Virgin and Other First Stories review: Feelings stripped to the bone
Spiritual and sexual awakenings take a Gothic twist in April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection
April Ayers Lawson: Her “meticulous prose contrasts with the chaotic lives of her characters. Preoccupied with sexuality, ownership and identity, the scenarios are often deeply uncomfortable.”
Virgin and Other Stories
April Ayers Lawson
The strange scenarios of Southern Gothic fiction are alive and unwell in April Ayers Lawson’s stirring debut collection. In Virgin and Other Stories, Christian fervour clashes with child sexuality, histories of abuse are relived by victims as a form of therapy, and commonplace situations and rites – funerals, first dates, cocktail parties, piano lessons – turn perverse and menacing in the hands of a talented young writer.
The title story, Virgin, which won the Paris Review’s 2011 George Plimpton Award for Fiction, sees a young husband grapple with the deterioration of his marriage. Jake was initially enticed by Sheila’s conservative Christian upbringing and the prospect of taking her virginity, bit frustrations mount when sex is not forthcoming after marriage. A honeymoon in Paris takes a ferocious turn as Sheila rounds on Jake, “making him feel like a rapist”.
When therapy unearths an abusive past, Sheila’s recovery and subsequent sexual awakening seems centred on anyone but her husband. Their backstory is skilfully meshed with a scene at a cocktail party given by a wealthy donor at the hospital where Jake works. Convinced he will find Sheila having sex with a stranger, Jake hunts for his wife upstairs, but instead finds himself in a compromising situation with the host, Rachel, a double mastectomy survivor whose overt desire entices.
As Jake decides what to do, Rachel’s earlier pronouncement rings home: “I’m afraid we’re doomed to want the opposite of what we have.”
Throughout the collection’s five stories, Lawson’s meticulous prose contrasts with the chaotic lives of her characters. Preoccupied with sexuality, ownership and identity, the scenarios she presents are often deeply uncomfortable. Virgin recalls another recent American debut, Greg Jackson’s hyper-intelligent and psychologically shrewd Prodigals. A line from that book’s world could easily apply to any of Lawson’s troubled narrators: “People are bullets, fired.”
Lawson holds a writing fellowship from The Corporation of Yaddo and her work has appeared in VICE and the Paris Review. Her meaty stories unpeel her characters, stripping them down to their feelings.
Dizzying and disturbing
In the stylistically slick Three Friends in a Hammock, the bodies and histories of old friends entwine in a sensual story of desire and envy: “Each of us had slept with a man that one of the others had slept with.” The power of the collective voice is dizzying and disturbing in its detail: “Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression and anxiety and one of us had tried to kill herself and one of us had been raped and one of us had been molested and two of us had small aged white dogs and one of us had a kid.”
In The Way You Must Always Play, 13-year-old Gretchen rebels against her religious upbringing by “petting and probing and laughing in closed dim places” with her older cousin. Her punishment is piano lessons with a former Juilliard student whose Gothic overtones are writ large in her terracotta rouge, kohl eyeliner and profound loneliness.
Recalling Carson McCullers’s Wunderkind, Gretchen’s teenage self-centredness in her search for connection shows an ignorance of the adult world around her.
Another disaffected teenage voice is 16-year-old Conner in The Negative Effects of Homeschooling. A great opening line (“My Mom got the mink from a woman who used to be a man”) leads into a comic-tragic tale in which Conner reluctantly travels from South Carolina to Connecticut to accompany his mother to the funeral of her best friend Charlene, a transwoman.
An epigraph from Margaret Atwood introduces the book’s final story, Vulnerability: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” The longest and most experimental piece, it is a more fitting title story, though arguably not as catchy.
As she leaves her depressed husband drinking scotch in a shed out the back of their Georgia home, a painter seeks out an affair, or possibly multiple affairs, in New York. A complex and fragmented narrative that crystallises in an episode of child abuse, the story has many other people’s stories within it, all of them exposed and vulnerable.
The painter stalks strangers who resemble her abuser and asks them back to hotel rooms to pose for her, becoming at once hunter and hunted. The messy journey to escape from the cycle leads to an intensely awful sexual experience with her art dealer: “‘Is this too rough?’ He leans in to whisper in my ear as he jabs at me. The words are more than themselves: a challenge.”
Lawson’s precise and often beautiful prose as she describes the woman’s self-induced defencelessness applies to all her characters as they struggle to move on from their pasts: “For a moment the world seemed leached of air. I was a bee caught inside an overturned cup, throwing myself against the glass only to bounce off of it; trapped.” A bell jar for a modern woman.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist.