Lidia Yuknavitch’s peripheral worlds

Review: Yuknavitch’s debut short fiction collection, Verge, is a study of characters on the margins of society – and reality – as we know it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The title of Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short story collection, Verge, says a lot. Her characters are not only on the edges of a transformation, they’re also on the fringes of normality, permanently quarantined on the opposite side of the white-picket-fence ideal. In this collection, there are refugees and junkies, orphans who deliver live human organs to black market buyers (“organ runners”), and textbook weirdos. If you consider yourself a steely-eyed realist on the streets, but a wounded empath in the sheets, this collection will make you feel seen. That goes double if you like to look at things from the outside, à la Kurt Vonnegut. These are voyeuristic stories inside our very real, very unjust world, in a language that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

In Cosmos, for example, a planetarium janitor collects the refuse of teenage visitors and spends his weekends building a model city made of used condoms and soda cans. His weirdness and disenfranchisement become a parasite of the mind, as do all of the personalities you might find in Verge.

The same can be said of Yuknavitch’s prose, most powerful in the more surreal stories, like Second Language. In this standout piece, Eastern European girls without passports are taken to the United States and sex trafficked. Able to communicate only through their bodies for fear of revealing their broken English, even their undocumented status is therefore co-opted. It is a story of this world, from the perspective of one nameless, ageless Lithuanian girl who is taken to Portland, Oregon, told as if part of a different realm. Everything in this new place is baffling, from the mountains and the hundreds of flavours of chips, to the banal contentment of Portland’s residents, as lost girls suffer adjacent to the expensive coffee shops. The story crescendos in a moment between fantasy and reality, as she sacrifices herself to save the others.

There is also The Garden of Earthly Delights, in which two timelines in the life of Bosch, a fisherman living in Alaska, are revealed in parallel. His past: an absent father, an alcoholic mother bringing home a series of abusive lovers, and adolescent Bosch trying to tune out past trauma. And his present: falling in love with a young man and learning to let all the good feelings in. But feeling good is not as easy as it sounds post-trauma, and Yuknavitch writes from the inside of her character’s heads with so much intensity that the reader is sent barrelling through each turbulent psychological landscape and subsequently questioning life as we know it. Why do we have so many flavours of chips? Why can’t a society that prides itself on being so moral, so modern, and so democratic protect young girls from being trafficked?

This intensity does become heavy-handed in a few of Yuknavitch’s pieces: so earnest in their mission of eliciting empathy (and its partner emotion, guilt), that the delight of doing a reader’s detective-work – discovering what is unsaid, piecing themes together – disappears.

Luckily in all the misery within this collection, a sense of hope prevails. Each conclusion is also a new beginning; sometimes that beginning is the prospect of death or, in one case, a breakup. In The Garden of Earthly Delights, it is a realisation. Yuknavitch’s characters might be living on the fringes, but they are often on the verge of something different.

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