June 2007

Blake Butler


Giraffes by Steven Gillis

When I was eight, I got a chunk of my leg seared off by a piece of heated metal. It’d just been sitting there on the ground, some kind of piping crisscrossed with nodes of texture -- I had no idea it’d just been melted off a larger hunk. I still didn’t seem to realize, either, as when I picked it up its heat began to rip my skin. Suddenly my flesh was hanging off me. I didn’t fully realize even then. I walked half-dazed and humming to my father, who knocked it from my hands. In a similar kind of fashion I picked up Steven Gillis’s short story collection, Giraffes. Every character in Giraffes seems ruined in some kind of way. Most every story in this collection runs off a strange synthesis of collisions: a duality melding the bizarre, the skin-shriveling, with what makes them move, the human.

Giraffes seems to me a kind of catalog of the things people put themselves and others through. In “Korematsu Love,” a man begins to grow a tail out of his ass, which he keeps hacking off over and over, embarrassed at what it gives away about him. In another, rather Katherine Dunn-ian kind of yip, “Courting Jane,” a midget employed as Dopey at Disney World obsesses over his Cinderella coworker and takes out unrequited aggression on a lonely man in a hotel who pays him to pose and strip. Still later, in other stories, a heavy woman seethes after her co-janitorially-employed lover, who, after talking her into abortion, leaves her perhaps more desperate than any other collected here. The breadth of worlds we’re subjected to one after another begin to feel not quite heavy-handed, yet hard to bear, the brunt of so much desperation all bottled in such a slim space. And not all of the scenes are so gruesome: the opening story, a very short piece titled “Vanishing Act,” mostly operates as a man follows after his loopy, sick old father. He guides the man through reminiscences, helps him naked in the bathroom. Again it is Gillis’s biceped language that carries the bead: “The shunt where the chemo went in is still in his chest, a porthole looking much like a hollow key to a strange wind instrument.”

Much of Gillis’s description method, when not detailing such vivid and sometimes delightfully grotesque back and forth, operates on a clinical level, a scientific coupling of information. His characters, faced with their ruin, often respond with equations, factoids, logic. They look for seams they burst their days open with, ways to deconstruct their deconstruction. In the title story, the central character M.E. tells his young desire, “The giraffe's heart is over 24 pounds on average, bigger than its head.” Later, spited by the same girl, he feels the enormous pounding in his own chest. It’s one of the most primed moments in the whole collection, and the most indicative of its entire seeming urge -- the way we rip ourselves open, and the way our skin seems to perhaps stretch a little, knowing, just before the ripping starts.

Giraffes by Steven Gillis
Atomic Quill Press
ISBN: 0976053578
126 pages