Amanda Marbais’ most recent collection, Claiming a Body, is comprised of eleven short stories, each of which masterfully balances dark humor and human tragedy to create narratives that are buzzing with tension. Whether she is writing about shady drug deals, white collar crime, or the accidental death of a cat named Sparkles, the plots of these stories whisk us breathlessly from one thrilling conclusion to the next. Through these narratives, Marbais reveals the disquiet that underlies seemingly mundane situations. No event feels completely safe, and no person can be completely known, which causes the palpable eeriness that defines this collection. Her characters are believable and compellingly flawed in their attempts to rail against forces larger than themselves, such as societal norms, big business, and even nature, itself. Marbais does not seem interested in writing valiant heroes or even imperfect role models. Most of these characters are well-meaning at their cores, but pushed into situations where they are no longer sure how to act on such virtuous impulses. Ultimately, Claiming a Body revolves around people who are losing control, and what lines—if any—they are willing to cross in order to live the lives they have imagined for themselves.
The brilliance of Claiming a Body stems from its willingness to embrace how dismal life so often is. In “Tell Me,” one of the most poignant stories in the collection, the narrator reflects that “This body, it seems, is the source of my trouble.” This realization is an undercurrent that runs throughout the entire collection, uniting eleven stories from narrators who may at first seem to have little in common. Through their voices, Marbais shows us how existing in bodies that we did not choose often dictates the roles that others expect us to fill. Furthermore, she shows us the tragedy that can arise from this restrictive way of thinking. With such a theme, it would be easy for this collection to take itself too seriously or become didactic. However, Marbais softens this potentially grim message with her trademark dry humor.
This formula is established from the opening line of the title work, which reads, “The woman’s boyfriend agreed to go camping despite being called Needledick by her son.” Right away, this exasperated narrator signals to us that sometimes, it is okay to find humor in such dreary occurrences. Sometimes your boyfriend gets tired of you, sometimes your boss is a crook, and sometimes your son becomes unexpectedly attached to a dead guy’s belt. Marbais finds a certain ecstasy in her narrators’ willingness to find the humor in moments that are bleak on the surface. In these stories, mundane situations can feel life-or-death, and life-or death situations can feel mundane. It is Marbais’ strong command of voice, charming in its frankness, that guides us through it all in order to create unique characters and satisfying narratives.
Claiming a Body is beautifully written and speaks to a multitude of truths about what the human experience has become. Each fast-paced story brings a new perspective about life in twenty-first century America, and by the end, it almost feels as if the different characters are locked in conversation with one another. Overall, this collection is one that will appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those who may feel trapped by their societal roles. Because of Marbais’ ability to pack meaning into her sentences without coming off as pretentious or writerly, both teenagers and adults could appreciate the world that these stories create.
Ripe with pop-culture references and modern-day slang, these exact stories could only be written in twenty-first century America. Along with timeless anxieties over class and family, Marbais speaks to the concerns of this specific cultural moment. These characters exist in our world, a world that has been forged by decades of mass shootings, economic instability, and the ill-fated War on Drugs. These characters are just beginning to imagine what their roles could become in the new millennium. These realizations are thrilling at some points—such as when a character fights back against a corrupt system—and heartbreaking at others—such as when characters realize that life has already passed them by. This is effective because Marbais writes all of her characters with compassion. In Claiming a Body, Marbais writes characters that may look a lot like our neighbor, uncle, or perhaps even the face in the mirror.
Claiming a Body, by Amanda Marbais. Springfield, Missouri: Moon City Press, April 2019. 180 pages. $14.95, paper.
Casey Smith is a writer from Lexington, South Carolina. She currently attends Winthrop University and has recently been published in Winthrop’s student literary magazine, The Anthology.