Maryse Meijer, Heartbreaker: Stories (FSG Originals, 2016)
I don’t have any difficulty with finding a steady supply of books to enjoy, be they poetry, novels, short fiction collections. It’s the books that really knock your socks that prove hard to find, and it’s probably for the best that we don’t find those ones too regularly. Finding those books, then, is always the cherished gift it should be. For me, one such book was Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker, a collection of thirteen short stories.
Maybe the first thing to be said of these stories is that they are highly twisted oddities, and always fabulously so. They are fearless and highly imaginative. They are unapologetic. They are seductive. They are grim. If there was ever a sense of going too far, they have entirely disregarded it, and rightfully so.
These stories are preoccupied with damaged, near-shattered people surviving the circumstances they feel dealt, and surviving themselves, or else not. We flit quite often between realism, surrealism, and hyperrealism but distinguishing between these at any point hardly seems all that important. Simply keeping up with them should be much more the concern. Sympathy, pity, care, or even scorn for these poor souls is never really the point. Nobody really comes near deserving anything so particular, and that is one of the great strengths of the book and the execution of these stories. It seems that to have a peek and take what you will from what you see of their bizarre lives and situations is what it’s about, if we might talk at all about there being a point and, again, it isn’t really all that necessary that we do.
The opening story ‘Home’ unsettles the reader from the get-go by giving the sense of an abduction having taken place.
“In the truck she sits straight, her hands flat on the seat. At a stoplight, seeing that his head is turned away, she opens the door and thrusts one shoulder out into the night air before he catches her arm. He doesn’t pull, just holds her still until she leans in again, slamming the door shut.”
The suggested violence here is not, however, what it seems. The sure thinking that you have a foothold in the story is something that will happen several more times, and will feel less and less assured each time. The situation here is not so simple, but you are being a good reader for thinking that you know what’s going on. You are doing as you are supposed to. When you become more uncertain, slower to assume, you are again doing as you are supposed to.
‘Love, Lucy’ begins with an unruly adopted child’s claim, at the age of five, to be “THE SON OF THE DEVIL”, written in sand at the seaside. As she jabs at the postman with scissors through the letterbox, among other concerning behaviours, her father’s love is unwavering, and it might be interpreted as a commentary on the difficulties of single parenting, but then there are many details to suggest we should take the child’s claim quite literally. You can expect by now not to get a yes-or-no answer. It won’t be given, and the stories are only more irresistible for it.
As I read on I felt a temptation to watch out for a character I might have some hope for, a character who might find an answer to their particular situation, find contentedness of sorts. Their lives are just so lonely and afflicted. Drawing lines and deciding who the villains and victims are, though, is pointless, and the author’s refusal to solve their complaints, and to, instead, simply witness them, gives the stories far more resonance and intrigue.
In ‘Heartbreaker,’ Natalie and Chris seem to remain every bit as broken and doomed as their lives converge closer together. The other is not and cannot be the answer to what makes each of them so alone.
“He lifts his head, looking first in the wrong direction, then catching her eye. She’s hitting the thick glass so hard she can feel it vibrating in her elbow, her shoulder; she must look crazy, she thinks, with her bad hair and ugly clothes, her fist coming down again and again, but he just smiles, a smile so wide it swallows her, it breaks her heart.”
There are serious perils to feeling sympathy, or for cheering for the characters populating these stories. The search for the redemptive is fruitless, though it always is there, and needs to be there. You also learn quickly enough that it will be so fruitless. It is only human to will a happy outcome for Robert in ‘Stiletto.’ His own brothers and father are so unremittingly cruel to him that the tendency is to want to see such suffering rewarded. You’ll want him to deserve it, and then have it, but when some very creepy behaviour descends into something much more debased, unnerving and even criminal, you have to ask yourself, then, what in God’s name you were thinking backing him in any way.
The pick of these stories, for me, is ‘The Fire,’ a very peculiar and fascinating love story. A pyromaniac starts a fire and thus begins the account of his relationship with it: “I gazed at her as she twisted between my thumb and forefinger, not knowing then what she would be like, if she would love me, or if I would love her.” Meijer expertly both sexualises and romanticises the language at turns to captivating effect: “I kept my windows open, hoping to catch her scent; I drew hearts in the ash she sprinkled on the sill.” Bringing her gifts, there is a courtship of the fire. There is incredible beauty to be found in the writing in these stories. Though they deal with dark and often very unpleasant themes, the angles at which they do so allows for so much. Some of the most beautiful and joyous writing in the book comes in this story. Take, for instance, the flirtations here, as the fire spreads and consumes:
“Look at you, I said, fanning the newspaper clippings across the floor of the van. The satellites can see you from space!
