I’m trying to take a stain out of my green suede shoes. I made the mistake of wearing them to the dog park, and our dog, Lenny, a mix of German Shepherd and Blackmouth Cur, stepped on my toes despite my sincerest efforts to move.
The stain is stubborn, as are most stains. I’m using white vinegar and a travel toothbrush I found in a neglected cabinet underneath the bathroom sink. I make sure to scrub in the same direction, as opposed to back and forth. The quicker I scrub, the more hopeful I become.
But when I stop agitating the bristles, there’s no change: I’ve reached an impasse. What was I thinking, wearing my green suede shoes to the dog park?
So as not to contaminate any future readings of WHAT YOU ARE NOW ENJOYING I restricted my notes (stains) to the margins. There are no brackets around clusters of what I consider to be revealing phrases, sentences, or paragraphs, nothing underlined for emphasis. The body of the text is still clean, out of respect for the lives invested in the production of this book (Autumn House Press), and I made a conscious effort to keep it off low-lying surfaces, which Lenny sometimes combs for forgotten books, calmly dismantling their binding. The first book he had his way with was the Holy Bible.
Fanning through Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s pages, I anxiously wonder how I should review this collection of stories.
My marginalia is tiny, done with mechanical pencil.
Should I tackle the stories head on, shed light on all 13 in sculpted vignettes?
Or should I pin the feeling that pervades the entire text, a feeling that could be ineffable. And wouldn’t it be better if it were? After all, it is when something is pinned (described) that it dies. Dogs pin weaker opponents with their barrel chests. Weight suffocates their rivals. It follows that if I were to pin the feeling throughout WHAT YOU ARE NOW ENJOYING, I’d kill it. This is not something I want to do, not to this book at least.
The title of the first story is the same as the title of the book. The ‘you’ in this title probably refers to the reader, which, in this case, is me. At first I don’t know how the title applies to the story, other than leaving me no choice but to enjoy this opening movement.
Jan, the main character, finds a parking spot easily. Everything seems normal. Reality within the story is the same as my reality. I am an unsuspecting stranger to this world. Then the premise gets introduced quickly, seamlessly, as if it were nothing, and I don’t think anything of it.
There’s no suspense. I don’t feel like the story is trying to surprise me. Jan walks into a lobby and “the placement officer, a pale woman with nice teeth, hands the baby to Jan before she even has a chance to sit down.”
Before Jan (and I) can get comfortable, acclimate herself (myself) to the environment, an entire plot is shoved down her (my) throat, reflexively swallowed.
Like Jan, who has never breastfed before, “her (my) right breast grows warm.” It’s as if a baby were given to me too.
So Jan is breastfeeding, a fact that, by itself, is odd, especially if she didn’t start the story pregnant. So where did this suckling baby (a boy) come from, a question that, because it is left untouched, even ignored, stains the story.
No matter how much white vinegar you use, or how fiercely you scrub, what was once an evenly covered expanse is forever blotched.
While the “where” of the baby is troubling, the “why” is more evident. Jan suffers from an emptiness (depression) that gives her twitches and headaches and general malaise. As the baby suckles, a font of warmth squashes these symptoms, leaving her brimming with energy and cyborg-like calmness. But Jan isn’t the only “user.” Danni, her friend, also suckles, to rid her of the cancerous lump.
After Danni tells Jan’s mother about her recovery she cries, and Jan’s mother says:
“That’s amazing . . . But it makes complete sense.” She glances at Danni’s breasts, at the mound resting just beneath them. “Nature’s way of healing,” she says, smiling, her eyes a little wild.
Within the boundaries of this story, suckling babies are women’s panacea, but this is a grotesque medicine. There’s something inherently wrong about it, like the faces Diane Arbus froze for eternity under the blinding glare of her flash bulb.
Imagine: a colony of clone-babies supported in a harness/hammock under women’s breasts, hidden from light, living inside special shirts, in absolute darkness, except for when they switch breasts or need their diaper changed. And what happens as the babies grow? Where do the babies who have gotten too big to suckle go? Grotesque may not be a strong enough word.
Of course Jan being another jaded victim of the mundane, trapped on earth to see her life through to its grand finale, morals don’t enter her field of vision. Survival instinct, that microchip we’re all born with, keeps her happily oblivious. And at this juncture in her “treatment” it’s probably an addiction, addicted to suckling.
Even after her mother steals her drug and Jan, jonesing, pursues her to her childhood home where she sees the boy and “can’t stop looking at him. His hands are folded low on his belly, like an old man,” even then, with the boy humanized and she “lets herself think about where he came from” for the first time, “all she can concentrate on is the need pulsing throughout her, the lightning in her fingertips.”
The title of the first story comes from a “motivational CD the placement officer” gave Jan. In it a woman says, “There is no happiness equal to what you are now enjoying.”
The stage is set. I go to the next story, and the one after that, in order, without being told what to do, the same way I clean the stain on my green suede shoes, instinctively, robotically, as if programmed.
At the end of the third story, in the margins with mechanical pencil, I write:
Feel like, at any point, the main characters in [Gerkensmeyer's] stories are going to flip out and, unaware of their strength (bolstered by repressed anger and a disturbed nature), kill someone. But instead we have babies and breast milk. These are dark stories with murky histories. They could become “horror” or “dark fantasy” yet there are no weapons, no movements toward murder, it just feels like, at times, she could take that path.
At the end of the fourth story, in the margins with mechanical pencil, I write:
Produce watered with tears, which embody our grief. So far these stories have been melancholy. It’s as if the book is crying on us.
At the end of the fifth story, in the margins with mechanical pencil, I write:
Sadness abounds. Nessa is so sad. She comes from sadness. And she wishes sadness on others. Somewhere between the sadness is lust. Fabulist fiction leans toward legend. [Gerkensmeyer's] fabulist fiction is somehow tinged with realism and psychology.
WHAT YOU ARE NOW ENJOYING is at once accessible and removed. The writing is lapidary, keeping you in its orbit with a ghostlike propeller attached to your body like the baby in its opening story. There is entropy embedded in the heart of these stories, at least for me, the feeling that things are already in motion and can’t be reset even if rewound with care, and then there is an unquenchable emptiness throughout and all meaning (of these stories and of us) depends on what we decide to fill our voids with, but because sadness manifests itself as water (tears), and water’s duty is to fill empty spaces, the final meaning of everything is unavoidable.
MY RATING =