BASS 2015: Julia Elliott, “Bride” from Conjunctions, #63

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

Wilda whips herself with a clump of blackberry brambles. She can feel cold from the stone floor pulsing up into her cowl, chastising her animal body. She smiles. Each morning she thinks of the new penance.…
Women are by nature carnal, the Abbott said last night after administering the sacred blood and flesh. A woman’s body has a door, and opening that’s the devil may slip through, unless she fiercely barricade against such an entry.
Wilda’s body is a bundle of polluted flesh. Her body is a stinking goat. She lashes her shoulders and back. She scourges her arms, her legs, her shrunken breasts, and jutting rib cage. She thrashes the small amount of her belly. She gives her feet a good working over, flagellating her toes and soles. She reaches back to torture the two poor sinews of her buttocks. And then she repeats the process, doubling the force. She chases the filthy maggot of her carnality until she feels fire crackling up her backbone. Her head explodes with light. Her soul rejoices like a bird flitting from a dark but, out into summer air.

Guest editor T.C. Boyle described this story as “wickedly funny” in his Introduction to BASS 2015. Does that sound strange, in the light of the above opening scene? Not really – I mean, how else would you describe Wilda’s purple prose thoughts? One of my fellow readers through this volume (hi, Jake!) mentioned the straightforward language used throughout “The Siege at Whale Cay”. Here, we have just the opposite. Wilda’s thoughts are exhausting when she’s considering her evil carnality – but quite lovely when she’s in a more mellow frame of mind, smelling deeply the pomegranate juice and sulphur that serves as ink, “the happiest time of day – ink perfume in her nostrils, windows blazing with light, her body weightless from the morning’s scourge. But then the other nuns come bumbling in…”

Boy, do I know that feeling. Everything’s great until the other nuns show up.

The two Elliott stories I’ve read prior to this were on the science fiction end of the literary spectrum – that’s more or less where she hangs out in general – but this one made more use of psychology. I was intrigued by the idea of setting a story in the scriptorium of a medieval monastery. I’ve taken several recent MOOCs about manuscript creation, and it’s fascinating stuff. Wilda’s descriptions of the ink, the fine vellum used for special projects, the tedious, difficult, and physically wearing task of the scribe rang true to me. And it fits with the theme from that month’s issue of Conjunctions, which was:

Writing about writing itself and about the books that are home to the written word. A library of ideas about language and the book in all their forms, Speaking Volumes collects poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction on historic, forbidden, repurposed, mistranslated, imaginary, lost, and life-changing books—books of every ilk.

Again, a story about writing, about language, about stories, about storytelling.

But the story Wilda is telling is one set beneath – or is it above? – the material she scribes. In a marvellous scene that to me encapsulated much of the entire story, Wilda’s natural curiosity and intelligence leak out around the edges of religious repression when she copies a passage about bees:

Today she is halfway through the entries on bees… They begin as worms, squirming in putrid meat, and “transform into bees.” Wilda wonders why the manuscript provides no satisfactory information on the nature of this transformation, while going on for paragraphs about the lessons we may learn from creatures that hatch from corpses to become ethereal flying nectar eaters and industrious builders of pipes.
How do they get their wings? Do they sleep in their hives all winter or freeze to death? Two fresh swarms hatch from/each spring?

I think the story here is how Wilda finds the answers to these questions. She learns about transformations – and so do we, by following along with her.

If read as straight realism, the story fails as over-the-top, but those opening paragraphs are a clue: See what happens here. Yes, Wilda will continue to be over-the-top, but her thoughts will change, events will transform her, and the story. The slide from realism to surrealism is gradual; there’s no point at which I said, “Oh, now we’re off the grid” but by the end of a sequence of events of increasing absurdity, I was, along with Wilda, very off the grid, with no recollection of how I got there. All I can say is, it was a very interesting ride.

