Stacey Levine - Sentences swarm with nonsequiturs, plots tumble on the slippery meanings of same, causality is snubbed, strangeness celebrated

Stacey Levine, Frances Johnson: A Novel (Clear Cut Press, 2005)

"The gift of Stacey Levine's fiction lies in making mundane life strange in order to reveal the normally invisible forces that shape us--in all their absurd permutations. Similar to Dra--, Levine's previous novel in which the title character's search for a job is also a search for identity, the Frances of Frances Johnson is forced to decide whether or not to attend the Munson town dance. In other words, Frances faces an existential crisis: going to the dance as all the people of Munson pressure her to do equates with becoming part of "normal" society while not attending, or even more astonishing, leaving town for neighboring Little Munson, is an admission that she'll always be alone, different, ostracized. As the names of these sister cities indicate, no matter where you go, there you are. Though Frances knows that she can't be who she isn't, she can't figure out who she is either. So she meanders from mother to doctor to teacher asking in various ways "if a town can slowly smash a girl by dismantling her personality in dozens of small ways." Each encounter is an opportunity for misunderstanding, shame, humiliation or anger. When Frances questions the dry crackers everyone in Munson lives off of, her sister faults her attitude, not the town's inertia, yelling at Frances to "be creative--mash them up with corn...." Her desire to work with animals is understood as a desire to work in a slaughterhouse. Whatever is "wrong" with Frances is invisible to her and the rest of Munson because it has no name. Told through deadpan humor and lean prose, the soul searching and histrionics of Frances Johnson come across as a mash-up between girl's coming-of-age genre fiction and Beckett: an existential journey that is as hilarious as it is profound." - Steve Tomasula

