Teresa Milbrodt, Bearded Women
November 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
I spent the first seven months of 2010 reading hundreds of literary journals, magazines, and a few original anthologies in search of stories that would make good candidates for publication in the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4 (here is the list of stories I wrote down for further consideration). One of the stories that caught my attention was Teresa Milbrodt’s “Cyclops,” published in the Summer 2009 issue of Indiana Review). What I liked about it was the tension between the strange (the girl born with a Cyclops eye, a reliquary inside a coffee shop) and the mundane (worries about how to fit in while struggling to accept just who you are as a person). The weirder elements in “Cyclops” work because Milbrodt grounds the extraordinary inside a framework that forces the reader to look away from the freak-show qualities of a single-eyed girl and instead focus on how one would cope with that situation. The payoff is quiet and poignant, but powerful in unexpectedly ways because the oddity of the protagonist’s appearance does not single her out as much as it makes us all too aware of the frustrations, dashed hopes, and resigned sighs that we all experience in our lives, especially for those of us who feel stuck in dead-end jobs or stagnant relationships.
When Milbrodt contacted me a few months ago and offered me a review copy of her debut collection, Bearded Women, I readily accepted because “Cyclops” was very good and I wanted to see if her collection contained stories of a similar quality. If anything, Bearded Women more than fulfilled my expectations because the unified themes, particularly that of how “freaks of nature” can stand in place of some very real social issues, particularly those that trouble women, with their strangeness allowing the reader to step back and see the larger picture in a way that might not have always been the case if the protagonists had been normal women.
One of the highlights of Bearded Women is the first story, “Bianca’s Body.” The first-person narrator is a thirty-five year-old professional who works as a news anchor and who is contemplating whether or not to have a body. There is one complication: she has an attached lower torso, reproductive organs, and legs that hang at a forty-five degree angle from her abdomen that she calls Bianca. Milbrodt uses this dual-torsoed/legged woman to make some pointed remarks about how feminine bodies are viewed:
We’ve been having this problem for six years, ever since we started trying to get pregnant. Doug prefers to have sex with Bianca and for a long time I did not mind this. I feel what Bianca feels, and to be honest she has better orgasms. Bianca has gotten pregnant twice and both times the foetus miscarried. For two years we’ve tried impregnating my walking half. It’s not easy since Bianca grows out of my body at a diagonal. (p. 10)
We lapse into silence. I don’t know who to believe. The doctors. My husband. Everyone has an agenda. I know the doctors would be celebrities. I know Doug is afraid for my health. I also think he’s afraid of losing Bianca. Sometimes I get jealous. Bianca is sexier than my walking half. Her legs and hips are smooth and slender, belong to a twenty-year-old girl, while my walking legs belong to a thirty-five-year-old woman. Even though I work out at the gym and my walking legs are muscular, there is a little cellulite and some varicose veins. (p. 12)
Notice the alternation between “my walking half” and “Bianca.” Here, Bianca stands in for the woman as an object of sexual action. It is “Bianca” who is the preferred sex entrepôt, because her legs and lower form remind the narrator’s husband of a nubile young girl. It is the narrator who bears the burden of being on the cusp of middle age, with the sagging body parts. It is obvious from these two excerpts that the narrator is conflicted. On one hand, she identifies “Bianca” as part of her and it is her body, her choices, whatever the doctors or her husband Doug might say. On the other, she is resentful of having her core body being ignored in favor of “Bianca.” The weirdness of this body underscores the conflicts women have with their bodies.
In “Mr. Chicken,” there is a woman who hides her hirsute facial features by constant shaving. She works at a restaurant where a strange, gawking man (who she nicknames Mr. Chicken) orders 100 chicken nuggets each day and as he eats them, he stares unpleasantly at her and at the other customers. It is a touching meditation on body image and how external forces (say, the prejudices of certain males) can have deleterious effects on feminine self-image. What makes this story so effective is that Milbrodt carefully develops the narrator’s situation, as she goes into reflective monologues surrounding her awkward interactions with Mr. Chicken about how men react when they learn that she shaves every morning. Their stammering responses and subsequent “escapes” leave hanging in the air, ready to explode upon contact, the discomfort many males feel about “masculine” and “feminine” roles, particularly when a woman seems to be violating those seemingly rigid divisions. The psychological tension increases until it is released in a simple and yet cathartic action that ties together both the narrator’s dilemma and Mr. Chicken’s own rude gawking nature.
Most of the other thirteen stories are similar in theme if not in narrative structure or execution as “Bianca’s Body,” “Cyclops,” and “Mr. Chicken.” For the most part, I found their narrative arcs and situations to be effective, in part part to Milbrodt’s ability to use freakishly weird situations and characters to explore and then dismantle reader expectations regarding gender roles and sexuality. There were very few dips in story quality and the collection as a whole serves to reinforce through reiteration and re-exploration the themes of strangeness and feminine struggle for acceptance. Bearded Women is one of the best debut short story collections I’ve read over the past few years and Teresa Milbrodt will be a writer whose future I shall follow with keenness, as she already displays more command over her stories than several veteran story writers. Highly recommended.