Kathryn Harlan’s debut collection of short stories is rife with experiences that defy naming. Fruiting Bodies (Norton, June 7) has been dubbed one of the 18 best books of the year so far by website Vulture, and was blurbed by Kirstin Valdez Quade (shoutout to her recent appearance at the recent Santa Fe Literary Festival).
Harlan received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she now teaches writing. She won the 2019 August Derleth Graduate Creative Writing Prize, and her work has been published in the Gettysburg Review and Strange Horizons, among others. Her stories are archetypical but specific—alien but familiar. They have a timeless quality, as if they might easily have occurred in the age of fairy tales or the present, but they’re steeped in the unmistakable omnipresence of decay brought on by climate change. Even when it isn’t addressed directly, Harlan’s stories are bound with the consciousness of endings—loves, lives, illusions, the world. The stories and the characters who populate them are driven by a desire for definite knowledge that’s thwarted left and right by the illogic of life.
In “Algal Bloom,” two young girls with a summers-only friendship are fascinated by a mysterious poison present in the waters of the lake they visit every year. Drawn by morbid curiosity, they risk their safety to find out where, really, the danger lies. But a definite answer eludes them: “It looked like nothing I had words for, like the end of the world.”
“Hunting the Viper-King” is the story of a man whose life is absorbed in the search for a mythical creature he sees as his destiny to capture. Catching the viper-king holds the promise of omniscience for the captor, and both the man and his daughter’s lives come to revolve around the quest. This could’ve been done as stodgy allegory, the tale of a person who rejects reality in favor of illusion. But Harlan doesn’t take that path. Instead, she stretches and warps the bounds of so-called reality with dignity and depth.
Most of Harlan’s characters are queer women who aren’t easily defined. They yearn for their experiences to fit more neatly into narratives that have been built up by others before them, but their own identities are more boundless, shifting. In “Take Only What Belongs to You,” for example, a woman named Esther is fascinated by a long-dead author named Anais Casey. Esther’s obsession is bound up with her sexuality, her discomfort with it and her own body. She envies her girlfriend’s “movie” coming-out story, her “unwavering moment of recognition, how kissing a girl was such clear evidence, how everything being dealt with from there began from that point of certainty.” Esther’s own experience is one of constant wondering and reevaluation.
Such candid discomfort with physicality wends through the stories. Characters’ conceptions of themselves clash with the realities of their bodies, and the distinctions between beings are never quite clear.
The book is also a meditation on record keeping and archives, which shows up in “Take Only What Belongs to You” as Esther examines the ephemera of fictional author Anais Casey’s life, exploring how her own reality clicks or clashes with the reality that appears in Casey’s letters, essays and stories. The archival bent shows up again in “Fiddler, Fool Pair,” a story about an anthropologist named Naomi who goes under the hill to gamble with the fey folk, trying to understand the internal logic of their world. The story is beautifully and weirdly wrought. Naomi encounters all manner of bizarre things—fey with mechanical bodies and humans who are mysteriously drawn to gamble away things like their own fingers, all the poems they know and the memory of their first kiss. But the anxiety that permeates the story is about record keeping, about how experience is or isn’t real if it isn’t recorded, and what happens when that record is lost.
The language is luminous, opulent, evocative. It has a tactile quality that, let’s face it, is sometimes disgusting. But it’s disgusting in the way flipping over a rock to reveal a squirming mass of grubs is: you hate it but you can’t look away. Sometimes it nearly makes your skin crawl right off your body, leaving you feeling “vivisected and pinned open,” as Esther describes her experience of Anais Casey’s work.
Sometimes the stories leave you feeling less than sated, though, as if you missed some key thread in the narrative and now the whole thing is unspooling in your hands. But what’s undeniable about Harlan’s tales is their raw emotion, the deft and surprising ways she limns recognizable experience in the magical and the strange.