Pushcart 2013: Julia Elliott, “Regeneration at Mukti,” from Conjunctions #56, Spring 2011

Photo by pluggedinlib

Photo by pluggedinlib


The powers that be at Mukti – those faceless organizers of regeneration – have designed the spa so that Newbies don’t run into Crusties much. We eat separately, sleep in segregated clusters of cottages, enjoy our dips in the mud baths and mineral pools, our yoga workshops and leech therapy sessions, at different times. As Gobind Singh, our orientation guru, pointed out, “the face of rebirth is the mask of death.”

I read Julia Elliot’s “LIMBs” last year in Tin House. It wasn’t one of my favorites; I felt the science was too prominent, distracting from the very human story, and the coincidence factor was too high. I was still glad to read more of her work since I generally enjoy a little science in my fiction, and, happily, I thought this story worked much better. It’s available online from Conjunctions.

It’s structurally similar to “LIMBs” in that it involves three people involved in a quasi-romantic situation and takes place in a quasi-medical setting. It also reminds me a bit of Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano” which I encountered in Tin House and BASS 2012. But be forewarned: it’s not for the squeamish. I have a high tolerance for medical reality, but if you’re bothered by words like “pustules” and “suppurating” and “sloughed” you might find it a difficult read.

The story follows Red, Lissa, and the unnamed first-person narrator as they undergo the regeneration process at the Mukti spa. It’s a blend of physical exfoliation and kharmic realignment, complete with all the suffering you could ask for, a necessary element for the seriously questing: anyone can get a facelift complete with anesthesia and a week of mild discomfort, but only the truly devoted go through weeks of The Hell Realm:

According to the orientation materials distributed by Guru Gobind Singh, the Hell Realm is different for everyone, depending on how much hatred and bitterness you have stored in your system. All that negativity, stashed deep in your organic tissues, will come bubbling to the surface of your human form. The psychosomatic filth of a lifetime will hatch, breaking through your skin like a thousand miniscule volcanoes to spit its lava.
“Time for my mineral mud bath,” says Red. And now I see what I could not see before: a row of incipient cold sores edging his upper lip, wens forming around the delicate arch of his left nostril, a cluster of protoblisters highlighting each cheekbone like subtle swipes of blusher.

These paragraphs illustrate two of the reasons the story works so well: the gradual escalation of both the details of the process and the tension of the plot, and unlikely juxtapositions. We get some idea, both general and specific, of what’s to come in the first two pages, with words and phrases like “Six Paths of Suffering,” “Crusties,” and the title itself. But the reveal of the process to the reader is carefully orchestrated to coincide for the most part with the narrator’s experience.

Several varieties of juxtaposition show up. First, there’s the whole idea of luxury and extremely expensive voluntary pain: a spa full of people eat fugu sashimi with pickled dandelion greens and orchid dondurma (a Turkish ice cream), get wraps, baths, massages, and yoga sessions to “rewire” the soul while they’re infected with a half-dozen genetically-tailored pathogens designed to regenerate the body by first breaking it down. Then there’s the deeper sense of the absurdity of these people paying enormous sums to accomplish this suffering for the sake of looking younger, bracketed throughout by the “wisdom” offered by their orientation guide, Guru Gobind Singh:

According to the pamphlet, Gobind Singh has been through the Suffering twice, without the luxury of gourmet meals, around-the-clock therapies, or hands-on guidance from spiritual professionals.… When he walks, he hovers three millimeters off the ground – you have to look carefully to detect his levitational power, but yes, you can see it: The bastard floats.

This duality pervades the entire piece, balancing the drama with humor. Luxury and pain: the guru is on to something, this connection, because the more we suffer for something, the more valuable we perceive it to be. He’s figured out how to bottle and sell it, at the Mukti spa.

And then come the pirates.

Red and I are on the Lotus Veranda eating zucchini pavé with miso sauce, waiting for poached veal. The waitress slinks over, apologizes, tells us that the dish will be served without capers. Red and I exchange dark looks. We imagine jars of capers from Italy stacked in the belly of a cargo ship, the freighter afloat in some secret pirate cove. And deeper in the bowels of the boat, in a refrigerated vault, shelves full of biomedical supplies – time-sensitive blood products and cell cultures in high-tech packaging.
All around us, scabby patients whisper about the pirates, reaching a collective pitch that sounds like an insect swarm. Bunched in conspiratorial clusters, they flirt with scary possibilities: spoiled meds, botched stage-five healing, full-body keloid scarring…

These paragraphs show the finesse of the story. Again, there’s the progression, and the juxtaposition, the twin techniques that make this a superb story with the suspense of a page-turner, the dramatized satire worthy of Jonathan Swift.

