their ironic twists, smooth exteriors, and multilayered interiors, these stories fit comfortably into the postmodern project, revealing and concealing simultaneously. The title story in particular seems to poke fun at itself and at a whole social class, maintaining ironic distance from its subject, a common tactic in many postmodern works. At yet other moments, Slavin seems to be aligning herself with the Magical Realists of the late twentieth century; certainly the story “Blight” brings the writer Laura Esquival to mind. Other reviewers compare Slavin’s work to that of John Updike or Don DeLillo. In the final analysis, the stories generally work well, leading the reader through the sometimes amusing, sometimes surreal, sometimes horrendous landscapes of the twentieth century. What Slavin’s stories share is a concern with the big issues in life: How can we ever understand each other? How can we protect each other from harm? How can we not be alone in a world that is frequently cruel?

“Swallowed Whole”

The opening story in the collection The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club, “Swallowed Whole” takes a common off-color expression and expands it to an absurd degree. The humor in the story depends on the double meaning of “swallowing a man.” Slavin commented in an article in The Washington Post that the story had its roots in her own fantasy concerning her lawn boy. However, under the humor is a darker subtext concerning fear of pregnancy and miscarriage. In the story, a thirtyish suburban housewife named Sally engages in what starts out as a flirtation with her lawn boy, Chris. Before the story travels more than a few paragraphs, Sally and Chris have engaged in a “deep” kiss, a kiss so deep that Sally ends up swallowing Chris whole. Chris resides in Sally’s abdomen for weeks, the two of them carrying on a bizarre internal affair. At the end of the story, Sally awakens to bloody sheets and the sound of Chris’s lawn mower outside. The ending forces the reader back into the story to reread the clues that Slavin strews along the way. The feelings of movement in Sally’s abdomen, her ongoing problems with vomiting, and the odd fantasies in which she engages all suggest that what Sally is experiencing is not some fantastic encounter with her lawn boy. Rather, these all point to a pregnancy. Sally’s concern that her “affair” with Chris is distracting her from her husband also highlights another common fear during pregnancy, that the new baby will interfere with the normal functioning of the couple, particularly the couple’s sex life. When Sally says that she drinks a household cleanser to rid herself of Chris, it is difficult to determine if this is the common pregnancy fantasy of wishing to rid oneself of the fetus or if...

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