Reviewed by Julia Tagliere
If attention-seeking were an Olympic sport, cats would be the world’s undisputed gold medalists: Rank exhibitionists, they are easily bored, utterly indifferent to others’ desires, wantonly destructive, and shockingly devious, but they do fascinate us. A 2015 survey revealed that of the 4.66 billion people using the internet each month, 699 million were looking at cat content.
So it’s only natural the cover (illustrated by Myriam Letourneau and designed by Jamie McGarry) of Emma Brankin’s debut story collection, Attention Seekers (Valley Press, June 2023), features a black cat brazenly licking its own ass, leg draped behind its ear. Brankin sets the tone from the start: herein lies some serious assholerie.
And Brankin delivers on that promise. In “Caturday,” we meet Ash, an Instagram cat influencer, who lies about her cat’s death to draw her ex back in:
She looks at her Instagram account—down three followers today. The cat has twenty-seven new followers plus a never-ending stream of likes and comments. She rereads her messages to Jenna. ‘The cat is sick.’… If she [Ash] is capable of stalking, of lying, of obsessing, then perhaps she needs to use these skills to help herself out for once. But, before she knows it, she’s flicking through potential new cat photos to post…She makes her decision, taps away at her keys, then presses upload.
Her new post shows: a close-up of the cat, its green eyes quizzical, its black fur framing its face like a lion’s mane. Underneath: ‘RIP to my furry love 2016–2020.’
Incredibly, the ploy works, and her ex comes for the faux funeral:
Together they stand, two atheists, heads bowed, saying a prayer for the soul of a cat who is halfway across town, shedding its thick black fur on another of Ash’s mother’s cashmere jumpers.
Then we have Gray, a self-described “belligerent middle-aged man” forced to attend a “Silent Retreat” by his beleaguered wife. Unwilling (or unable) to address the underlying pain causing his belligerence, Gray resists the retreat’s processes from his arrival:
I rap my knuckles against the reception desk…The sign next to me says, ‘PLEASE KEEP NOISE TO A MINIMUM ON ARRIVAL.’ I rap a little harder, the micro-rebellion thrilling me…
While the retreat leader issues instructions to the silent attendees, Gray continues his subversiveness, both external and internal:
‘No eye contact.’
I shift my gaze down to nipple level, tugging self-consciously at my Bart Simpson t-shirt…
Shifting on my mat, it feels like there are 77 different bones in my backside. I’m already stuck in a cycle of flinches and tics. Crick neck. Roll bad shoulder. Stretch back. Scratch ear. Clear throat…
‘And no sexual contact.’
That does it. I instantly envisage shagging her, cigarette hanging from my mouth and a fly-swatter in each of my hands. Rules be damned.
It would have been easy to simply entertain readers with this guy’s mutinous behaviors, but Brankin doesn’t stop at the superficial; she instead uses Gray’s internal dialogue to reveal the sad, poignant details of his life. Ultimately, Gray ends his retreat with a devastating twist of timing that leaves the reader wishing desperately that Gray had only tried sooner.
While Brankin excels at twisting the dramatic knife, her wit and humor are dark and razor-sharp, provoking snarky snorts and laugh-out-loud moments, particularly in “The Scandals of Christendom,” in which a sixteen-year-old girl, Wyatt, unravels after a devastating online photo scandal by spending time with her new (imaginary) BFF, the tart-tongued and unrepentant Anne Boleyn (yes, that Anne Boleyn):
‘He should be giving me detention, not arranging a rendezvous with you,’ [Anne] tutted… ‘The discipline issues here could really do with…’ She swished her hand down with a sharp flourish, imitating her executioner’s sword.
‘Decapitation didn’t seem to deter you from…well, anything,’ I observed as I finished rolling a cigarette.
‘And thank God for that. I’ve lived more of a life post-head-severing than anyone in this sorry little school.’ She took the cigarette out of my hand before I could take a drag. ‘Trust me. Being killed gives you perspective on what matters.’
As much as the author’s’s “train wrecks” fascinate and entertain on a shallow level, Brankin truly shines in delving deeply into these ill-behaved humans. From bar fights and retweets to erotic dancing and shock journalism, Brankin’s stories—some of which have previously appeared in Narrative Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others—explore different kinds of attention and why we crave it; the consequences of unwanted or excessive attention; what it’s like to be marginalized into near-invisibility; and what our voyeuristic tendencies regarding others’ misfortunes reveal about our own need to be seen.
In “I Am a Trainwreck Actress’s Vagina,” for example, Brankin zeroes in on a celebrity scandal, giving its unique narrator a powerful voice to describe in brutal, poignant detail how it feels to be the center of such a drama. The vagina itself chastises the voracious public for its attention to it, a brilliant literary device Brankin uses to convey the rank bodily objectification to which so many humans are subjected.
Brankin wields blunt language like a slap to get our attention, and it works; but once we’re hooked, she drives us beyond titillation or fascination, reminding us that attention seekers often behave as they do because of unmet needs. After all, we all need love, connection, self-worth, or agency. What happens when we cannot attain it?
In “The Second Miss Thompson,” for one, Brankin depicts a young substitute teacher trying, and failing, to replace a popular predecessor. Demeaned and bullied by her students, the second Miss Thompson initially responds to by stealing and vandalizing her predecessor’s belongings. Ultimately, she will try to become someone else completely to win their affections:
Curling a finger absentmindedly through her own hair, she looks through [the first] Miss Thompson’s copy of Rebecca that, for some reason, she keeps bringing home. She sniffs the pages, seeking out Miss Thompson’s perfume…[she imagines that] Miss Thompson would stop just for a second, to enjoy her favourite Rebecca quote, already highlighted on the page in red…The second Miss Thompson sits on her bed, neck flushed and a small smile forming…delicately, she tears out the page with the red highlighted quote. She hopes her small act of vandalism will one day make Miss Thompson angry.
Brankin could have penned this collection of humans simply behaving badly, and it would have been fascinating, just as videos of cats knocking over vases are fascinating. But with Attention Seekers, Brankin attempts to understand the origins and impacts of attention-seeking, in the process, eliciting some surprising compassion for our fellow human beings; as Brankin writes, “Do you know how it feels to be so…so spare, so insignificant that nothing you do means anything?” We all want to be seen, to be heard. If you feel nothing you ever do matters, then maybe smashing things seems like the only way to get others to pay attention.
Julia Tagliere is a writer and editor and the recipient of a 2022 Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Writer, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong Quarterly, WritersResist, Birdcoat Quarterly, various anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection, Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story, the 2017 Writer’s Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, and the 2021 Nancy Zafris Short Story Fellowship, Julia completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. In 2019, she founded the community literary reading series MoCo Underground, to showcase the work of local writers. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.