The ending of the story is another of those “Lady or the Tiger” endings, and I know that’s going to annoy some readers. It’s not as amorphous as “the New Yorker ending” I’m beginning to recognize; it’s very precise, in fact, and the outcome will be one of two extremes. A feature at The State by Otis R. Taylor, Jr., quotes Elliot on this ending: “Stories have limitations. I think if they end on an ambiguous notes, often the writer doesn’t know.” I’m ok with the ambiguity in this case, because I thought foreknowledge of the possibility that the procedure might turn out badly was more important than the actual results. But I’m not sure I like the comment.

Is the omission of the outcome important? I don’t think so; the story isn’t really about the narrator’s outcome. For me, it’s more about recognizing our own tendency to sometimes indulge our obsessions in comical, even potentially dangerous, ways. But they’re only comical, and the risks only seem excessive, when viewed from outside.

Julia Elliott: “LIMBs” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012 – Science Fair

Tin House #51, "Science Fair"

Tin House #51, "Science Fair"

“Elise.” He squints at her. “You still got it. Prettiest girl at Eden Village.”
She flashes her dentures but says nothing.
“You remember me. Ulysses Stokes, aka Pip. We went to the BBQ place that time.”
Elise nods, but she doesn’t remember. And she’s relieved to see a tech nurse headed her way, the one with the platinum hair.
“Come on, Miss Elise,” she says. “You got Memories at three.”
Elise points at the plastic Power Units strapped to her lower limbs.
“You’re gonna walk it today,” says the nurse. “I think you got it down.”
Elise grins. Only three people from the Dementia Ward were chosen for the test group. So far, she’s the only one with nerve signals strong enough to stimulate the sensors. As she strides along amid flowers and bees, she rolls the name around on her tongue – Pip Stokes – recalling something familiar in the wry twist of his mouth.

I like science fiction and science-based fiction, but I have to confess this story didn’t really work for me. You can read it for yourself (at least for now, but hurry, it may disappear when the Summer issue of Tin House comes out) at the Tin House website. [addendum: too late, it’s no longer online]

Elise is a patient in a nursing home. She’s just getting used to her Leg IntuitiveMotion Bionics (LIMBs, hence the title) which, if she gets the hang of it, will restore her mobility. She’s also participating in a study to enhance her memories. The staff wasn’t overly optimistic, given the state of her dementia, but she seems to be progressing: she eventually remembers suave Pip, with whom she had an affair many years ago during a difficult period of time when her husband, Bob, was in a deep depression following a disabling accident.

She discovers both Pip and long-estranged husband Bob are in the nursing home with her. What are the odds on that? I’m all for strange occurrences, but this bothered me. Makes me wonder, in fact, if all this is taking place in her head, and I’m being too literal. But it seems pretty literal to me.

Many things bothered me in this story. Little things, like the phrase “nanobots have been rebuilding Elise’s degenerative neural structures, refortifying the cell production…” Shouldn’t it be “degenerated” or “degenerating?” I must be wrong – the folks at Tin House are pretty high-powered, literarily speaking. But, like the coincidence of Pip and Bob and Elise all at the same facility, it bothers me.

I think the direction of the piece is to show how technology and science are tools that allow the deepest wishes of our hearts to be made manifest, so are in fact very humanistic. I’m down with that, sure. But the technical elements seem unnecessary to the true story, which is: whom does Elise choose? Add to that the choppy style that veers from memory to present and back again repeatedly, and I wished her story (which is quite lovely) had been couched very differently.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m probably just not “getting” it, that there are depths of meaning I haven’t come close to perceiving. Maybe I need a few of those nanobots myself. And as always, guidance from those more astute than I is welcomed.