What’s space? She asked.
It’s everything around us that’s not a thing.
She sighed. I want that, she said. I want all of it.
You’ll have it, sweetheart, I assured her. It’s already yours.
Yay, she said.
Yay, I echoed. I could feel her smiling, and I could see it, too, in the trees, at the very top, all mouth when she wanted to be, at other times all hands, or legs, dancing in the wind.”
Another favourite of mine from the collection is ‘Whole Life Ahead,’ which reminded me a little of the novel Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, but with all the gloss, sugar-sweetness, and romance removed. A man sees the body of a murder victim on TV and falls in love, exhuming her and commencing a loving courtship he’s certain will be restorative.
“The facts of her death did not deter him: brutal, raped, slashed. His love would fix all that. All she had to do was find her way back to the world, to him. if he wished hard enough, loved strong enough, she would. Did.
When he touches her he can feel her bones trying to remember how to move, clicking where the cartilage is almost gone.”
The choice is the reader’s, once again, whether to assume it is all taking place in his head or that she is, in fact, returning by increments from corpse status. It’s more enjoyable, for me, to read it in fantastical terms, to take it all as literal, and especially when he convinces her to accompany him to a nearby bar on a date, where she attempts to drink a cranberry and soda and it seeps through her chin, staining her dress, and she isn’t quite sure if she tasted it or not.
‘The Daddy,’ ‘Rapture,’ and ‘Stones’ all deal with deviant sexualities in their own ways, but are all much more about the necessity and problems of companionship. ‘Rapture’ is a particularly difficult read, dealing, as it does, with child pornography and masochism. It’s a really fascinating story, though, for its successful conveyance of considerable tenderness between the man and the boy, while it is all the while fraught with the most horrid possibilities.
For all their attempts at making a connection with someone else, the characters in these stories are just far too damaged to succeed. It isn’t love they seek so much as the means to cope with dreadfulness, which might be confused with love. This is true in ‘Stones,’ in which sex is very bizarrely ritualised between two people, each with their own deformities. Abandonment always seems inevitable for all the characters, emotional and physical. They are just too caught up in their own sufferings. It cannot work out for them.
“He could get in his car and go home. He could turn off his phone, he could eat lunch somewhere else, he could stop coming to the driveway, to this house: that’s what her men do, he guesses, they peel themselves away from her, they can’t help it.”
While I can’t say this book left me with a rosy view of the world, the truth of it is the short story rarely does that anyway. The best ones usually are miserable accounts of loneliness. I absolutely loved these stories, and I loved them every bit as much when I reread the collection. They suck you in. With their uninhibited imagination and flowing style, and eye for both unsettling and unexpectedly tender detail, they are as tantalising a collection of stories as I’ve ever read. Nobody is saved or redeemed in any way. No character’s life seems to improve one iota. They are all as alone and fucked up in the end as before. Nevertheless, so much of the vitality and integrity of the book lies therein. None of them do enough to make their own hope, and so they don’t get it. All that sordidness considered, I couldn’t possibly recommend it any more.
Edward O’Dwyer is a poet and fiction writer from Limerick. His latest book is Cheat Sheets (Truth Serum Press, 2018), a collection of 108 very short stories, all of them dark comedies about infidelity. Donal Ryan calls them “wicked little gems,” while Tanya Farrelly refers to the book as “a side-splitting study on the absurdity of human behaviour.”
Edward has two collections of poetry to date. The Rain on Cruise’s Street (Salmon Poetry, 2014) was Highly Commended by the Forward Prizes judges. Bad News, Good News, Bad News (Salmon Poetry, 2017) contains the poem, ‘The Whole History of Dancing,’ which won the Eigse Michael Hartnett Festival 2018 ‘Best Original Poem’ prize. A third poetry collection, Exquisite Prisons, will be published in early 2020. His poems have been frequently nominated for Pushcart, Forward, and Best of the Web prizes. He is working currently on the sequel to Cheat Sheets and intends to begin writing a novel very soon.