Trinie Dalton excels at characters who live and think inexpertly. The main narrator of her 2005 debut collection of stories, Wide Eyed, has bad judgment, isn’t fazed by strange or implausible events, and believes (or wants to believe) in things a skeptic would call woo-woo: talismans, ghosts, mystical signs. Baby Geisha, Dalton’s new collection, features a more eclectic cast (the exclusively first-person narration of the early book has branched out here into the occasional third, some of the protagonists are male, and one story is told from the point of view of Bob the dog), but her trademark tone remains the same: half ingenuous and half wily, winningly hard to pin down. Baby Geisha’s characters are naive, but Dalton spikes their childlike assessments of the world with slyness, and it is this oscillation between innocence and sophistication that is her fiction’s best trait.
Dalton has trained a trusting, cheerful gaze on the supernatural throughout much of her work. Her illustrated book A Unicorn Is Born (2007) recounted the pregnancy and motherhood of a unicorn, MYTHTYM (2008) compiled her zines on werewolves and other folktale fauna, and the novella Sweet Tomb (2010) told the story of a dissatisfied witch with an overdeveloped sweet tooth. While clearly stylized and intelligent, the books tend to regard their subjects with a fangirl’s zeal: A voice too self-conscious or analytical, Dalton appears to believe, would undermine her fantastical scenarios. In an interview, she extolled fiction that doesn’t tell readers “what to think.” Eschewing explanation, she has wanted something else—mystery, dream—to well up in its place.
Although magic still exists in Baby Geisha—one character owns a talking shrub, another prompts wooden coins to fall from a tree—the more overt fantasy elements of the earlier work are missing. Visions are induced by drugs (“Hairpin Scorpion”) or heatstroke (“Jackpot”) rather than witchcraft; the narrator of the titular story thinks she should take up prayer but doesn’t know “what to pray to.” In “Wet Look,” a stoner type named Iggy, hunting enlightenment on a trip to the Missouri Ozarks, ends up hanging out with a group of fireworks-obsessed metalheads instead, and Dalton treats his abandoned quest wryly: “He was often verging on lithe, soulful summer days, literally bumping up against them, but never could quite pull off a single day of carefree tranquility.”
If Dalton appears here as interested in the mundane as the mystical, it may be because she believes that attending to the one will lead to the other. “Millennium Chill” finds its heroine inexplicably under siege by a homeless old lady demanding sweaters, bagel chips, and galoshes. “Don’t you think it’s odd that I just happened to be putting sweaters away, and this woman peeped in and guilt-tripped me into giving her one?” she asks her best friend. One cold night sometime later, she disrobes entirely in the middle of her living room. This gesture, too, goes unexplained: Dalton wants ordinary actions to beat with the same pulse of strangeness as the more plainly surreal. In a paradoxically enthusiastic deadpan, she elevates the trivial and normalizes the absurd. The result is a kind of everyday fantastic.
When the stories fail, it’s by slipping into feyness and syrupy whimsy, or by overplaying their zaniness. The more experimental pieces—including an awkward series called “The Sad Drag Monologues,” and “Word Salad,” a cycle of fragments—read too much like responses to writing prompts fished off the Internet. “A hand with red fingernails waves me around as a powerful talisman to worship and fondle,” declaims the narrator of one morsel of the salad. Internet instructions: Write in the voice of a voodoo doll. The excesses feel unmotivated, the naďf too faux. Innocence shades into callowness. Why, we think at such times, is such a smart writer playing dumb? Still, this book is often funny and wise, and at her best, Dalton nails the Walserian trick of evincing a sincerity nearly indistinguishable from irony. The effect is a poised instability, more uncanny than the magic the stories sometimes describe.