Daughters of Monsters, Melissa Goodrich. Atlanta, Georgia: Jellyfish Highway Press, April 2016. 204 pages. $15.00, paper.
At first glance, the absurdism that permeates the stories in Daughters of Monsters by Melissa Goodrich is what jumps off the page at the reader. Goodrich opens the collection with “she wants, she gets,” a unique twist on the known fairy tale of Cinderella: the narrator continually morphs into different animals as the story progresses, getting to the heart of what the rest of Goodrich’s stories aim to tell, that understanding oneself can never be seen at the eye level.
In “Super,” the aim to understand existence is shown as the narrator drowns in the opening scene at the hands of her brother. She is reincarnated as a cabbage, then an ant, soon a Diet Coke, until the story comes full circle and she becomes her brother drowning herself. The karma of the world circling the narrator in a way that only Goodrich can weave with her enchanted prose. She often takes the bluntest route possible to describe the scene, such as the ending of “Super”: “And the water rippled. And she didn’t float.” No other description is required to know the heavy heart with which the narrator murders herself in the magical realism of Goodrich’s collection.
In “Anna George,” the narrator takes care of her mother, who has turned into an orange, while simultaneously being haunted by the ghost of her recently deceased father. “Anna George,” like so many of Goodrich’s other stories, spins tales of narrators finding themselves—realizing they can exist within themselves, creating their own existence—as the story ends “not like he’s doing to die, but like he’s coming up from a long something, hasn’t any hands but a throat now.” Anna George is free of the ghost of her father, ridding the ghost and the old man of his hands that were painfully writing her story for her, yet now she wields that power herself, and she is challenging her existence head on: “And here comes Anna George, hurling towards that howl.”
In what may be the collection’s flagship story, “Lucky,” the reader is shown a family attempting to cross the United States from west coast to east coast as they outrun a deadly gas. The family dons gas masks, which the child narrator says look like “bug zap masks.” The magic of the story lies in the surreal tale of the world going to hell, yet the children remain children. They must still come to find themselves during their time in this story, despite the grim circumstances around them: as his kid sister tortures a toad, the narrator squeezes his own toad “a soft heartbeat.” He is attempting to keep the life of his toad in the same way he attempts to cope with the eventual loss of his brother, “I know Eric is starting to die, the only boy in the world who looks like me.” His brother Eric is the reminder that the world outside is crumbling and that his life is forever altered, as Eric “pukes every now and again to remind us he’s still here, that the air is stale.” “Lucky” is a reminder that much like the story’s characters, we must all find ways to survive in a world attempting to chew us up and spit us out. “Lucky” is aptly named to remind the reader that luck is still subjective. The world they inhabit is going to hell, yet they are given moments of reprieve and items to help them on their journey in the closing paragraph as they become “lucky” to so many variables that allow their father to rob a gas station in order to remain on their pathway of survival.
In another story, “Where Dust Storms May Exist,” Goodrich tackles the barbarity of the meat packing industry. Instead of meat being mangled for public consumption, Goodrich switches out the cows, and the chickens, and the pigs for angels. The angels must have their wings hacked off, and the narrator attempts to come to terms with the cruelty of the process:
I’m transport and disposal now—so I truck away the wing-waste. Because, yes, what are you supposed to do with them, they must be tossed. They must be sawed off somehow. I didn’t know what to imagine, a steel table, a big blade, a hacksaw? A cleaver? A wing guillotine? Something awful. Everything tucked away.
Because of course it would have to be something awful. Goodrich has spun a popular hot button discussion—the savagery of the meat packing industry—and turned it into something the mass public would actually rebel against, the destruction of their religious icons. She spins a tale that weaves the brutality of an everyday function that we as humans accept as necessary and the crutch which so many American citizens use to form their political beliefs: religion. She does so in such a subtle way that the reader even questions exactly what kind of angels these really are. As the narrator remarks, they are “So so naked,” and possess “two heads squabbling and nibbling” at those around them. They aren’t the angels we’ve become accustomed to seeing on stained-glass windows or on religious propaganda; instead, Goodrich has turned them into a caricature of the way we view the modified food industry as a whole: the cows with two heads, the cattle grown in a test tube, the chickens packed together into one tiny cage.
Goodrich has created a world in her collection, a world that warrants a second look. Goodrich’s stories are the insane conspiracy theories the drunk guy at the party won’t shut up about. The one you roll your eyes at and laugh off, taking another swig from your red solo cup and move on to the next person to talk to. But they’re the same conspiracy theories you mull over in your head for days after. The surrealism and the absurdity of Goodrich’s stories mold her ideas into bite-size pieces that your mind can easily digest. That is, until you really dig in and attempt to understand the messages Goodrich hopes to convey. Just as in “Lucky,” the dust storm forcing the mass migration of American citizens is absurd, but the themes echoing within are not. Children are raised daily in a world that does not care if they survive, does not care if they ever get a chance to be children. But these children, they have to one day grow up into adults. They’re the same children that will have to grow into the monsters their parents have become. These children are the sons and daughters of monsters, and one day they’ll have their own children who will follow suit.
Trent Chabot is currently in the English MA program at Winthrop University. He’s compiling a collection of short stories for his thesis, and watches children’s shows with his son.