"Frances Johnson, Stacey Levine's latest novel, continues to map out the psychic territory of her first novel, Dra–, and her book of stories, My Horse and Other Stories. Levine's work is, at least technically, "surreal," but like much of the best writing that maps the borders between dreams and conscious life, its subtle disjunctions create a zone that often feels more real than "reality" itself. Although ages, species lines, and health are often slightly askew in Levine, these effects mimic the strange sensations of aging, being, more or less, human, and being ill in America in 2005. When Levine's adults are treated like children, it highlights not only the infantilizing nature of our institutions and our powerlessness in the face of larger social structures, but also the completely bizarre and inappropriate ways children themselves are routinely treated. When Levine's pets are overly controlled or neglected, when they die through human intervention or escape into the wild, it suggests a whole complex of messy issues involving human neediness and delusion. The constant presence of strange physical ailments is always as much about our anxiety-ridden culture as it is about the tenuous border between health, illness, and the ways we define either one.
Readers familiar with Levine's earlier work won't be surprised to find themselves in a town like Munson, where the residents occasionally develop scarred tissues and constantly debate the meaning of those tissues: commonplace, tumorous, benign? Just offshore, a volcano named Sharla occasionally spews its debris. Munson and its even less appealing sister city, Little-Munson, are located in Florida in the same way that postnuclear catastrophes are located in "Kansas" or horror movies are located on "Elm Street." Munson is a terrifying town because it is so barely surreal that it constantly reminds us how terrifying America really is.
Levine's newest heroine is Frances Johnson, a 38-year-old woman the town still considers to be just a girl. Compared to Levine's previous heroine, Dra – , Frances is positively willful, as if the hopeless and anxiety-ridden job-seeker from Levine's previous book had graduated from clinical depression to a more bipolar disorder and absorbed a healthy feminist sensibility along the way. Frances's scandalous talk of leaving Munson, and maybe Florida altogether, alarms the residents, a population generally disapproving of difference and change. Frances's stubborn resistance to the expectations of others comes sporadically, however. She lives in bursts of coffee-fueled action, careening through the Munson night on her bicycle, seeking advice and random conversation. But between these bursts come endless rounds of slumber. Pots of coffee to keep her going alternate with sleeping pills to put her down, and she'll sleep and sleep, waking just long enough to absorb another message of passive resignation from her social milieu before collapsing back into a medicated haze.
Frances's sensibility represents a shift not only in willfulness but in responsibility within Levine's work. Dra– was almost entirely helpless in the face of the social structures that surrounded her – a labyrinth of schools, hospitals, employment agencies, and therapy that blurred and merged into a kind of torture chamber. It often occurs to Frances, however, that the town she experiences as her tormentor is not just an alien force; she is the town too. The town is both inside her and a product of her own desires:
Munson folks, as a group, were opaque and rambling; they were aggressive, too, and perhaps fearful. Am I as afraid of the unknown as they? Frances wondered, restlessly pinching fingers along her skirt-hem. She could not determine it, nor did she know if it was the idea of leaving Munson that disturbed her, or virtually any decisive act at all.
For the most part these townsfolk, other than Frances, have resigned themselves to a vague collective consensus but sacrificed their own ability to influence that consensus. The exact mechanics of how "the town" has decided Frances must attend the annual dance to be wooed by the new doctor, Mark Carol, remain mysterious, but it is as if a decision has been made, despite completely varied investments in Frances's actions by a range of individuals. Even her lethargic boyfriend, Ray, has become part of the machinery, pressing her to embrace the inevitable, and almost mandatory, heterosexual coupling. After a brief sexual encounter with Ray, Frances muses aloud that it doesn't make sense to her: " 'Two adults, in the middle of the night ... one lying on top of the other... ?' Frances felt out of sorts. 'Yes, it's awfully strange,' Ray agreed."
Frances doesn't care about Ray's childhood or his life before they met; nobody in this town is much concerned with understanding others, and it sometimes comes as a shock to Frances when she discovers that other people have desires that might involve her. Relationships are pieced together through collisions of self-absorbed individuals who can't even find games that aren't solitary. Rather than going along with Ray's misguided efforts to engage her in a game of hide and seek, after hiding himself for hours, Frances is furious: "She preferred to go into the cabin and play a quiet game by herself with a bowl of salty water, a religious-type game in which she imagined punishing and bathing herself and others." Frances has fond memories of the year she feigned illness and stayed home from school, staying on her bed for hours, "playing a game of her own invention with cardboard and needles, which had no human opponents and no ending." The unsatisfying social prospects in Munson encourage its residents to develop inner lives based on unshared obsessions. Her boyfriend's obsession is military history, and their relationship is based more on the comfort and familiarity of having each other in their vicinity than on any real passion or interest. Communality is based on attempts to engage others in personal quests, and occasionally it seems as if there might be a coordination of interests; Frances wants to leave Munson, and the town's current doctor needs someone to leave the state in order to acquire the crucial ingredient for the balm he is working on: chicken beak oil.
Will Frances go for the chicken beak oil? Will she go to the dance? Will she submit to the pressure to get together with the new doctor, or will she manage to leave Munson? Levine successfully uses traditional plot mechanics to invest the reader in an outcome that comes to seem terribly important, as we root for Frances to make a decision and to resist the social order of Munson. If Levine's worlds sometimes evoke those of French writer Marie Redonnet or Canadian Steve Wieners, these psychic zones are entirely her own, and the strange places Frances's journey takes her are never predictable. Levine always manages to surprise her readers with twists that are often hilarious and often slightly disturbing. If it feels like we've been here before, underneath this dance floor, gazing up at the townsfolk above, it is not because we've seen this landscape in other fictions, but maybe in a half-remembered dream. Levine is one of the most interesting writers working in America today, startling and idiosyncratic in the best sense. Although her first two books from the now-defunct Sun and Moon Press are out of print, and increasingly difficult to find, she has found a new home with Oregon's Clear Cut Press." - Stephen Beachy

