Rawness, strangeness, and unpredictability have been nearly universal facets of daily life in 2020, and, in that sense, Rebecca Fishow’s debut collection, The Trouble with Language, couldn’t have come at a better time. Rife with explorations of self-alienation, desire for purpose, disconnects, and detachments, the thirty pieces of prose poetry, flash fiction, and short fiction that fill the 192 pages of the collection plumb the depths of the human psyche, unearthing innumerable ponderances and anxieties along the way. While some of these narratives remain rooted in a world much like our own, most spiral into the surreal with Fishow expertly casting transgressions perpetrated by both our selves and the world in an alluring, dreamlike sheen. The juxtaposition of these almost-realities and surrealities provokes us to reconsider the perspectives with which we view our own lives and urges us to question if the language we use to define who we are and what we know is as unwavering and meaningful as we’ve always assumed.
Much of the collection attempts to liberate investigations of deep and sometimes amorphous emotions from the shackles that language imposes on characters by employing the strange or uncanny. A phenomenal example of this early on in the collection is the second story, “Timothy’s Severed Head,” which begins:
Whoever’s suffered the most receives the severed head. We agree degrees of suffering are subjective, so it’s unfair. Still, we’re not surprised when the package shows for Timothy …
We try to imagine what the severed head looks like, but our ideas are fuzzy, imprecise. In our mind, it looks like our own heads, but dead and bodiless …
Timothy fists its hair and pulls it out, holds the severed head close to his own face like he’s holding the head of a lover, tender and immense. We feel weird watching such an intimate moment, so we go inside … We were right. It looks like a version of us, but dead and bodiless.
The 11-part short story’s central focus may be a discussion on grief and how the characters change as they process it, but Fishow expands this narrow purview into deeper and muddier metaphorical waters. We are privy to clandestine conversations where side characters—like Mary, Eunice, and even the narrator—covet the very literal embodiment of trauma that is the severed head and discuss their own beliefs about how trauma ought to be cared for. Taking it a step further, Fishow even has us play witness to others’ attempts to literally steal the object of grief away from Timothy at gunpoint. This isn’t just your run-of-the-mill narrative about overcoming grief with a little weirdness sprinkled in—it’s a story about how we feed grief, how we consume it, how we fantasize about it and desire it, and how we want to make it our own—and Fishow expertly teases out emotional complexities using otherworldly elements like this time and again as the collection builds.
While many of the collection’s stories involve potentially angelic severed heads, violent cyclopes dating married sirens, entire worlds devolving into quicksand, or narrators afflicted by sudden and rapid bodily shrinking, there are others in the collection that exhibit Fishow’s deftness at rendering incredibly realistic and cerebral microcosms on the page too. Pieces like “Visiting Sarah, 2005,” “Something to Do, Someone to Love,” “Brockville, 1972,” and “An Exercise in Etiquette” exchange Fishow’s preferred rapid-fire poetics for extended, grounded storytelling. Surrealism is traded for absurdism as we cross the Mexican border with disaffected Marines for a night of partying or as we accompany a woman who poses in nude photoshoots in an attempt to pay for her own mental health treatments. These lifelike narratives are just as provocative and emotionally charged as their surreal flash fiction and prose poetry counterparts, but they build an additional layer beyond where we are able to witness, at length, the consequences of those emotions and how they spill into the lives of others.
For Fishow, the payoff of a narrative—no matter the size or form—is in the emotions it conjures in us. She more-or-less explicitly points this out in her flash fiction piece “Going to the Diner” when she says:
Considering the intensity of the way we enter into the world, pushed out, squeezed around our skin, it’s no wonder we crave such massive feeling. War strategies. Highs so high. Sorrow about someone else’s sorrow.
The Trouble with Language is a catalog of that craved “massive feeling”—each piece designed and articulated to represent the “war strategies” and the “highs” and, perhaps above all, the “sorrow about someone else’s sorrow” that we all want to feel. But, as much as Fishow encourages us to empathize with the lives of her characters as they experience both the familiar and the uncanny, she is also constantly reminding us that these things aren’t truly knowable to us—regardless of if we are able to understand the language being used to convey these stories to us or not. In her piece “Outside and Inside,” she explains the following about empathy:
Do you know how empathy works? We don’t love what we don’t know. We don’t cry for a tragedy we don’t see. We don’t feel bayonets sticking somebody else’s skin. We don’t drown ourselves in oceans that exist on other planets.
According to Fishow, empathy is something that is felt rather than intimated through language. So, too, are the deep, dark, and sometimes obscure emotions that the stories in The Trouble with Language try to conjure in us. Fishow pushes the boundaries of language’s capabilities by employing the surreal, the uncanny, and the strange to gesticulate toward these grander emotions rather than trying to name them directly, but even then—even when it is ever-so-carefully crafted—language fails us. Only when we let the fragility of language finally set in—when we follow the gesture of the words rather than the letter—do we truly begin to feel the complexity, absurdity, and beauty of our lives and the lives of those we know.
In the end, the trouble with language may be that it falls short in helping us explore our senses of self, our purposes, our connections, and our attachments, but there’s at least one advantage that language does have: it’s a good place for the journey of understanding to begin.
The Trouble with Language, by Rebecca Fishow. Grand Rapids, Michigan: TRNSFR Books, November 2020. 192 pages. $18.00, hardcover.
Maxwell Malone is a horror and weird fiction author from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan currently masquerading as a technical writer on California’s Central Coast. His work has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep Podcast, Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, and various YouTube narration channels. You can find him on Twitter @maxwell_irl.