Needful Things

Prepare Her BY Genevieve Plunkett. New York: Catapult Books. 256 pages. $17.
Cover of Prepare Her

In one of the stories from Prepare Her, Genevieve Plunkett’s debut collection, a pair of newlyweds who grew up together are staying at a mildewed, hot cabin on their wedding night. It is a makeshift honeymoon at a camp the groom’s grandfather owns. For the special occasion, they begin to drink wine. “We couldn’t think with all the heat and noise and so we began to talk instead,” the narrator recalls. “We said things that could not be taken back. All of this chatter, in this womb-like environment seemed safe at first—daring and intimate.” The atmosphere almost imperceptibly becomes stifling. They say things to hurt one another, things they may not even mean, things that might spell the end. (They divorce just one month later.)

Throughout the collection, Plunkett dramatizes how a single moment can unsettle the furniture of a character’s interior life, such that everything is rearranged, temporarily or perhaps for good. In the first story, we meet a woman named Allison waiting in a parked car, looking through a near-frozen windshield into an antique shop where she once worked: “From where she was parked, she could see the items on display in the window—an iron-ribbed trunk, a stenciled child’s sled, a mirror reflecting the purpling clouds overhead—and behind them, a sliver of depth, the only suggestion of the space beyond.” Plunkett alternates between presence and absence; sudden details are visible through the window, but there is a sense of something inaccessible and opaque beyond them. Allison is watching for the man who used to be her boss—the shop owner, many decades her senior, whom as a teenager she halfway attempted to seduce. Back then, he denied her, but gave her a black oval stone necklace. Whether she sees it as a gift or a curse, she has only recently begun to wear it, years later, after she has married and had a child. The necklace is loaded with a vague but heavy symbolism. As Plunkett writes, “She had taken it in the way someone might receive a confession: not entirely certain whether power had been granted or taken away.”

The shopkeeper has a similar effect when Allison catches a brief glimpse of him. He is older, but with that familiar posture, strangely the same. “Something knocked around inside her chest, half-winged and terrible,” Plunkett writes. Two days later, she sees everything differently, feeling “only disgust” for the shopkeeper. Months later, she is looking into his open casket. Again, she is waiting, this time for some feeling of shock or relief to arrive, but “felt only the pain of her shoes” instead. Allison’s feelings remain as inscrutable as the necklace.

Plunkett has a way with objects. Hers is a highly contained and often bleak fictional world, full of accumulated, worn things that mostly stay where they are. It feels antiquated; perhaps because these stories are all set in rural New England, which is no longer new at all, but one of the parts of this country most obsessed with its own past. Perhaps, too, because the material landscape of these stories seems to be aging, tinged with loss. These stories could be set in 1980 as easily as 2017; with the exception of the occasional cell phone, there are few markers of the contemporary. Instead, Plunkett is attentive to objects that have outlasted their time—decaying bridles and saddles, a viola kept from college, a brass pole where a birdcage might have once hung. Like the people in this world, these antiques—or pieces of junk—persist and endure.

In their claustrophobia and stasis, some of these twelve stories call to mind mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth century fiction about rural New England and its particular puritanical impulses. Plunkett’s stories remind me especially of two of Edith Wharton’s novellas, Ethan Frome (1911) and Summer (1917), both set in western Massachusetts. Summer is a strange story about a young woman stuck in an out-of-the-way town—pastorally beautiful but suffocating—who is threatened repeatedly by the men in her life. In both novellas, houses seem to close in around the characters, like the cabin in Plunkett’s story “Single,” about the doomed newlyweds.

Death and sudden violence are at once commonplace and surprising in Plunkett’s hands. There are threats from nature, from the abstract space of dark woods and harsh elements, but there are many more dangers posed by men to women. Gendered violence, or the constant possibility of it, is a feature of Plunkett’s domestic and rural landscapes, though it is often masked by gentleness. In one story, a woman’s body is found “in a state of decomposition.” It turns out that she was killed by the ex-boyfriend of the main character, who finds herself remembering the incredible heat of his body and his love for his landlady’s dog. Animals suffer too. In another story, a rodeo horse slips and breaks its neck in an arena. A woman and her son watch as a man strokes the fallen horse’s cheek—this image stays with her as they leave. “Tender, like a little lie,” she thinks. This is a world in which tenderness is, indeed, often deceitful.

Some of the strangest and most disorienting stories in Prepare Her feature the perspectives of young children. Perhaps this is because the children have so little control over the cruelty around them: a friendship falls apart when one girl begins to dissociate and screams in chemistry class; a boy is left with his addict brother after his grandmother’s death, and then a strange pinball machine appears in the basement; a girl comes to believe that Medusa’s head is in her house, on the same day a boy with a pet iguana writes that she “has a dirty pussy” on the chalkboard in class. There is something almost unbearable about the way these stories suggest how trauma can have no fixed source but spreads like rhizomes. Nothing is fully explicable, they seem to say.

Trauma, loss, and dissolution: it would be more convenient if these things could be attributed to something specific. Plunkett renders a world where instead they are diffuse and shrouded. Read in succession, these stories—much like Alice Munro’s—can be frustrating, both in their opacity and their dark mood. (“Is all tenderness deceitful?” I found myself writing in the margin at one point.) But the refusals and obfuscations offer a blunt form of realism; I believe, basically, that most things don’t happen for any kind of reason that we can comprehend, even if we think we can explain them neatly afterward. Children know this best, and adults forget it. Perhaps that’s why there is something of childlike disorientation in reading these stories, something like chasing dust motes in shadows or getting lost in a cornfield, waiting for something terrible to happen.

The final story in the collection, “Prepare Her,” is about a mother and a child, Rachel and Bianca. Rachel has, like many of Plunkett’s women, left her marriage in a manner the author manages to make feel at once gradual and sudden. She has moved back in with her mother. For days, Bianca refuses to poop. “This is her last effort to control her body, to keep everything neatly inside,” Rachel thinks. Mother and daughter are stuck in the house waiting for releases of different kinds. Bianca cries that she’s dying, while Rachel “caught herself wanting Bianca to get better for the wrong reasons—so she can go to school tomorrow, so Rachel’s mother doesn’t come home and find them like this. . . . She wishes she could take the girl’s suffering upon herself, because she would know what to do with it, how to force it into submission.” This story magnifies the claustrophobia felt throughout the collection and concentrates it the child’s body. It also articulates the shared but distinct forms of suffering mothers and daughters can cause each other. At one point, Rachel remembers that she used to do the same thing as a child.

Towards the end of the story, Bianca lets go, and as a reward they take a walk in the woods behind the house. Here Rachel senses something of a way out too—the shadow of a vagrant man in the woods, someone she cannot fully see, but can picture clearly, someone who offers an obscure possibility of both pleasure and danger: “He is painted in her mind—a cave drawing, a crude flash of pigment in the back of her thoughts—his image presiding over everything, over every decision she has ever made.” Rachel’s sighting is not even an encounter, but it leaves her in a kind of sudden turmoil, and seems to explain everything all at once, at least for a moment.

Sophie Haigney is a critic and reporter who often writes about art and technology.