Charlatan by Cris Mazza
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2017; 290 pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero
Cris Mazza, whose first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction, explores themes of sexual politics and violence in her collection of stories, Charlatan. What sets Mazza apart from other writers of these themes is that she writes with an honesty unlike any I’ve ever read before. Indeed, this honesty is something that has been deemed “disturbing”. The introduction to Mazza’s collection claims, “One of the ‘disturbing’ aspects of Mazza’s work is her continual exploration of the lines between victimhood, personal accountability, and provocation”. It is this exploration that causes the reader to feel unsettled, which is important in relaying the gravity of the issues Mazza discusses.
What is most striking about Mazza’s work is that she objectively brings harrowing scenes to life through her candid descriptions. For example, in “Her First Bra”, Mazza explores the topics of child pornography and sexual abuse by creating a scene in which a photographer and an underage aspiring model engage in inappropriate sexual relations. In this scene, the photographer frames his photoshoot around the narrative that the girl being depicted has just purchased her first bra without her mother’s permission. As the photographer brings his fantasy to life, his sexual desire becomes obvious. He carries the girl out of the set and down a hall, into what appears to be a child’s bedroom:
The room they went into was dim, but after placing her on the bed, he turned on the night stand lamp and she could see the white lace canopy, the matching white lace lampshade and bedspread and curtains, antique-looking dolls in white or peach or baby-blue satin dresses lined up on a shelf, plus little Troll dolls and glass princesses, horses and china puppies, a brush and comb set on the dresser, a life-sized white teddy bear sitting in a corner.
It is the description of the child-like bedroom paralleled with the blatant sexual encounter that makes this scene unsettling. Therefore, it is because Mazza writes so transparently about such taboos that makes reading her work so alarming. Mazza complicates this matter even further by blurring the lines between “victimhood, personal accountability, and provocation”:
Outside his front door she wrote his address on one of the bills, but it turned out to be one of the ones and she spent it by accident, stopping at the corner store for a can of tuna and a loaf of bread for dinner. […] But what did she think she was going to do with the address—write and say if he didn’t pay more she’d tell someone he’d boinked jailbait? He hadn’t actually done the deed.
Through this scene, it becomes clear that “Her First Bra” begets the question of whether the girl is a victim for two reasons: because she considers blackmailing the man who exploited her, and because the abuse did not include penetrative sex.
Because she takes an objective stance in presenting her stories, Mazza allows them to speak for themselves and allows her reader to develop their own opinions. Ultimately, Mazza’s work is impactful not because it aims to answer questions, but rather because it raises more.