Courtney E. Morgan - Two schoolgirls culminate their sexual exploration in a surreal act of cannibalism. A sister molds her dead brother’s body into a bird. A woman gives birth to balls of twine and fur (among other things). A sex worker engages a version of herself in a brothel of prostituted body parts

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Courtney E. Morgan, The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman: Stories, Fiction Collective 2, 2017.


read it at Google Books
excerpts (Project Muse)
excerpt




The nineteen stories in The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman track the splintered trajectory of the title character, tracing a chicken-scratch line of psychosexual development from childhood to old age.

In unfamiliar and sometimes bizarre narrative turns, the stories in Courtney E. Morgan’s The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman traverse the gamut of female/human experience, both grounded in reality and in the irreal. Two schoolgirls culminate their sexual exploration in a surreal act of cannibalism. A sister molds her dead brother’s body into a bird. A woman gives birth to balls of twine and fur (among other things). A sex worker engages a version of herself in a brothel of prostituted body parts.
Morgan tears apart a host of archetypes and tropes of femininity—dismembering them, skinning them, and then draping them one by one over her characters like fur coats—revealing them as ill-fitting, sometimes comedic, sometimes monstrous, and always insufficient, masks. Along with these skins of the cultural “feminine,” the collection tries on an array of genres—dissecting, mutating, and breeding them together—from fairy tale to horror, surrealism to confessional (non)fiction, and erotica to (un)creation myth.
The book weaves around questions of sexuality, identity, and subjectivity. Mutability, instability, and liminality are foregrounded, both in content and form, character and language—blurring the lines between birth and death, death and sex, tugging at the transitional spaces of adolescence and gestation. Even as its treatment is essentialized, gender is muddied and obscured. Morgan shows off her linguistic range in this collection, from sharp-as-nails prose to lyrical moments of poetic reach—probing the extremes of the human condition through both narrative line and language itself.

Morgan takes a radical approach to the linked-story collection in her first book, shaping a young woman's life in tales that range from naturalistic to wildly speculative fiction.
Different though they are, these stories all offer perspectives on the title character—or, at least, some version of her. This isn’t the kind of conventional collection in which glimpses of a character at different points of her life are arranged in chronological order. Nora doesn’t have just one life but multiple existences in alternate realities. The book opens with a virtuoso tale in which one of the Noras, murdered when she is 28, reflects in lyrical prose on key moments in her life as another, matter-of-fact voice recites the details of her autopsy. One Nora falls victim to a drug-addled trucker while hitchhiking, and another gives birth first to a baby made of “newsprint and twine” and then to one that is simply a “ball of fur.” Many of the Noras are young, pre-pubescent or adolescent, just discovering their own bodies or those of others. Sex, often linked with violence, is a constant in the stories, like the one in which the young Nora and a friend explore each other so thoroughly that one of them is completely devoured, or the one in which an older Nora forms an uneasy connection with a sex robot she names Noreen. The stories, often experimental, share in common not so much their plots or structures but recurring motifs: the transformation of humans into birds, an angry mother dying of cancer, the messy details of bodily existence. Often, the stories have more than one teller, inviting the reader to hold two separate perspectives on a series of events simultaneously.
Morgan’s stories may not be for the squeamish or the easily baffled, but open-minded readers ready for a challenge will delight in discovering the many sides of her mysterious heroine. - Kirkus Reviews

“In The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman, Courtney E. Morgan has designed a map of the female body and a psychosexual journey. Weaving her way through different storytelling modes, including fairy tale and horror, fiction and nonfiction, literal and lyric, these creepy but also vital stories create, decreate, and recreate the skins we live in: language and the body. Breathtakingly.”  —Lidia Yuknavitch
“Courtney Morgan's dark and surprising stories turn sharp corners. You read and discover that the passage between life and death is the threshold you already crossed. This work is no less potent for all its refractions. The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman is the prism that splits, briefly, the body and the corpse. Morgan is a writer whose sentences produce what they describe: the disorderly sensation of a threatening desire.” —Joanna Ruocco

The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman is disarming and smart and spooky. I’ve never read anything quite like it.” —Noy Holland

The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman is the first book to truly enrapture me in a very long time. It is a collection of stories in which the culminating effect of the collection overwhelms the intrigues of the individual stories. Well before the book’s quiet denouement, the varied tragedies of Nora Hanneman had already left me haunted.
The opening story, “Autopsy,” prepares us for tragedy, but not knowing the rest of what we are about to read, we might expect the tragedy to be much more conventional. In the structure of an autopsy report we get glimpsed access to the arrested life of the first Nora Hanneman, a young woman of 28 found strangled in a basement. Of course, the interrupted vitality of youth, the dashed potential of so much more life is intrinsically tragic. But as we read on, the heartbreak comes from living Nora’s lives, experiencing her frustrated desires, her unmade connections, all the little tortures that hollow out a cavity in her she longs to fill.
I call the Nora of “Autopsy” the first Nora Hanneman because while all but a few of the stories feature a protagonist named Nora, you would not be able to fit all of these Noras into a single timeline. You can, however, fit them into a single psychology, into a single world where the surreal often erupts to fulfill inexpressible desires, such as that feeling of wanting to be one with another so much you wish you could swallow them whole.
This singular Nora within the several Noras is desperate for change. The stories are thick with images of metamorphosis, of emerging from a chrysalis, breaking from an exoskeleton, or, especially, the shedding of skin. Nora’s world, however, is very pessimistic toward change. Every metamorphosis is a failed metamorphosis. There is always something rotten or misshapen in these forced transformations. Nothing emerges whole.
A similar desire and doubt is reflected in the stories’ attitude toward escape. In a book with so many references to birds and to wings and to flight, every bird is a failed bird. They are flightless. They are either tied down or caged or their eggs are broken before they can mature. In the final story, when we finally witness birds soaring and swooping in the sky, it is a fallen and broken bird, dead on the ground, which is given the most attention. So if the actual birds fail so repeatedly in their efforts in flight, it should be no surprise what happens to the humans who try to become birds. It should be no surprise when they are found “spread across the sidewalk below, the blood sprayed out like feathers alongside.” Nora’s strangled death in the first story and the death spread across the sidewalk below, are among the better escapes managed in the collection.
I wouldn’t read the stories in The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman one at a time or out of order. Originally, they may have been written separately and there are standouts. “Motherless” is a story of unblinking pathos and loss that deserves to be in college anthologies next to “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” “Skinned” could be described as a shorter, gender-swapped, twisted take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And the final line of “In the Blue” highlights the ambivalence of the central relationship. I could go on -- the built to order prostitutes of “On the Thinness of Skin” and the friendship formed through mutual spying in “The Watchers,” -- but while the stories might satisfy individually, here they have been recrafted to form an organic, emotional, and psychological whole. It’s not a novel. It is not one story, and, again, it is not even one Nora, but it is one impact.
The language and the poetry achieved by Courtney E. Morgan in this collection deserves special attention. Even when a turn of magical realism or surrealism would leave me momentarily confused, the current and rhythm of the language kept me riding onwards while the story explained itself, not always specifically, but emotionally. There were times I could not be certain what just happened, but I felt something definite had been communicated.
The poetry and the beautiful honesty throughout The Seven Autopsies of Nora Hanneman continues to resonate with me several days after I put it down. I often open speculative fiction looking to take a trip on a plot, to take a journey into the fabulous. Rarely have I found myself discovering emotional truth. It was sharing Nora’s lives and not her autopsies, it was sharing her unfulfilled desperations from the optimism of childhood through the sad reality of adulthood, and not any single horrific image or occurrence, which continues to lurk with me. Which continues to haunt me. -

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