Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2014. 206 pages. $16.00.
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Since the seventeenth century, the character Pierrot has offered audiences a go-to image of the “sad clown”: behind the white makeup and buffoonish public act rests a tortured soul. For Pierrot, sadness comes from unrequited love, yet throughout pop culture, the troubled jokester has culled anguish from all corners of life: family, work, chemical dependency, depression. Unlike, say, a Shakespearean fool, characters like Pierrot exist not as a brief repose from unfolding drama, but as examples of the peaks and valleys of life, the ugliness that lurks behind joy. Think of the many faces of Buster Keaton, or Barry Hannah’s titular character in Ray, or John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.
In When Mystical Creatures Attack!, Kathleen Founds explores the figure of the sad clown in a linked collection equal parts strange, funny, and harrowing. Most of the stories in the slim volume last no more than a few pages, and all tend to revolve around three individuals: Laura Freedman, a high school English teacher committed to a rehab facility after a nervous breakdown; Janice Aurelia Gibbs, a smart yet rebellious student in Freedman’s class; and Cody Splunk, Janice’s classmate, who writes questionably poor fiction and pines for his peers’ attention. The trio speak with acid tongues—when hallucinating a phoenix perched outside her window, Laura’s first words are, “You’re crushing the gardenias in my windowbox.” Laura’s battle with anti-psychotic medication threatens her contentment, even after marrying and giving birth. Janice faces an unwanted pregnancy and her father’s abandonment of their Texas home for Kentucky (and a cushy new position with Smucker’s jelly). The most prosperous of the group is Cody, whose authorial pursuits inexplicably pay off. But even he remains tortured by solitude and virginity long after high school.
Founds structures her collection in brief bursts of prose, some of which may challenge the purist’s definition of “story.” These pieces find form in letters, stories-within-stories, emails, writing prompts, corporate memos, advice columns, and recipes. There’s a manic energy here that demands attention, thumbing a nose at literary conformists while propelling Laura, Janice, and Cody down jagged paths, where two women can spar verbally through their contributions to a church cookbook. Founds exploits these unusual, exhilarating forms to their fullest, adding depth and expanding the limits of storytelling with clever, subtle nods: leaping months through message timestamps, indicating professions by email addresses, establishing location through letterhead.
This expansion continues in the author’s more traditional narratives, which typically ping-pong between first- and second-person point-of-view, thrusting the reader into both the bodies and minds of the characters. “Today Is My Birthday” takes on the first-person to relate the story of Janice’s sexual encounter with her boyfriend, Danny (“Then we are in his bedroom and my clothes are off and it is hot and blurry and damn. Danny knows what he is doing”) while “The Holy Innocent,” chronicling Janice’s miscarriage following this encounter, is told in the second-person. This shift is powerful, for in the first story, we glean Janice’s intelligence, while the second transplants us into the feelings behind her motivations, and the confusing emotions that come with teen pregnancy. “You drifted away on a plank and nobody knew this,” Founds writes, “which was fine, because it was your secret. It was for you to know and for no other person to know.” These forays into second-person often come at moments of intense vulnerability and fear. When paired with the collection’s more curious offerings, an unusual bond forms between reader and character. We have heard their voices, lived in their heads.
Throughout the collection, Laura, Janice, and Cody come together—springing Laura from rehab, attending her wedding—and wander apart, yet their stories find logical moments of intersection. Midway through the narrative, in an attempt to spark a romance, Cody checks in on Janice while on a book tour, and the pair visit a Biblical wax museum that sells souvenir t-shirts and mugs with slogans like “FBI: Firm Believer in Christ” and “Try Jesus. If you don’t like him, the devil will always take you back.” Founds amplifies the tragicomedy of the encounter by surrounding her characters with a world overflowing with outlandishness. Laura rehabs at Psychiatric Wellness Solutions, a center based on “the capitalist model of cognitive behavioral therapy,” where participation in programs earns “Wellness Points™” that can be used for such luxuries as cookies and visitors. These bizarre, satirical locations enhance the comedy, but they also function to nurture questions of normalcy, raising the stakes in the protagonists’ pursuits while simultaneously containing them in supposedly conventional settings that nevertheless feel disastrous.
When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a recipient of the 2014 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and its decoration is a bold move on the part of the selection committee. Though her prose may occasionally recall the oddness of Amelia Gray, the imagination of Karen Russell, or the character motivation of Lindsay Hunter, Founds has forged a collection that stands out for its originality, challenging the very concept of a linked collection and spotlighting ambitious, successful experimental writing.