Reviewed by Natalie Caroline Brown
In Jennifer Fliss’s new collection As If She Had a Say, women shrink (to seven and a half tablespoons), melt into water, receive letters of unwanted intimacy from unwanted observers, are forced to relocate their ghosts for a townhouse development project—and always, these are reactive choices.
Fliss knows how little say women have in what happens in their lives. Writing from a lack of agency can be a sticky place to write from, a tightrope walk, and many of the thirty stories in this collection wrestle the idea of agency down to the ground.
As If She Had a Say is predominantly a flash collection, though a few pieces cross the length threshold into traditional short story. These stories are pithy, punchy, and sometimes proudly weird; many take a hard turn into fabulism. Often, the reader is dropped into a fantastical situation in medias res, but that situation is rarely demystified. I found this jarring at first, but came to realize that it’s supposed to be. The stories feel urgent with this lack of clarity.
The first story, “As She Melted,” opens with a woman melting into water and fretting over how her husband will react when he gets home: “She didn’t want him to slip.” There’s no explanation for why this woman is melting; she herself doesn’t know, but likens the feeling to a deep tissue massage. The juxtaposition of Marla’s situation with her worries about her husband are striking, and even moreso when we meet her husband, Brent, who tells her she’s making a mess. Cruel on the surface, Brent acts as a stand in for patriarchal expectations, expectations that blame women for the dire straits they find themselves in. As if Marla had a say in her melting.
Marla isn’t the only character in this collection whose physicality is dwindling, who’s being made less than or brutally used without consent. “Projection” tells the story of a college girl whose vagina projects films. The metaphor here isn’t subtle; Jackie’s vagina does something the guys in her dorm want. But in Fliss’s hands, this metaphor worms its way into your brain, the freshness of the violation inviting readers to look at it anew. The boys in her dorm “forever pester her legs wide for their entertainment,” a line that is both so specific and so universal it creates immediate discomfort.
There’s a string of exceptionally strong stories about two-thirds into As If She Had a Say, stories that get to the heart of the collection. “Domestic Appliance” chronicles the life of a woman who lives inside a couple’s refrigerator. Once again, she doesn’t know how she got there, but she knows the couple’s marriage possibly best of any of the three, witnessing unvarnished the things they say to each other, or mumble about each other, going about their business in the kitchen. It’s no surprise to the seven-and-a-half tablespoon woman when they split up.
“For the Dachshund Enthusiast” and “Notice of Proposed Land Use Action” are both epistolary stories, a form that seems uniquely suited to flash fiction, given the usual brevity of communications. The dachshund enthusiast lives in an apartment with, yes, her dachshunds. The letter writer is her neighbor, an elderly man who writes so eloquently about how wonderful she is, and how she reminds him of when his wife was alive, and the life he envisions they can have, that you might be forgiven for rooting for them for a few minutes. But in the end, the dachshund enthusiast has perhaps the least control of anyone, because she doesn’t even get a say in the story. You only see her through the letter writer’s words. But it’s also enough—enough to contextualize the letter writer and see the real woman around his words.
“Notice of Proposed Land Use,” my favorite in the collection, is an exaggerated eviction notice to a nameless resident. The letter writer seems to have intimate stories of the lives of the people who lived in the house, and advises the resident that “The ghosts–your ghosts–they can float down another hallway, another street. They’ll follow you wherever you go.” True enough, but it doesn’t sound like anyone has much say. As it goes on, the intimate details expand, and the letter writer’s tone becomes less intimate, more fantastical, lending the story a mythic element, an allegory of modern development, and if one’s story has different details—well, here the devil is not in the details, but in the ignoring of them.
As If She Had a Say gives readers glimpses of otherwise unknown lives, where illusions of control shatter. Even the title challenges the idea that we all have equal agency, or sometimes, any agency at all. In a culture as individualistic as ours, this idea can be a difficult pill to swallow. But don’t we all sometimes look up in the dark and not know how we got here? The stories in As If She Had a Say are the crack that lets the light in.
As If She Had a Say (Curbstone Press, 176 pages) by Jennifer Fliss is available HERE.
Natalie Caroline Brown is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas. She received her MFA from Texas State University and her review work can be found in Porter House Review and SmokeLong Quarterly. Natalie writes fiction and essays about women and is interested in the intersection of the domestic and strange. She lives with her husband, son, and two dogs and is at work on a novel, among other things.