The Wilds by Julia Elliott
In The Wilds, Julia Elliott's debut short story collection, speculative fiction meets Southern gothic to create stories that highlight the fantastic strangeness of contemporary life. Reconstructive technology helps restore an old woman's legs as well as her memory; a sentient robot explores the meaning of love; a woman's stale marriage is rejuvenated by a brush with danger as her town is overrun with wild dogs; two girls witness a miracle at a sleepover with their dowdy classmate; a decadent yet masochistic New Age health treatment forces its participants to endure grotesque suffering before achieving perfection.
Elliott specializes in drawing from the peculiarities of the everyday to imagine larger-than-life scenarios. Elliott takes a phenomenon -- whether Internet addiction, human attraction, puberty, outlandish spa treatments, or the Paleo Diet trend -- and blows it up to bizarre and mythical proportions. Much of the pleasure of reading Elliott's stories comes from their brash exaggeration. Her lyricism, which at times seems overwrought (mouths become "maws," eyes become "ocular organs") is well-suited both to the pseudoscientific jargon used in her futuristic settings ("fatty orbital herniation") and to the opulent vernacular of the deep South (a woman has "hair as crunchy and golden as a pork rind"; an evangelical grandmother blesses a meal "[i]n the name of Christ's ruby wounds").
Elliott has a knack for snark and for identifying which absurdities can be passed off as credible. "Regeneration at Mukti" takes place at an ultra-chichi holistic healing spa and is rife with jabs, starting with its flippant first line: "Call me a trendmonger, but I've sprung for a treehouse." Elliott breezily introduces the reader to the various treatments offered at Mukti, which include "leech therapy," "kelp baths," a "goat-milk-and-basil soak," and "bee-sting therapy." Even as Mukti is besieged by pirates, the narrator notes: "Certain therapies are no longer offered -- sensory deprivation and beer baths, for example -- but we strive to stay positive."
Although "Renegeration at Mukti" and "Caveman Diet" (which contains a character known as Sexgoth, the belly dancer, as well as the delightfully loony phrase "club-fight-induced memory loss") satirize the extremes to which people go in the name of self-improvement, Elliott remains disappointingly uncritical. In Mukti, marauders may lurk at the edges of paradise, but ultimately the threat they pose is a shallow one; nothing truly stands in the way of the wealthy spa-goers in their quest to attain hotter bods. "Regeneration at Mukti" ends in a moment of ambiguity -- at the end of her treatment, the spa wrecked by a hurricane, the narrator emerges from her "Casing" as what may or may not be a new-and-improved self. Elliott's scenarios are intriguing, her descriptions amusing, but ultimately the critique isn't there; the incisiveness ends with the premise. Elliott's missed opportunities to complicate the story make for a sadly superficial experience: what about these pirates, for instance? Or the staff at the spa, who are they? Elliott has little to say about the world in which Mukti exists. The principal questions at the end of "Regeneration at Mukti" seem to be uninteresting: Is the treatment successful? Will the narrator meet up with her love interest? Who cares? Elliott may revel in envisioning hypothetical situations, but she doesn't run very far with them.
The stories in The Wilds generally have a tendency to build toward some sort of climax just before ending abruptly. Although the plot is propelled forward by the mounting urgency of impending disaster, the stakes never seem to rise. We may read on with idle curiosity, but our connection to the characters is too weak to inspire more than a passing interest in how they fare. The worlds Elliott creates may be lush and inventive, but the people in them seem dull by comparison. While there is much to appreciate in these stories, there is very little material that is truly thought provoking.
One notable exception, however, is "Jaws," about a family vacation during which the protagonist comes to face with the consequences of her parents' aging and her mother's developing dementia. Elliott demonstrates a balance of wit and sensitivity. Hilarious, brainy and compassionate, "Jaws" comes across as the most personal and self-aware story in the collection, and is the only story in which a significant emotional change occurs.
Though many of the stories in The Wilds feature transformations or the threat of danger, nothing much transpires. The characters in Julia Elliott's stories, often plagued by middle-class anxiety and ennui, hope and pray for something, anything, to happen. In the final story, "The End of the World," the narrator passes a car crash and imagines "the world ruptured, angelic screeches flying around my ears, my heart finally opening like a rose." Likewise, we read The Wilds wishing that something remarkable will occur: that the stories will challenge us or touch us in some way.
Elliott is clearly a writer with a deep appreciation for the verdant possibilities of language, and whose whirring imagination is capable of pyrotechnic displays, but it seems that she hasn't quite figured out what it is she wants to say.
The Wilds by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books