Things to Make and Break, May-Lan Tan’s debut story collection, is fascinated with articulate bodies. A woman becomes transfixed with the scarred body of her lover’s ex after discovering his cache of nude photos; a shotgun-wielding child comes of age through murder, staring into the bloody hole of what used to be her father’s face; a pair of twin brothers sleep with the same amnesiac woman and bond through a sibling rivalry violently enacted around and inside her body. In “Laurens,” two boys share a special ritual: each swallows a strand of spaghetti down to the tip, only to pull it back out, gagging and giggling; “every sentence” that the titular character of “Julia K.” speaks is “a necklace she was pulling out of her mouth.” Speech, wounds, and the body converge throughout these eleven stories, whose traumas range from the innocent pains of childhood, such as loose teeth and scraped knees (imagery of which curiously appears in almost every story), to the darker parts of adult experience: an ambivalent abortion, a drug-fueled, sexual crucifixion. Even the physically unharmed are maimed in one way or another.
Bodies and pains are where Tan’s prose is at its best, as she keenly and compactly seeks out luminosity: a young lover’s “bones wear the light” reflected off a swimming pool, and a wounded acrobat’s “nose is slightly burnt, her scars and tan lines glowing.” Her body appears “pumped full of sun.” Tan casts every experience in wonder—a drive through California becomes a projectile dreamscape: “the lights on the bridge pulled tracers through the fog. Then hours of buzzing road, and green signs sizzling like ghosts. The Redwoods glowed darkly in the aquarium light of the moon. I felt like I was driving across a dim, carpeted room.” Everywhere is ethereal and calming, everywhere there is “bottom-of-the-pool slowness and starry blue-green light.” Even in the most harrowing moments of loss and violence, a kind of childhood is preserved.
But strangely enough, in spite of all these characters’ deep-seated troubles and real anguishes, Tan still keeps them away from what could hurt them most, unwilling to really break them and so unwilling to let them grow. Too often these stories end just a scene or two shy of where more merciless stories might. When Lily, the child protagonist of “Date Night,” wakes to find her mother still sleeping after a night out with a man, the final passages imply a recognition of adult sexuality and the challenges of maternity, a coming-of-age moment: “the world seems big and spooky” while her mother looks different than usual, more vulnerable. Imagine the potential drama if she were to wake up and interact with her daughter. The confessional address “101,” which reads like a missed connection personal ad, grows in tautness until its narrator is poised to reveal a secret that could deeply wound two families, but it ends with no such confession, as if the story has evacuated from a world that is too big, too spooky. In choosing not to bring the confession into a more public space and fully explore its narrative potential, Tan circumscribes its importance, keeping it in a safe vacuum where its telling has less narrative consequence. This could be a note of empowerment—the narrator alone remains the author and arbiter of her secret—but now and again a fight would be nice. Still, there are endings that need no confrontation in order to be resonant: the narrator of “Legendary,” who stalks Holly the wounded acrobat, turns down the chance to confront her and instead becomes her, miming on a swing set the highwire act that made Holly so luminously scarred in the first place.
The final story, “Would Like to Meet,” is a striking departure in subject matter and tone as it foregrounds the consequences of external conflict. Its narrator, Vivien, is not unlike the other characters of the collection—a goofball, tattooed, working a lousy job and questioning her place in the world after art school—but hers is an especially earnest, quiet story. She has fewer quirks than other characters in the collection and even notes that if her “life was a movie” she’d be getting “artificially inseminated, opening a cake-making business, or cycling across South America” as if to playfully acknowledge the idiosyncratic extremes of Tan’s other stories. But she is not safe in normalcy. As a blackhead-covered creep is robbing her store, cutting inscrutable symbols into her with a box cutter, crushing her under the weight of his body, Vivien finds truth in the trauma-in-progress:
I didn’t think he wanted to kill me, but to destroy me in some other way.
I knew what was required, an ultimate act of salesmanship, but I couldn’t think of a single good thing I’d done or might do. I have friends, none of them close, and no immediate family. I lost my parents in a car accident when I was seven, and my grandmother raised me. She died when I was eighteen. I decided to invent a fiancé and a baby, but when I opened my mouth, a different story came out.
“I’m a failure. I’ve never done anything worthwhile or interesting. I’m necessary to no one. Please don’t make it worse.”
A collision of bodies occasions insight, articulation with stripped-down authenticity. And this is only the very beginning of the story. Vivien, reading through the classified ads (she likes the missed connections best), finds a cryptic proposition, so she responds. What she finds is hardly transgressive at all but far more essential and tender, nuanced and quiet. To go further is to spoil a complex and mature narrative with an equally strong ending, a story that represents the best of what Tan’s collection can do.
THINGS TO MAKE AND BREAK
By May-Lan Tan
CB editions, Feb 2014
Paperback. 216pp. £8.99
Evan Dardano received his MFA from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, where we worked as a reader and assistant editor for Grist vols. 6-8. He teaches English at Bridgewater State University.