In Julia Elliott's pleasurably unsettling story "The Wilds," a young girl, decked out in her mother's chiffon evening dress and a bird-bone-bejeweled Burger King crown, is caught spying on the neighbor boys. The boys capture and drag her to their hideout, where they confiscate her Crown Royal pouch of magical things—"lipsticks, notebook, (a) voodoo doll of mean old drunk Mrs. Bickle," and a perfume bottle filled with a love potion she's concocted.
When the bottle is opened, it stinks up the hideout. It's labeled "Poison" (her mother's favorite cat-about scent), but the boys are in high feral mode (their "chests streaked with firefly juice ... steak knives strapped to their belts; I don't think [they] understood that this was the name of a perfume"). When she protests that it's harmless, the boys press her to prove it.
"Lick it, lick it, lick it," they chant, meaning the potion.
This story—as many in this fabulous collection—is redolent of ironic, innocent, musky sensuality. Hey, the book even has a literary cat fight.
Fantastic Women showcases the work of 18 smart, talented female writers, and it's introduced by another of them. All of the stories push one way or another past the credible.
Some of them begin realistically enough—a family returns from a movie; a character reads a tabloid article—but at some point, they become surreal. Others jump right into the surreal: One opens with the central character upside down, hanging naked and trussed in the doorway of her nicely appointed home. What's remarkable is that not only do the characters accept the bizarre as par for the course; so, also, does the reader.
The point-of-view character in the home-from-the-movie story (Aimee Bender's "Americca") is an observant prepubescent girl. Things—an extra tube of toothpaste, a can of lobster bisque, a pewter candlestick—begin appearing in her family's house. Puzzling but then disconcerting, the phenomenon catalyzes subtle changes in their lives.
Hardly subtle is the change in the tabloid-reader's situation ("Beast" by Samantha Hunt): She goes to bed a woman, and awakens, in the middle of the night, a deer. A story involving identity and infidelity, it resolves when a familiar-smelling buck materializes in her bedroom.
We follow the thoughts of the naked, trussed-up woman ("The Entire Predicament" by Lucy Corin) as she turns, "as if on a vertical spit. ... I moon every direction I don't face as I turn. I moon the blank world out my front door and then I moon the desirable open floor plan inside. I moon my living room and its seven broad windows, and I moon the kitchen beyond it, mirrored deep in the appliances." Issues emerge about identity and life purpose when her husband stands by her, blithely munching peanut butter, while the children play and get barbecued by soldiers in their backyard.
That grilling aside, there is little that's overtly aggressive or sexual among these stories. There is an awakening self-awareness, an ineffable longing, or—conversely—a hint of danger. In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's "The Young Wife's Tale," generations of wives are distracted by a handsome king. There is physical abstinence but imaginative indulgence in Kate Bernheimer's artful, Poe-inspired "Whitework."
Pedophile alarms shoot up at the beginning of Lydia Millet's warmly witty, ultimately redemptive "Snow White, Rose Red": "I met the girls and instantly liked the girls. Of course I liked the girls. A girl is better than a feast," announces a bearded homeless guy.
Dreams play a significant role in these stories. Lydia Davis' "Five Fictions in the Middle of the Night" directly manifests dream reality. And lest we think that a traditional staple of women's literature—romance—be overlooked, it shows up in unconventional guise: with religion and seal-folk ("Song of the Selkie," Gina Ochsner), in a people-sized lobster pot ("Hot, Fast, and Sad," Alissa Nutting) and with bird omens ("The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach," Karen Russell).
The stories are not angry, political or didactic, but bemusedly observant of the human psyche and social behavior. Tucsonan Stacey Richter does, however, take a highly satisfying bite in "The Doll Awakens."
Joy Williams' introduction is lively and smart. Surprisingly, she opens it by smacking back an unnamed "doyenne of the literary establishment" for an earlier semantic jab. A little personal, perhaps, but entertaining. In the end, she joins the storytellers in richly contributing to this astute, adroitly rendered and fanciful collection.