One does not open a book by Lidia Yuknavitch carelessly. Just as one does not bend down to pick up a child carelessly, or a sculpture of a child carelessly, or the coffin of a child carelessly. There is weight, almost too much weight to bear, in a Lidia Yuknavitch book.
Verge is a slim book, a brilliant collection of 20 stories that contain as much compassion as suffering, all of it compressed and ready to explode, with the promise of an encounter that will break you at the heart of each story. In Yuknavitch’s hands, words are both swords and feathers. She knows how to pack a sentence, and she knows how to spin a tale, iconic both in style and content, and it is almost as if she gave herself the assignment to investigate trauma—as if trauma were a treasure—because this book is a gem.
The stories in this collection compel by way of the darkness they inherit, by an unwillingness to make it pretty, or play by all of the rules of traditional narrative. Like Diane Arbus, Yuknavitch finds beauty in what our society has cast off. As in Caravaggio’s paintings, the stars of these stories are the invisibles of society—in this case streetwalkers, trafficked children, drug addicts. She takes what is often repressed or suppressed, along with the very lives of those rendered invisible, and places them center stage. She gives voice to those who for reason of gender or race or nation or poverty have been denied the keys to a life governed by pursuit of a less deadly happiness than that which is often marked by self-harm.
Her characters are heroes, if only for the intimacy of her probing and her large investment in them. She is generous in her willingness to tell their stories.
In “The Pull,” a young girl who nearly drowned as a toddler becomes a refugee, scarred by the devastation of her country, by war, and she will join those whose leaving occurs by way of a raft upon open waters. Meanwhile, she has become a swimmer, finding solace under water, as if to undergo transformation, shape-shifting to survive. Like so many of Yuknavitch’s characters, she comforts herself with stories: “An electric eel swims by you, arched like an S, spotted yellow and blue. Look at your hands. Can you imagine fins? Spread your fingers wide. There was a time before fingers, arms, legs.” Here is the first story in a book of 20 that does not give the reader closure—it will not be the last.
“The Organ Runner” tells of a child disfigured by an accident in the fields who spends two years in a state hospital healing, who will—yes—find herself in a lucrative business running organs for the woman in whose home she’s placed. Among my favorite traits of both this character and all that grace Yuknavitch’s stories is Anastasia’s manner of collecting herself when she is up against unimaginable odds. While recovering after a series of surgeries wherein her dismembered hand is tethered to her ankle, she develops an interest in primates who likewise might run “with their hands,” and proceeds to entertain herself by reciting the names of the twelve rhesus monkeys the Soviets sent out into space. Later on, when she has her own business, Anastasia will read to her own organ-running girls Jane Goodall’s book about chimps, specifically those chimps “retired” to the U.S. for “sanctuary….The United States, a place they all hoped to reach someday….those weird and deformed so-called states stitched together from a brutal and bloody beginning, ..still straining against their sutures, like a hand sewn too close to a foot…And she wonders, ‘How do any of us evolve.’”
Yuknavitch’s genius is in finding the beauty in terror, and she does this by language that seeks to recontextualize the way we organize our existence as human beings. She earns the right to ask the big questions. In a good many of these stories, it feels as if she’s mined the psyche of the everywoman.
In “Street Walker,” the narrator, a recovering addict, invites a prostitute into her home and makes stunning observations about her suburban community that are also self-reflective, in sentences like “somebody wants something more than their own life,” or “our sad little dream balloons, once swollen with hot air, deflating slowly like my aging breasts.”
Among the aspects of this recontextualization is the connective tissue she creates between humans and the earth, a retreat into biology, a reminder that we are bodies, that we are mammals, this language of the sciences sometimes feels transcendent—allowing for our foibles, our nuances, for another portal into empathy for the vulnerable creatures that we are.
In “Garden of Earthly Delights,” her protagonist, aptly named Bosch, delights in another, younger man—who begins working in the fish-packing workplace where Bosch is a veteran, and the lovers themselves become like fish in Yuknavitch’s hands. We hear of Bosch’s childhood—difficult, disruptive, abusive, and when, at one point, he finds his mother, after having been assaulted by a lover, the descriptions reflect a watery landscape. “The blue of the shag carpet floating her still body,” Yuknavitch writes. “She’s not dead. Just submerged.”
I’ve read almost all of Yuknavitch’s work, and I’m struck by the difference between her fiction and her nonfiction. The fiction is more stylized; a feeling of the fairy tale that some have likened to the work of Angela Carter, permeates some of these stories including the one titled “Second Language,” about a trafficked girl who uses storytelling as a device to free herself and the other girls. With the very lyrical and powerful strokes of language Yuknavitch makes amazing use of image—for example likening the aforementioned refugee girls to popsicles—and endows the geography itself with a voice. Content wise, we are in territory reminiscent of Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, and Henry Miller.
Yuknavitch’s is an odd combination of the lyric and a masterful compression. What’s not said looms large in these stories. Yuknavitch takes the reader into the negative space and gives it light, sometimes breaking into essayistic forms and at other times leaving the story as if without an end. She writes with a sensibility that is both blunt and empathic, as if to open the reader’s heart and make it bleed. She defies catharsis. And yet, the reader emerges changed by stories that seduce by language alone, by the compression and by the empty space, by omission, by what’s deliberately left out.
Not to mention the idiosyncrasies of her characters, their courage, their inclinations toward others, their attempts to help—such as the sixth grade girl in “The Eleventh Commandment,” who stands up to a group of bullies to protect the narrator and succeeds by way of a homoerotic retelling of a biblical story. What’s netted in this language, and writ large, are human suffering and empathy–and holding up a mirror to our contemporary world.
As reader, one is witness, voyeur, helpless. One keeps reading, as if magnetized to the suffering, the anger; as if it cannot be otherwise in this world, this scurvy and disaster, thank you Charles Dickens and James Wright, in which we live. And so you take it in like chemo, knowing it will heal you.