"From the get-go, it's clear that something strange is afoot in Munson, the fictional Florida hamlet where Stacey Levine's new novel, Frances Johnson, takes place. A volcano seethes on the outskirts of town, strange animals skitter in the shadows, and a dense brown fog has settled overhead. Pets and people vanish. Unfurling over a period of days leading up to the town's annual dance, the story follows 38-year-old Frances's mounting restlessness, as she must decide whether to take control of her life or cede it to the murky future the community has designated for her. Though the novel hinges on a familiar plot point—will Frances remain in Munson, or escape to the world at large?—it's the only trace of convention to be found in this hypnotic book, which transforms its setting into a tableau of exotic menace.
"I didn't want it to be just a portrayal of people in small-town America—it's not that," Levine says, speaking from her home in Seattle. "It's more about a general human suspicion about outsiders." Frances is from Munson, but she seems to be the only one willing to acknowledge the town's eerie atmosphere of denial and xenophobia. Her apprehension is regarded as a form of betrayal, and it gradually becomes clear that the cultish people around her are ominously planning her fate. Everyone, including Frances's boyfriend, Ray, seems to be pushing her to marry the town's new doctor.
Levine's first book, My Horse and Other Stories (1993), won the PEN West award for fiction. Her novel Dra— (1997) featured a woman trying to navigate a dreary, hard-to-classify world—in this case, the halls of an anonymous office building. The author is less concerned with traditional plot development and resolution than she is with creating and sustaining a specific mood and sense of place. "In Frances Johnson, I was inter ested in thwarting standard fictional conventions like straightforward symbolism, plot-driven narrative, lush descriptions of setting," Levine says. "That, to me, makes for interesting fiction— when the undermining is done well."
Frances Johnson is being published by the small Oregon-based press Clear Cut, whose excellent, obsessively curated titles include Robert Glück's story collection Denny Smith and Charles D'Ambrosio's Orphans: Essays. Clear Cut authors have a sui generis aesthetic that you won't find in most mainstream fiction, and Levine is no exception. Her prose has an uncanny vibe—it's easy to grasp but at the same time full of twisted logic and weird lacunae. To increase the sense of disjointed paranoia, for instance, Levine's characters sometimes conduct conversations in a series of blurted non sequiturs.
The syntax in Frances Johnson is occasionally so bizarre and clever that it reads as if it were translated from another tongue. "I've always been interested in making the language sound off or odd," the author says. Though she owes a great deal to influences like Jane Bowles, Levine also found fodder in schlockier literature while writing her latest. "Part of my inspiration was pulp novels from the 1960s—I collect them. At one point, I got really into the nurse subgenre. There's one I really liked in particular called Small Town Nurse, by Jeanne Bowman. I would read parts of it to my friends at parties and we would just laugh, because it sounded like it had been translated from Urdu or something. It was so funny, so unclear. And really a delight. So that probably worked its way into my ear, too."
But however strange Levine's sentences are, she's always a highly controlled writer. She becomes almost gleeful when talking about revising and trying to strip her sentences of easy logic. "It's one of my favorite things to do: to go back and search for any clichés that might've been there and weed them out," she says. "Symbols, too. The color red, it has a history in symbolism and myth—it's going to mean something I may not have intended. I'm trying to corrupt and dismantle that. It's a huge challenge." With its union of the mystical and the mundane, Frances Johnson proves that Levine's meticulousness paid off." - Caroline McCloskey

"Should Frances Johnson leave her hometown of Munson, Fla. to search for chicken-beak oil, the missing ingredient for Dr. Palmer's secret balm? Or should she marry Mark Carol, the new doctor in town, though he hasn't proposed and there's little indication that he's even interested? Frances's military-history obsessed boyfriend, Ray Garn, encourages her to do the latter, even though Ray and Frances are currently living together. Meanwhile, outside town, there's an undersea volcano that erupts with some regularity. If Frances's life sounds random, that's because it is. What makes the book compelling, much like Levine's debut novel, Dra-, is its play of words and images, its irregular pacing and its capture of what it means to be trapped in a life with meaningless choices. Frances spends a night with a man who lives in a cave, discovers a scar on her leg that may or may not be a tumor and kisses her boyfriend's brother for no apparent reason and to no apparent consequence. Each vignette has a strange, almost possible quality. "For how long will Frances Johnson go in circles?" the omniscient narrator asks rhetorically at one point. Readers of this pocket-sized book will indulge her as long as she likes." - Publishers Weekly
Stacey Levine, Girl with the Brown Fur (M P Publishing, 2009)

"In The Girl With Brown Fur, Stacey Levine has invented stories that will thrill readers of literary fiction who hunger for an innovative American voice. No two of these fictions are alike, and yet in each, an otherworldly beauty shines through as Levine probes the basic human desire for connection. Magical, funny, and darkly poetic, these modern tales mine the borders between dreams and conscious life, inviting us on a voyage through places and times at once familiar and strange."

