Ami Sands Brodoff
Arsenal Pulp Press
Brodoff is a genius at creating characters who are wholly original yet strangely familiar: orphans, abandoned spouses, dead or otherwise absent parents, dolls, and individuals who long to inhabit some other family role. Many are marked by physical deformities (gigantism, birthmarks, scars, extra-long fingers) and nearly all bear emotional scars. And precisely because of their imperfections, they feel entirely real. Like the people in Pedro Almodovar’s films, Brodoff’s characters are so odd they seem true to life.
Accordingly, the conflicts with which the characters struggle are uncomfortably deep, inelegant, never perfectly resolved – and therefore wholly realistic. Life, these stories remind us, is messy. To live is to face the inevitability of death, to love is to bear insecurity, cravings, and possible loss, and all we can do is muck our way through the best we can. “You gotta get dirty with life,” Doren tells his sister in “Love Out of Bounds,” while in “Green Avalanche,” Iz says motherhood “filled a yearning space inside, but opened another place that was hollow and aching, like hunger or fear.”
To complicate matters further, the world these characters inhabit is shown to be just as complex and flawed as they are. Garbage and dirty laundry images are strewn throughout the stories, and when Iz goes shopping for baby furniture, the items are “all damaged or irregular […] a lovely crib of unfinished pine” and a “bassinet with torn bumpers” from which she reaches “for a dangling sausage arm and pulls out a Humpty Dumpty doll with a jingle trapped in his belly.” Moreover, the boundaries between inner and outer worlds are blurry. In “The Haven,” Evan says a back alley is “like smelling your own insides,” while in the title story, pregnant Shana remembers having “read about a baby’s brain at birth – it has as many nerve cells as stars in the Milky Way.”
The most poignant blurring of inner and outer worlds occurs through the childlike replacements of absent things – memories, wishes – with objects. Most of the characters are collectors – of gems, stamps, pond animals, rocks, doll eyes – because of the holes in their own lives. As Shana notes, “people expelled from their own pasts [become] the most fervent picture-takers and collectors.” These collections are kept in boxes (a recurring image) or albums, ready to be passed from parent to child in an attempt to turn loss into just “links of a story, where everything [flows] and [makes] sense, even [looks] pretty.” The book abounds in images of Russian doll-like relationships, like the sign for Manhattan Mini-Storage: “A stick figure holds an empty box against the line of her torso about to enter a larger identical box. Then she’s inside, holding her box within the box.” Theses boxes recall motherhood, as well as the bloodknots Dr. Mauro ties in the title story, “loop after loop after loop… Bloodknots…they’ll never break. Not ever.’”
Thus, despite the tangled mess of family relationships, these stories offer hope; in fact, the tangle is the saving grace. It is an assertion that family, despite everything, cannot be untied. As Doren quotes, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” mRb