December 2011

Lightsey Darst

fiction

Betty Superman by Tiff Holland

Tiff Holland's new collection of short stories, Betty Superman, is a very small book: five-by-seven, forty-four pages, modest stories with elliptical endings, statements all rubbed away to mere nubs, no fat on these bones. But given how the stories trace the arc of the narrator's relationship with her "Dragon Lady" mother, given the pictorially rich and barely-tapped material (transvestite beauty-shop clients, wild aunts, disease and death, five husbands between the mother and daughter), this could easily be a novel. Surely someone once told Holland she could be the next Lee Smith, and I suppose she shied away, as her narrator does when her mother tells her, "You could be beautiful if you wanted to."

Instead of being an epic journey through American white-trash motherhood, then, Betty Superman is precious, all, perhaps, that the recovering daughter (who it's hard not to think of as Holland herself, given biographical similarities) had the strength and time to write. Rose Metal Press underscores this preciousness with an embossed cover and, inside the cover, a sheet of dark blue paper that glitters like sharkskin or outer space.

I've been living with Betty Superman for a couple of months now, trying to work out what to say about a book so well-crafted and self-contained that it's like one of those anoraks that folds up into its own pocket. There's something sly about Holland's craft -- little vignettes as packed with meanings as family gifts. I could almost quote one entire story here; it's only a couple hundred words, a brief sketch of Betty, the narrator's indelible mother, cooking eggs for her jealous third husband, a meal she won't eat. "She sits in front of him with a plate and the candy bar. She cuts it carefully into bites as if it were a steak. She brings the fork to her mouth slowly before gobbling each bite like Godzilla consuming the populace of Tokyo. The she wipes, daintily, and takes another bite."

And that's it: third husband, eggs, candy bar. But the punch here is the title, "The Disappearing Populace": how it calls our attention not to any of the actual characters but to the imaginary people who are being swallowed, or who are perhaps only painlessly "disappearing," going back into the nothingness from which they have so briefly emerged. This kind of mis- or redirection abounds -- a story about Betty's pimp gangster boyfriend ends with buzzards stripping a deer and crows sitting "on the barbed wire, waiting for the big birds to finish, so they can have their turn." Witnesses, casualties, bystanders: it seems we should worry about them, but we don't, as though their destruction is an acceptable price for family reconciliation. And there is reconciliation, finally, between the brassy mother and her abashed daughter: "She doesn't rub the lipstick in the way she used to even when I was in my thirties, and I don't rub it away either."

I don't know what to think of that last line. I've just dropped my mother off at the airport. She came to visit me for a few days and she did what mothers do: she picked at this and that, she made a face, she suggested other ways I could do my hair and make my bed, she smiled at me until I got embarrassed, she adored me as if I were still her tangle-headed little girl.

The thing is, I am still that girl, which is why I cannot stand far enough back to be completely free of rebellion. Holland bends the truth here a bit, I think, and her restraint throughout the collection makes this closing chord ring more loudly false.

In its preciousness and its closure, the book's at odds with the bombastic Betty, which makes it even more a daughter's gesture ("loving that error, loving that filial form," Jorie Graham says), the mother pinned, lovingly, but pinned like a dead butterfly all the same.

My mother's been busy the last few months writing up a biography of her own recently deceased mother -- not simply charting her movements or stitching together the fragments of memoir that she left, but forming an interpretation of her, getting her down. At first I thought this was morbid, but I've come to realize it's her way of putting her mother away, making peace, ending. She offers it up as a tribute: Dear progenitor, look how well I've misunderstood you.

Betty Superman by Tiff Holland
Rose Metal Press
ISBN: 978-0984616626
44 pages