Review of Normally Special by xTxBy Richard Thomas
March 23, 2011
“It is difficult to masturbate about your father, but not impossible, as it turns out.”
“I am the Champion of Failure.”
“What I do remember most though, are the fireflies and how she proved that they were real by squishing one across her palm. It left a fluorescent streak. It made me feel like screaming.”
“On my way down I’d wonder if I would ever be found and how nice it would feel to be looked for.”
Raw is the first word that came to mind. And for the debut collection of fiction from Tiny Hardcore Press, that seems about right. Roxane Gay in all of her wisdom and courage has published Normally Special, a tiny, hardcore book of flash fiction by the always powerful xTx. It would be too easy to dismiss this work as sensational, as simply shocking, or existing only to titillate. No, these tiny daggers leap off the page speaking emotional truths, fearless in their desire to show us how the world can be when people are not seen, when daughters are abused, and what these women turn out to be later in life, these memories of innocence lost, these moments of victimhood, turning dark caresses into ownership, into shattered lives that exist nonetheless.
Reading these stories, I found myself thinking that I hope to God these things never happened. The voices spoke with such authority, such pain and surrender, that the words shook me to my core. Does it add to the experience, this idea that maybe something really happened? Does it make it that much more painful to watch, these masturbatory fantasies about fathers? In the end it doesn’t matter, not really. What matters is the reality on the page. The gut punch, one fisting after another, beauty held up to the light, and then destroyed, trust betrayed in brutal exactitude, childhood lost forever.
Even in the daily rituals, the words add up to something heavy, something ugly, and yet, the kind of words that must be uttered every day in dysfunctional homes everywhere. In “The Importance of Folding Towels” a husband berates a wife in front of a crying son. It is not difficult to be moved by the final words:
“Little Sam, still crying, now at my leg, it’s in his arms, his arms go up, my arms are folded, my fists are clenched.
‘Do it.’ Slam. He throws a towel. At my face.
‘Mommy has to fold a towel now, son.’ Slam.
Sammy doesn’t understand and neither do I. I decide to get this over with. I fold the towel. I fold the towel. I keep folding the towel. I fold all of the towels I can. I fold every towel in the world.”
Who hasn’t had a fight with their spouse, their lover, the littlest thing rapidly becoming so much more than that? The way the dishwasher is filled, the way the clothes are put away, the way the toothpaste runs over the sink. It is a simple moment, a lesson to be learned, a preference that is being ignored. But it’s not this fight at all, it’s everything, it’s everything added up and the sum total is the death of the relationship, a withering love that will not be doctored, held together by a glue called children.
There are so many moments in this slim volume of words, openings that grab you by the shirt collar, endings that slap you in the face, everything in the middle more than you wanted to know, and yet, you do not look away. To witness these things is to have knowledge, and with knowledge there is power. This will never be my reality, this will never exist on my watch, this damage is what’s wrong with the world, and these things need to be seen.
One of the longest stories in the collection “She Subjected the Sun” is also one of the most compelling, and with a slight infusion of fantasy, of science fiction, this magical reality paints a surreal picture of a future that will never come to pass. Unless, it’s already here:
“The auction was hours over. The Coveted were made ready and released to their Keepers. The Buyers, who could now relax, settled in around the edges of the room, boasting their profits to one another behind the backs of hands, taking care not to sit near any of the Dispatchers. A confetti hum rose and fell as tense excitement built in the dim; the testing had begun.
Mine took me with an owner’s grip to a stool at the bar. I sat, hands folded, eyes down. I knew to be quiet and become small (Canon 14) as he went through my documents, asking me several questions about similar subjects; a drilling. He gave only what he wanted. I took it, which was my place (Canon 17).”
The Canons scattered throughout this story are a powerful chorus, voices echoing, filling the air, subservience, surrender, and freedom. Added up they create a dystopian society where the rules have changed, where existence is only at the hands of your Keeper:
“We stop at the Processor before exiting.
My Keeper hands him a thick folder and the Processor scans the pages within, shooting glances at me as he reads.
