To create, an author must abolish her body. As the author writes the body dissolves, ages, atrophies in its chair, and the resulting text, though cognitively enhancing, cannot replenish the cells lost during the act of writing. Perhaps this is why authors call what they make a body of work, a corpus, that—if we are to accept that inexhaustible chestnut—will represent the author once her body is gone. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Flesh to acid-free paper.
This tension of creation and destruction is not unique to the writer. The body comprises its own oppositions. It is the source of unfathomable potential and inexorable genetic restrictions. And now the body is changing. Permeating through phones, Facebook, and hell, even friends, the body no longer ends at its former cutaneous limits. All well and good for the NSA and Merck Pharmaceuticals, et al, but for the author this might be a problem. It was hard enough creating a character when tasked with capturing physical space and the flux of desiring minds. Now, as the body expands, rapidly and invisibly, the author fights to contain it in pages, like a marionette stuffing a genie back in its lamp.
An impossible task, it might seem, until reading Kyle Coma-Thompson’s debut collection, The Lucky Body. In these twenty-eight brief stories—few run longer than a handful of pages—Coma-Thompson explores battlefields ancient and modern, Bulgarian metempsychosis, the nature of beauty decayed, and the violence inherent, if unrealized, in everyday life. Here we find the body pushed to its limits and discover the pain, promise, and beauty of the human form.
This being a review, perhaps it should start with a hack job. The title story opens the book with this searing sentence: “After they shot the body several times, they cut its throat with a scaling knife; after that, they pinched its nostrils and funneled sulfuric acid into its mouth; while some set to yanking the body’s toenails out with a set of pliers, others fashioned a noose from a utility cord they had found in the trunk of their car.” The narrative then pivots to backstory, and we are shown the body “before the bullets had their say.” The body belonged to a handsome and generous man, well-educated, who treated his lovers with patience and care. What did the body do wrong? It was handsome and generous, well-edu—you get it. The closest thing to a motive we find is that the killers wanted to “mine [the body] for … its hidden gold.” A sentiment like that might’ve pushed the story toward the facile conclusion that atrocious acts are arbitrary, capricious, immature, but the story closes with a unexpectedly moving account of the murderers’ collective disappointment. They are left not with the gold they envisioned, but merely “a man, maybe age thirty-five, of average weight and height in the shape of a body.” In just five pages Coma-Thompson distributes loss evenly throughout his characters. We not only mourn for the body, but sympathize with the women it loved and its murderers. Perhaps sympathize with the women and killers more than we do the body, for it, remember, is lucky.
Coma-Thompson isn’t being ironic. The body, dismembered, has become an object of study, desire, obsession. The lyrical dismemberment suggests that the gruesome act is, in some way, artistic, yet it isn’t gruesome in the sense of a Francis Bacon or Mathew Barney. Violence, figuring prominently in the story, does so not because the acts are beautiful or sublime, but because what happens is violent. Coma-Thompson’s primary focus remains his characters.
Violence and art cross paths a few stories later, in “pG,” a winding, one-sentence tale about a struggling artist who, inspired and troubled by Picasso’s Guernica, creates a canvas of corpses. First, he applies a pack of stray dog to the painting, creating a “bloody mess of tooth and fur, affixed to the frame with razor wire,” and shortly thereafter adds vagrants, tourists, cabbies and cops. Though it would be lovely to read the story metaphorically—aren’t we all, like, murdering people when we place them in Art—metaphor, here, is a hindrance. Metaphorical readings are the voices insisting that nothing is under the bed. They are escapist, comforting, and The Lucky Body, generally, seems to eschew those possible readings.
But certain stories do give into that impulse. “A Thing About Mouths,” for instance, relies too heavily on its conceit: people can lose their mouths. Written in the vernacular, the story moves through a series of anecdotes, pausing, every so often, to crack predictable jokes that don’t lived up to Coma-Thompson’s talent. A man trying to recover the mouth he sold over the Internet “tried to plead his case, but that’s no easy task without a mouth.” There are moments of arresting description, such as the mouth that “betrayed a fickle mix of free-range sensuality and woundedness,” but, unlike the majority of Coma-Thompson’s stories, this one doesn’t have much to say.
Coma-Thompson’s skill is undeniable. If anything weakens the book it is not the writing, but its shape. The Lucky Body is split into three sections: ninety pages, thirty, and thirty. The thematic concerns of the first section are largely absent in the following sections, so that they feel inconsistent, perhaps tacked on to give the collection a proper, book-sized length. The stories in the second and third sections are routinely brief, mostly three to four pages, and after reading a few in a row they begin to feel structurally repetitive. Many end with revelatory phrases or questions—fine endings for stories—but with so little space between stories, we quickly discover the rhythm and read expecting that final turn, the evocative lines that feel a little too perfect for Coma-Thompson’s admirably unsettling stories.
The most unsettling work in the collection is the masterful, “Spring in Zurveyta.” It is the longest, most patient story in the collection, and follows a Russian journalist, Anna Petrovich, as she prepares to interview the belletristic president of war torn Khruekistan. The story is tense and tightly-written, shelled with striking details. A hand flies off a wrist “[l]ike a sparrow at the sound of a gunshot.” Security forces shares cigarettes with the beheaded heads of rebels. And the penultimate scene, a long dialogue between Anna and the president, is superb. It’s as much conversation as duel, for the stakes, here, are as high as if they were carrying pistols. During this scene we find ourselves emotionally split. We want Anna to prod the president about his vengeful militarism, yet we know it might lead to her death. It is our curiosity—and Anna’s—that propels the story to its haunting conclusion.
It would’ve been difficult for Coma-Thompson to replicate the power of “Spring in Zurveyta,” across every one of the twenty-eight stories contained in The Lucky Body. Still, the other stories are consistently great. He’s received comparisons to Bruno Schulz, Calvino, and Borges, and though Coma-Thompson shows clear stylistic similarities, he often avoids those writers’ more fabulist tendencies, so that his stories feel irreducible and unclassifiable, containing the spark of those modes without the requisite elements, fabulist in a negative sense, sort of like how negative two still resembles a two. These stories are confounding, impressive, offensive, violent, and moving. I consider myself lucky for reading such a fine body of work.
The Lucky Body, by Kyle Coma-Thompson. Seattle, Washington: Dock Street Press. 160 pages. $16.00, paper.
Alex McElroy’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, Gigantic Sequins, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.