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Sheila Heti's short story collection, The Middle Stories, is fantastic and bleak. We open with the fantastic: whimsical reworkings of tales involving, for example, a princess and a love-struck plumber and a frog, or an evil child with her captive mermaid, or the tale of the "woman who lived in a shoe." It is as if, by way of an introduction, Heti needed to twist reality with fables before the dark psyche of men, women and humanity could be explored. From here on, all is bleak. Heti assaults us through characterization, for characterization has shock value in these extremely brief but powerful stories.
In "The Girl Who Planted Flowers," the girl wakes up between two boys, one ugly and one intellectual. They go for breakfast, to a place which "had eggs, it seemed," and, sitting in a booth, say next to nothing to each other. The story ends with the girl pondering her life, "'What a waste,' she thought. And nothing convinced her otherwise."
In "Mr. Jones's First Outing," Mr. Jones sits in a bar with an old friend named Fritz. They are approached by a couple of women, one is quiet, pretty and self-centered, the other is a bitter, contemptuous hag who does all the talking. Fritz is uncomfortable with the female company -- "He hated talking to new people. One never knew how one was being evaluated." When his feelings on the matter are revealed, the hag exclaims, "We're nothing! Not at all! Not a thing!" Mr. Jones ends up at home lamenting the dreary hours he had spent caring for his dying wife. "Those were gentle times; how the light came through the window, how he barely slept at all, and how she lived with pain." Brilliant. Don't you think? -- "and how she lived with pain." It is reconfigured trauma with the wife's suffering newly coddled and made cozy inside the husband's attentiveness. This is reevaluation as therapy in light of Mr. Jones's recent demoralizing encounter.
In "A Bench for Marianne and Todd," Marianne contemplates her and her boyfriend's ugliness. "We're both filthy, ugly, unattractive people. There are people much more beautiful than us, with better lives than us..." She broadens her despair. "...here we are on the coldest day of the year, alone in the sand, looking out over the water, and we're totally miserable." Todd tries to reassure her, reminding her that although it looks bad, they have each other and they have love. But Marianne is unmoved: "We're just a couple of dumb animals... nobody loves us and nobody looks at us, but when they do they shudder. That matters more than any paltry love we have." I like that Marianne values cruel loveless intolerance of others over what really matters. Most of us would concede that the ill-in-nature morality of humanity should never matter, but always does. As the afternoon progresses, Marianne and Todd sit by the sea "so dark and grim" and declare love for each other.
The Middle Stories heralds in a New Nihilism, a smack in the face of conservative fiction. Heti despises people; she despises humanity. It is this nihilistic vigour that fuels her darker than dark characterizations and her bizarre/twisted relationships. Sheila Heti's stories are fantastic, strange and -- as I said -- bleak. Bleakly bleak.