"There’s no making nice here, no way of easing into this writer’s sensibility. In The Girl with Brown Fur, Stacey Levine ignores lyricism as an evolutionary dead end. Life is fractious and dire, her prose style says; let fiction serve as razor and torch. It’s not that Levine isn’t funny or that she doesn’t forge phrases and sentences of throat-clutching beauty. It’s just that her effort to dissect humankind’s propensity for neuroses, fallacies, and other inanities requires measured drollery and surgical concision. And because her characters are pathologically ill at ease within their dysfunctional bodies and families, not to mention the greater world, Levine expresses their fragmented thoughts in language that is edgy and brittle, spare and stabbing.
Her debut, the 1992 collection My Horse and Other Stories, introduced readers to her preoccupation with peculiar maladies and predicaments and to her disinclination to abide by conventional rules of storytelling; her flinty novels, Dra— (1997) and Frances Johnson (2005), followed suit. Levine’s latest book presents a gathering of, as she specifies, tales and stories. What’s the distinction? Like so much else in Levine’s astringent and surreal fiction, it’s open to interpretation, but it feels right to tag as tales her lashing vignettes, and as stories her longer, more complex dramas. The book begins with “Uppsala,” a bleak and furious family tale that summons Strindberg, surely an influence on Levine, as is Kafka and, one would guess, Donald Barthelme. Next up is “The Cats,” a shrewdly creepy story about a lonely woman (nearly all Levine’s afflicted people are lonely to the point of paralysis) who loves her cat beyond reason and decides to have it “replicated.” The results are not pretty.
In “The Girl,” a brilliantly unnerving story set in an old hotel, Levine fuses gothic spookiness with deadpan angst to portray a lost soul obsessed with a frail little girl across the hall, who wears a necklace of mouse-shaped beads and a leash held by a “severely tall” man. The narrator is one of Levine’s many twitchy, glum, and abruptly dangerous individuals given to aberrant self-justification, seizures, lethargy, and metaphysical crises in which they doubt their very existences. In “Milk Boy,” the catastrophically embarrassed title character “ran through the hallway to the mirrored door, too touchy to swallow right now or fully speak, let alone to eat a healthful meal of beef, too ashamed to find his gaze, to peek inquiringly into the crevices of his own eyes.” For Levine’s people, family life is diabolical and work is brutal, particularly in “Sausage,” a story of an all-but-enslaved sausage-factory laborer.
Amid alarming depictions of domestic misery and perversion, strange metamorphoses, and imperiled nature, as well as the occasional triumphant escape or alliance, Levine declares the death of myth and anticipates the collapse of civilization. But for now, she subtly acknowledges that however deluded, poisoned, and impaired we may be, we will continue to tell and cherish tales and stories as we struggle against lies, brutality, and alienation." - Donna Seaman

"How might one become complete? A fulfilled human being? Own a cat and as it ages, clone it. Fly your airplane away from your mother’s illness. Produce an extraordinary amount of sausage. Marry the first woman who walks into your place of business, and if she runs off to Ohio, take her to Rome. Steal an enslaved girl covered in whitish-brown fur. The inhabitants of Stacey Levine’s stories attempt each of these things and more, with no more success than people who have extramarital affairs or people who buy sports cars. Thankfully, Levine’s stories have a refreshing lack of respect for reality. In “And You Are,” a manic-depressive and her former babysitter, Mrs. Beck, decide, “using a few brief, blunt words, to become long-term partners and companions.” Mrs. Beck is consumed by regrets for a wasted life. In a snack shop they meet a short-order cook who’s setting out to do huge things, “and some awful things.” He sends them to fetch mustard. The possibility is exciting to the young manic-depressive, and terrifying to the old babysitter. And while the situation is wacky, one wonders at the fate of all those babysitters who once represented so much authority and potential. Might they be being force-fed in a stadium basement, or, worse, lost in the mediocrity of life?" - Nick Bredie

