Review by Shane Meyer
“Ice Storm,” one of twelve short stories in Laura Valeri’s collection The Dead Still Here, is a catalog of defeat and despair: two dead daughters (one a victim of cancer, the other of the Iraq War); their parents’ dried-up marriage (Ellie, a work-a-holic, and Duke, an alcoholic); physical and mental disfigurement by war (Duke’s brothers scarred by service in Vietnam and Korea); and the loss of religious faith or even a belief in “goodness.” 9/11 plays a role too. Duke, desperate to escape his toxic circumstances, chases a good feeling to his detriment. “Ice Storm” is a template for the bulk of the stories in the collection for its use of the themes of domestic relationships scarred by loss and the role of the dead in sealing fate.
Another theme is the failure of romantic love. In “Prophecy” the protagonist, Angela, can’t seem to shake her half-interested sex partner, Sean. She goes to a santera who tells her that she’s doomed to this fate. Valeri attributes the infallibility of the prediction to Angela’s unpopularity in high school, her unattractiveness and—despite her professional success—her unshakeable belief that she can woo Sean. In the end, she nearly succeeds but sees her hopes quickly and cruelly dashed:
“When he gently lifted her thighs off his hips, she saw herself far away […] the ordinary-looking santera turning over the same card, the Joker, and the Joker, and again the Joker, a self-fulfilling prophecy, like her image in the mirror next to an unhappy Sean, its curse repeating ad infinitum in her shattered, fragmented self.”
The majority of the stories in The Dead Still Here tell of mundane affairs in the voice of psychological realism tinted by gothic morbidity. When something out of the ordinary breaks through, like Libyan refugees crashing ashore at Lampedusa in the “Madonna of the Drowned,” the spectacular nature of the event is immediately tamed by domestic concerns. The Madonna in question is an Eritrean refugee (“a Venus arising from the sea, foam at her thighs, at the beaded bracelets around her thin wrist, around her long, stork-like neck”) who gives birth on the beach. Her would-be savior, Camilla, at first so enchanted with this image, takes her and the baby into her apartment, and soon the divine vision dissipates among mounting nuisances. She puts Madonna back on a boat.
Two stories—“Logorrhea” and “Assembly Heart”—defy the formula of the transcendent brought to earth or the earth-bound irrevocably bound to earth. Written in allegorical mode, both center on girls transitioning from youth to maturity. In “Assembly Heart” a young girl wakes up every morning and removes her heart from her chest, locking it in a box. She goes to school where she likes to draw but is discouraged from doing so. She finds in the world of everyday life a conspiracy to rob her of her creativity. She meets a boy, but it seems like he’s part of the conspiracy. Nevertheless every night she removes the heart from the box, replaces it into her chest and explores her dream world. All the time her heart grows larger and she’s compelled to find ever larger containers. Eventually her conspiratorial suspicions are confirmed when the police come and take her heart and its container. Finally, in a block of swirling, mystical prose, she reunites with it.
One wonders whether the mawkish sentiment isn’t the obverse of all the misery, morbidity and failures of romantic love described throughout the book. If in order to escape the world one must lock up one’s true self, what does one encounter while fully immersed? For the girl in question it is simply the good experiences she had in the world—those good things about living that the book takes such pains to avoid acknowledging. Dwelling so long in life’s worst aspects, Valeri discards all of its better ones, making the path of escape deeply ambiguous:
“Was she still in the dream?” Valeri’s heroine asks as she approaches her pulsating heart. “Did it matter?”
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.