Contradictions and The Uncanny: A Review of Jessica Alexander’s ‘Dear Enemy’
“I once lived with a woman who aspired to be an eyeball.” So begins one of the twenty-one stories that comprise Jessica Alexander’s new collection, Dear Enemy, (Subito, 2017). Alexander takes the reader on a journey through the uncanny valley, presenting sometimes surreal and always image-rich parables on life, death, grief, and the always-complicated scenarios that lovers find themselves in.
The nature with which Alexander treats her subjects is at once intimate and distant; virtually every story in the collection can be thought of as a sort of conversation. One might argue that all literature is a conversation, but though the reviewer agrees with this, it is not the focus here. Instead, the highlights of Alexander’s character development shows itself in small, blunt conversations between central, opposed (and often also simultaneously bound-together) people. The lovers especially highlight this trait in Alexander’s writing; they argue, they light each other on fire, they find disembodied limbs in the garden, and they kick at the ashes of the remains of one another. The language, though curt at times, always serves a very clear purpose. Sometimes the language is comedic and irreverent, as when a woman tells her poolboy matter-of-factly: “That’s what this is about, Tom, you grass fed dildo. Fucking.” At other times, the language serves a much more high-minded symbolic purpose, such as the recurring symbol of the hymen in the story “After Key West,” which operates as an effective vehicle to speak about the treatment of women in the story itself as well as the status of women in general.
Alexander’s writing, though it often leads into the surreal and supernatural, is always rooted in concrete, visceral, and often graphic imagery. Whether the subjects are alive or dead, happy or upset, the body is always central in Alexander’s observations. This is perhaps epitomized in “The Courtly Lover,” where the action of the story is often punctuated with descriptions of the speaker’s body in respect to the speaker’s relationship. “My legs are two dildos, my body is a water balloon, my sickness dribbles,” the speaker asserts early in the story. By the end, “My head is a meatloaf sack, pink slime. … My hands are spaghetti strainers clogged with chicken skin.” In a collection that so often handles metaphysical concepts (love, hate, life, death), the use of this organic, meaty language in such a direct way serves three purposes: providing the reader with a visual anchor for the story, contrasting the non-physical elements, and moving the reader’s attention along so that the reader will keep pace with the story.
Perhaps the most important factor in the collection is the constant pairing of opposites. Real elements versus non-real elements, gory descriptions of bodiless entities, and even contradiction in the title story of the collection (where the “enemy” is a stand-in where “lover” would normally be used) creates a sort of codex for the reader. When this codex is solved, the reader is able to fully realize Alexander’s intention and skill in the realm of the worldly- otherworldliness. Dear Enemy serves as an intellectually stimulating and ultimately satisfying exploration of the strange, contradictory, and fairy-tale aspects of life.