"A writer who knows how to create an odd, atmospheric setting, Stacey Levine has written a novel (Dra—) in which a protagonist wanders through a office complex that looks increasingly like a madhouse. Her new collection of modern fairy tales, The Girl with Brown Fur, similarly transports readers to absurd and surreal landscapes. Some of the pieces here are riffs on wonderland classics: In “The Bean,” a nod to “Jack and the Beanstalk,” we get to know an underachieving, depressed legume who has yet to find his calling in life. It’s funny, but Levine’s dream worlds also come with a hint of danger; what boils beneath their crusts is often challenging and disturbing. In “The Girl,” an unhappy female narrator plans to steal a young girl who is being held captive by a man in a lousy hotel. The disturbed woman ultimately fails in her kidnap attempt, but we’re left knowing that she wouldn’t have been much better than the girl’s current captor—she’s a Clare Quilty to his Humbert Humbert.
In “The Wolf,” the narrator tells us that “facts quickly metamorphose into tales.” The tale concerns a neurologist named Fred who has recently separated from his wife. In the midst of a breakdown (he pours beer over his head while gazing into the forest), Fred sees a wolf and chases it, “knowing that if he touches the wolf, he might be overcome, lose control in a seizure of happiness and gorgeous self-regard.” Levine’s crisp stories similarly find excitement and transformation as they chase down their fantastical plots. The Girl with Brown Fur won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the adventurous will enjoy following Levine’s bread-crumb trails, even if that means getting a little bit lost." — A. N. Devers


Stacey Levine, Dra—(Sun & Moon Press, 1997)

"Dra—, the nondescript heroine of this grim, hilarious fiction, might have fallen through the same hole as Lewis Carrol's Alice, only now, 130 years later, there's no time for frivolity, just the pressing need to get a job. In a sealed, modern Wonderland of "small stifled work centers, basements and sub-basements, night niches, and training hutches connected by hallways just inches across," Dra— seeks employment. Her concerns are modest and practical. She wanders the "dim empty hallways with their lingering odor of toilets and chalk" looking for the Employment Manager. Dra— is powered by Stacey Levine's keen ear for the oddities of everyday speech. In her short fiction (collected in the award-winning My Horse and Other Stories) as in her day-to-day life (I've known her both as a columnist for this paper and as a close friend over the last five years) Levine delights in the peculiar logic of "normal conversation." Minor concerns such as plot, characterization, even practical discussions, get undermined by the pleasure she takes in phrases like "in the name of living hell" or "for the love of nonsense," and by her fascination with the sink-hole of sudden intimacy that swallows up so many casual exchanges. In Dra—, the imperatives of plot and thematic resolution have been displaced by the demanding logic of everyday conversation. As a consequence, this Wonderland has none of the arch word-play or punning that afflicted Alice. Instead, people speak as directly as they know how. Like Miss Goering and Miss Gamelon in Jane Bowles' comic masterpiece Two Serious Ladies, the figures in Dra— burden one another with very plain declarations of their real concerns. “Sometimes it's just good to breathe for a few moments before using the toilet, don’t you agree?” a student nurse named Frida asks Dra—. “Dra— leaned to one of the toilets and delicately opened its enormous lid with her fingertips, a task that drained her so terribly that afterward she sank to the floor to rest. ‘I want to see the future,’ Frida whispered. ‘I want to know how and when I will die, is that so terrible?’” Shorn of euphemism and politesse, the conversations at the heart of this picaresque novel become menacing engines of intimacy, buffeting Dra— with a storm of confessions and invasive demands. “We'll talk and talk until there's nothing left but ashes all around us,” her Christ-like Administrator promises. “Isn't that what a relationship is?” In Dra—, everyone talks about relationships (or “the feelings,” as watery-eyed, balding Nanny calls them). Dr. Jack Billy, the “absent-minded doctor of long silences and sudden grimaces” wants to “open his mouth onto another mouth and inhale everything then choke on the lack of air, because the need to damage himself and others was consuming, as it had been all his life.” Marla, a clinging woman with “small and scaly-red” eyelids, listens to her confidante, Slim, suggest “supposing I learn all the most personal, intimate things about you-as if looking right down into your body. And suppose I take hold of those threads that are wound tight around your heart, choking it... Wouldn't it be wonderful? My profession is based upon a form of love, you know.” These enthusiastic speeches get spewed out like some kind of corrosive agent, a medium transforming hidden human needs into airborne viruses, poisons which infect and make us sick. Thus released, intimacy begins to blur with the real toxins of the work-place (“odorous, dark-soiled plastic sheeting,” “buckets filled with soured soup”) forming a pathogenic shroud of disease beneath which the hopeful applicant, Dra—, devolves toward hairlessness and torpor. Most of the women are losing their hair. Sores and raw patches pepper their skin. The psychic economy of the body has erupted onto the surface, so that everyone is marked by wounds. They all appear to be dying “They're dying? From what?” Dra— asks the Adminstrator. “From exposure, my dear, exposure! You know-to the poisons of the worksites, to the people close to them-aren’t our deepest feelings known to be poisonous as well?” Dra— wanders from one enabler to the next, drawn by her search for the job site, and a swelling undertow of desire for Dr. Jack Billy’s handsome Nurse. Her episodic narrative is framed by visions of the Man with No Hair, a tiny-footed, recurring figure, whose periodic cameos (carrying a basket of rubber bulbs, pouring pills into his mouth ) give the novel its shape and pacing. This labyrinthine journey is brilliantly mimicked in the architecture of the prose. Levine creates cozy little warrens, small safe spaces made of short clear sentences, then sends the reader spiraling down long broken passages, fragmented by colons and semi-colons which give a halting, lurching gait to our progress. A quest, a comedy of manners, and a parable, Dra— is, above all else, a philosophical novel concerned with the most basic questions of living. It seals us inside a world where “contact becomes an attack” and where Dra— can only cry out “until her mouth burned with the simple, punishing taste of wishes.” - Matthew Stadler

"I finished Dra -, Seattle writer Stacey Levine's horrifying yet beautifully written first novel, feeling breathless and chilled to the bone. I also was filled with admiration for a writer whose flawless prose, subtle detail, and hints at further nightmares could take me to a world I so strongly resisted.
Levine's restrained depiction of the brutality of an imagined dystopia begins with her title character. Dra - (short for drab? draconian?) is a meek, paranoid woman in need of a job, though finding work in her world is an all-consuming and miserable task. While it's true that everyone around her is employed, all jobs are mechanistic, meaningless and - literally - malignant.
Like a character from Kafka, Dra - wanders the desolate corridors of an unnamed building, stopping periodically to make fruitless phone calls in search of the elusive Employment Office and the much-anticipated job assignment she'll get from the Employment Manager, a woman of almost divine status. Dra -'s inability to choose between two pointless jobs eventually offered by the manager propels her on a pitiful journey toward the Administrator, who will determine her true career.
The Byzantine search for the Administrator highlights the timely theme of the novel: in this colorless, unforgiving country, citizens engage in an endless cycle of looking for employment, securing it, then grinding away at a variety of jobs, the whole process being tied to their identities. Without a job, an official says to Dra -, "You feel as if you've been, perhaps, blown off the face of the earth."
Everywhere she turns, Dra - encounters job seekers and workers and no one else. Phone operators ("available in so many ways") and memories of an elusive Nurse (the only person who seems to have shown her any kindness) provide Dra - scarce comfort. Hysterical confrontations between workers illustrate the paucity of other emotional outlets. As the malicious Slim, a sort of job therapist, explains: "I know my way around. . .even in the saddest of cases!"
No one in "Dra -" seems to benefit from such a frantically working public; there are no fat cats, only drones and administrators, all equally unhappy. This lack of an evil hand behind the scenes makes the novel a powerful cautionary tale as well: Dra - is caught up in capitalism run amok; there's no need to strong-arm people to produce because they have no place to go besides their jobs and no one to see besides other workers.
The novel ends with the promise of employment for Dra -. However, the Administrator first leads her to a grotesquely oblique kind of torture chamber where she meets her future. Dra-'s final vision is ours as well: It's the end of the line for these workers, and Levine has wisely obscured her last, most gruesome image until readers are ready for it. In preparation, she has given us a smart and terrifying book which we cannot ignore." - Judy Doenges
Stacey Levine, My Horse and Other Stories (Sun & Moon Press, 1992)

