Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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See Through

Nelly Reifler

Simon & Schuster ($21)

by Neil Kozlowicz

Reading Nelly Reifler's debut collection of short stories, See Through, you'll feel an impulse to avert your gaze, as from the adrenaline-shot scene in Pulp Fiction—but you can't. Averting your gaze, in this case, means missing out on the dark unspoken thoughts and actions of characters who must be real, must be out there, or how could they feel so authentic? Didn't your neighbors just buy their son a Dagger bicycle, or was it a Schrade knife? Your niece won't neglect to feed your cats while you are gone for two weeks, will she? She certainly would never walk up to the door and watch them, then turn away...

Such musings are inevitable in a fictive universe where there's no skipping the "bad parts." Reifler's spare stories demand that the reader piece the whole together; you are not carried to the next scene, but allowed to wait and wonder about who these people are. The answer is the one you fear most: They are you.

With a microscopic eye focussed on the sympathetic nervous system, Reifler shows the bad parts of her characters and their lives. From the first lines of "Teeny," the opening story, something is clearly awry:

There they were.

Through the window, she could see them, one on either arm of the sofa.

They seemed to be asleep.

She had her instructions, written on a piece of lined notebook paper. She had reviewed them earlier. Now the paper was cinched in her fist, blank side out, words hidden. Her hand was sweaty.

Reifler's minimalist prose signals an imminent wreck, and depending on your disposition (or your love of cats), you'll be cringing through every deliberation and failure that Teeny makes or sadistically cheering her pathology. Reifler also shows herself to be a master of playing with readerly expectations, as in the story "Memoir," in which Reifler's narrator tells of her time in a mythic village where a hideous disease and mutations haunt the villagers. "Memoir" shares stylistic similarities with Shirley Jackson's classic "The Lottery"; though it features a different nemesis, the matter-of-fact address and attention to the beat of the village evoke Jackson's tone of eerie dread:

So the baby came. The trees turned scarlet and yellow, and leaves piled up like a moat around the house; apples fell to the ground and changed into wine, and drunken field mice dragged them home to their nests. And the baby came. By that time, my father couldn't move at all.

All of See Through's stories view disturbing situations with a cool eye, but it's important to note that the deviants in Reifler's fiction—squirrels and sparrows included—are celebrated for their struggles, their need to exist as they are. These characters know the rules, but because of some compulsion or desire or lack, they no longer have room to follow them. Sometimes Reifler offers explanations, but mostly, we follow a body, an id, a libido, to a twisted victory.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents