There’s no making nice here, no way of easing into this writer’s sensibility. In The Girl with Brown Fur, Stacey Levine ignores lyricism as an evolutionary dead end. Life is fractious and dire, her prose style says; let fiction serve as razor and torch. It’s not that Levine isn’t funny or that she doesn’t forge phrases and sentences of throat-clutching beauty. It’s just that her effort to dissect humankind’s propensity for neuroses, fallacies, and other inanities requires measured drollery and surgical concision. And because her characters are pathologically ill at ease within their dysfunctional bodies and families, not to mention the greater world, Levine expresses their fragmented thoughts in language that is edgy and brittle, spare and stabbing.
Her debut, the 1992 collection My Horse and Other Stories, introduced readers to her preoccupation with peculiar maladies and predicaments and to her disinclination to abide by conventional rules of storytelling; her flinty novels, Dra— (1997) and Frances Johnson (2005), followed suit. Levine’s latest book presents a gathering of, as she specifies, tales and stories. What’s the distinction? Like so much else in Levine’s astringent and surreal fiction, it’s open to interpretation, but it feels right to tag as tales her lashing vignettes, and as stories her longer, more complex dramas. The book begins with “Uppsala,” a bleak and furious family tale that summons Strindberg, surely an influence on Levine, as is Kafka and, one would guess, Donald Barthelme. Next up is “The Cats,” a shrewdly creepy story about a lonely woman (nearly all Levine’s afflicted people are lonely to the point of paralysis) who loves her cat beyond reason and decides to have it “replicated.” The results are not pretty.
In “The Girl,” a brilliantly unnerving story set in an old hotel, Levine fuses gothic spookiness with deadpan angst to portray a lost soul obsessed with a frail little girl across the hall, who wears a necklace of mouse-shaped beads and a leash held by a “severely tall” man. The narrator is one of Levine’s many twitchy, glum, and abruptly dangerous individuals given to aberrant self-justification, seizures, lethargy, and metaphysical crises in which they doubt their very existences. In “Milk Boy,” the catastrophically embarrassed title character “ran through the hallway to the mirrored door, too touchy to swallow right now or fully speak, let alone to eat a healthful meal of beef, too ashamed to find his gaze, to peek inquiringly into the crevices of his own eyes.” For Levine’s people, family life is diabolical and work is brutal, particularly in “Sausage,” a story of an all-but-enslaved sausage-factory laborer.
Amid alarming depictions of domestic misery and perversion, strange metamorphoses, and imperiled nature, as well as the occasional triumphant escape or alliance, Levine declares the death of myth and anticipates the collapse of civilization. But for now, she subtly acknowledges that however deluded, poisoned, and impaired we may be, we will continue to tell and cherish tales and stories as we struggle against lies, brutality, and alienation.