"By way of its grotesquely surreal images and situations, Stacey Levine’s “first collection of short tales” is an intriguing matter-of-fact study of the impossibility of “real” perception, of a single objective way of viewing the world and the individual's relation to it. Levine’s self-critiquing narrators take for granted a world in which “anything can happen”—not the conventional “anything” (i.e., winning the lottery, falling in love in a grocery store, being in the “right place at the right time”) but the “anything” of the Twilight Zone (without the voice-over narration). In “The Twin,” a woman spends her days rolling over on her ever-so-small but annoying Siamese twin so that he might be buried in the sand; the forty-year-old man who still lives with his parents in “The Son” is afraid to tell them of a blackening tooth for fear of being scolded and winds up at the doctor's feeling embarrassed for the trouble he’s caused everyone; the woman in “Cakes” lines her rooms with shelves stacked with boxes of cakes that will, finally, make her full, but then can’t eat them because of the disturbance created by the strange, staring cat and dog that show up one day on the corner outside her window. Often startling the reader to attention, these bizarre vignettes end abruptly and leave the reader with a kind of ecstatic nothing.
Although they are not pieces of a broader “story,” there are obvious thematic connections. Most prominent are the themes of power and control - specially the inevitable abuse of power over the weak exercised almost against the will of the protagonists. The reader becomes complicit in these abuses, ultimately sharing the self-righteousness of the protagonists; the horse named in the title must of course be punished for not speaking out (yes, the horse could speak if he chose) against his owner, for not denying his master's “right” to control him. The horse is weak and the owner has no choice but to detest him; to punish him for his head-bowed-down loyalty. Related to this inevitable abuse of power, and perhaps the reason for it, are the feelings of helplessness and self-loathing felt even by those in power; after all, the master can’t empower the horse; she can’t make the horse deny her; she can’t, in effect, experience her own power. Levine’s prose is compelling and intriguing and risky. It gets beneath the skin and searches for vulnerable tissue; not a safe place to be, but certainly worth the danger." - Angela Weaser

"Stacey Levine’s collection of short stories, My Horse and Other Stories is about as odd as they come. Her stories are razor-sharp otherworldly portraits, claustrophobic domestic studies, and surrealist psychological journeys. Levine is fascinated by the impermeability of experience—particularly our bodies and our impulses—and delves into this fascination in the most bizarre and ultimately fulfilling ways.
In “The Hump” a woman discovers a “flesh-colored hump” on her shoulder that becomes alarmingly consuming, both physically and psychologically. “It might have been possible that the hump jiggled and swayed somewhat less now than it had when it first appeared, a month before; it seemed harder, and being harder, it also seemed smaller.” In another story, “Cakes,” a woman buys several cakes with the intention of eating them and becoming “very full” but is so set off kilter by the arrival of a dog and cat at her window that she is unable to eat the cakes. The animals stay for days, forcing her to postpone her enjoyment and resulting in her becoming “quite ill.”
At their tamest, Levine’s stories are disquieting. Her work is fiercely logical, and lyric down to the last clause. Like a tapeworm, her stories settle in your gut and refuse to be expelled." - readafuckingbook.com

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