Inside Madeline by Paula Bomer
Soho Press, 2014; 229 pp
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
Let me loan you my rainy day. Sirens howl, flash flood warnings for hours, no one home, yes—this is when you want to read Inside Madeline, the latest short story collection by Paula Bomer.
Bomer is no confessionalist, but she makes one out of me.
I’ll begin tamed by regret:
I’d hadn’t heard of Paula Bomer until March.
The stories in Inside Madeline are slippery things—rayon dresses that look good on hangers, cling in uncomfortable places. I mean this as a compliment.
Here, for instance, is the opening of “Two Years.”
“He was the one to give her head when she was on the rag. He liked it, the saltiness, the nastiness of it. He grabbed her legs so hard it left bruises, because she claimed she didn’t want him to go down on her when she was bleeding. Yeah, right.”
Perhaps you’re a bit woah-ed by that intro (my hand’s up), perhaps you’re like, um, no. OK, fine. Bomer doesn’t stop there, anyhow; she keeps going:
“Her pussy was so clean anyway, even when she bled.
The going goes on, too. As Bomer’s narrator closes in on cunnilingus, her reader may expect the story to disappear or dissolve into orgiastic, orgasmic zooms. Instead, Bomer’s sentences remain whip-sharp, tight (forgive me), and disarmingly straightforward. Nothing is obscured.
I have a second confession. I am a girl-writer: I write about girls; I like reading about other girls.
Maybe Paula Bomer is a girl-writer, too. Even when her characters are women, they’re girls at heart. They developing, physically mentally emotionally; they’re coming-of-age. Often, we meet them in their youth, or the twilight hours thereof, their last minutes crushed by what they want and can’t help getting (often sexual intimacy), what they want but don’t have (Lanz nightgowns).
If she were a poet, perhaps Bomer would be bundled with the Gurlesque.
I suspect, however, she’s somehow too conventional for that group. Strip away the viscera that seems to be the only thing reviewers can talk about when they’re dealing with a woman writing explicitly about corporality, and Bomer’s stories are recognizable things, with characters and settings, plots and pacing, beginnings and middles and ends.
Confession three. I have complicated feelings about this book’s blurbs, which put me in a kind of girl-writer tizzy.
Especially those lauding words from dudes. Richard Thomas calls the collection, “raw and urgent.” Adam Wilson commends the stories for their “fearlessness,” calling them “courageously real."
Confession in parts and pieces and queries.
1. What makes writing raw? (Fresh, uncooked, new, untrained, raggedy-ass (thanks, thesaurus), abraded, bleak, strong).
A. Why don’t we go for strong when describing women writing about sex and bodies?
B. What about sentences like, “That was before she knew how to say ‘fuck you,’” sentences that establish place and time and traits with clarity? Without the pretense of voice or lingual tricks?
2. Why must courage and fearlessness be associated with the real? Why is real with girls qualified?
Here’s a passage toward the end of one of my favorite stories in Inside Madeline. “Reading to the Blind Girl” is about Maggie, an aimless BU student, who begins reading to Caroline, a blind girl in her anthropology class, to impress the professor. By the end of the story, the women are out of college, and Maggie happens to spot her former-acquaintance on the street.
“Maggie stepped toward the curb. Commonwealth Avenue was full of cars. She couldn’t cross. She couldn’t escape. She could only pass her, face her really, face her, but not, because Caroline couldn’t see Maggie. Digging her chin even deeper into the rough collar of her coat, she stomped by the blind girl.”
I question the courage and fearlessness in this writing. True, this is a passage that maybe shows a bit more cowardice than some, but I push back on the bravery assigned to women writers like Bomer because “fearlessness” seems like a way to not talk about the story, about the craft, about the writing.
And fearlessness—akin to risky—is just a skip away from brave, wild, ballsy, feisty … As in: A wild woman, a bad girl: she’s a feisty one.
What’s in the middle? None of those words describe what I see in Inside Madeline: a collection of girls leveled by life.
“Take it all? Resolve some issues? Maddy thinks, how do you resolve your life, dissolve your life, don’t take it with you? Leave it behind? Wrap it up in a nice package, put a bow on it?” writes Bomer in “Inside Madeline,” the anchor of this collection. I dare you to put this story down.
The title character, Madeline goes from overweight to anorexic, from outcast to promiscuous. But the more we learn about what goes into Madeline’s body, the more we realize that there’s no limit to her needs. Whether she is stuffing herself with pancakes, cucumbers, cocks, or hollowness, there will always be something more she longs for.
That longing, as I see it, creates a tension that informs this entire collection. Yes, these stories end, often in nice packages, with scissor-curled bows. What emboldens Bomer’s writing, however, isn’t the X-rated or the subversive; it’s the unnerving sense that nothing, for women, is ever finished.
Which leads me to girl crushing. How can women ever be finished or satisfied or freed from desire when they are surrounded by other women.
From “Inside Madeline”: “Jennifer was perfect. She was thin and petite, her eyes were hard and she always was impeccably dressed. Her sweaters outlined her smallish, well defined breasts perfectly and her pants were tight and new looking, without a pantyline to mar the boyish curve of her bottom. Her piercing laugh was distinctly cruel and always directed at someone. But otherwise she spoke deep and low; and other kids would have to lean toward her to hear her, which they did nervously. She often slapped people on the arm or shoulder, biting her thin bottom lip as she did, and it hurt, stung for minutes, but it was just play and no one could get angry about it.”
From “Reading to the Blind Girl”: “Anya (as she asked her students to call her) stood at the front of the class, looking out at the vast room of people, her long, curly, truly wild hair loose around her shoulders, a brown denim mini skirt revealing her long, shapely legs.”
The girls in Inside Madeline are never the girls (or women) they long to be. They’re bent on escape or transformation, usually via the most extreme means possible. I loved Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeline—perhaps more than its predecessor, Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior—because what Bomer nails isn’t the raw real courage—it’s the quiet staring, the lip-chewing looks by which girls devour each other.