‘Looks good,’ he says, closing the folder. He eyes me again.
‘Okay, let’s code her. She one for the cages? We offer transport help if you need it.’
‘No. She’s gonna be a Subjected. My cages are full enough already.’
My heart leaps and untwines at the sound of the word, ‘Subjected.’ My future has been classified. I can walk this path, I think. I hope he is not too cruel in his needs. Even if he is, I must endure. I am a Subjected now.”
Throughout the process, the screening, the testing, the Subjected knows what is coming. She enjoys parts of the subjugation, a heat between her thighs as he inserts his thumb into her mouth. Who has the power here, who controls the actions, the results? Is it the dominant or the submissive? The final words:
“My Keeper drives the transport into the out of doors where the world is blazing with daylight. I surrender my eyes to the sun; holding my breath as the burning blindness reaches its peak then retreats. I am proud. I have beaten the sun.”
Normally Special is compressed, it is reduced to a salty strength, the fat and fluff boiled off, stripped down and left before us glimmering and tainted and alive. There is a beauty in this book as well, the voice of someone who has not given up, who wants to be heard, to be seen, and in the end, to be loved. It’s what everyone wants, in one way or another, this redemption, this sense of worth, of being special. Do not pick up this book if you are riddled with falsities, do not preen or pose or pretend. Respect the work here, open yourself up to it, and let it fill your veins with ice and fire, surrender to the truth on the page.
Great review. This book has been on my to do list for a while and now I want it even more. This and O Fallen Angel
Thanks, Tom, appreciate it. I slept on HE IS TALKING TO THE FAT LADY and missed out.
Always descriptive reviews, lighting a path of reading that I can’t quite find on my own.
xTx has always been an intriguing writer. I’ve always been turned a bit back by the “gallery persona,” but the writing has frequently won me over. Her short, Standoff, spun me around and now, after reading your thoughts and review, I’m sold on this. Curious if Ms. xTx has any plans for longer fiction.
I dropped her a note, hopefully she’ll come over and address your question, Boden, as I don’t know. Thanks for the kind words.
I am trying the longer fiction, Mr. Boden. I am just the slowest writer in the world, so it’s a bit hard for me, but I am plugging away.
From what I can tell, your results are very much worth your time and effort, so it’s great to hear. Slow motion karate chops still result in an ass kicking. I think that works as an awkward analogy, or a motivational poster, I dunno. I’m the slowest reader in the world, so it all evens out.
Great review. Think I need to check this out. Thanks.
Thanks Stuart, well worth it for sure.
I am currently infusing this new collection, slowly, like a salve. xTx is a writer who can make you forget your surroundings, the world at large, that the sun may never come up today. Her collection, Normally Special, is a must read. Your remarkable review, Richard, gives props where they are overdue, so thanks for posting here at Nervous Breakdown.
Thanks, Robert. That means a lot, the kind words. Glad you’re digging the collection too, powerful stuff.
Wonderful review, of a tiny book that weighs TONS!
Thanks Helen. Just goes to show that size doesn’t matter. This is reduced (using a cooking term here) to a heady thick prose. I love stories that are the tip of the iceberg, hinting at much more.
Great review. I’ll keep my eye out for this book.
Get it NOW! I waited too long for her first collection and it sold out in days. Or you could just borrow a copy, but I think you will want this for your very own. Especially if you like short fiction like I do.
Thanks, Gloria. And what Robert said. She sells out fast.
This is very thoughtful review. It’s so great when someone gets what you’re doing as a writer. I bet you just made xTx feel much more than normally special, Richard! The book definitely sounds like a hot bath you want to enter toe by foot by ankle. I may have to borrow Robert’s if I can’t get my own!
Thanks so much, Jen. She’s definitely a voice worth tracking down. That’s part of the reason I included the excerpts that I did. People will either go “Yuck, not for me,” or “Wow, okay, I want to keep reading, something powerful is going on here.” Appreciate the kind words.
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Thank you so much for so eloquently expressing what I felt as I read this masterpiece. A brilliant review of a brilliant piece. Again, thanks!