Kissing a Tree Surgeon, Eleanor Levine’s short story collection, reviewed by Judy T. Oldfield

On page 133 of Eleanor Levine’s story collection, Kissing a Tree Surgeon, I sat up straight, thrown for a loop at the name Diane Lewis. Though the marketing and jacket copy never refer to the collection as a novel in flash or linked stories, as a reader, I had thought of it as one; every story was in the first person, with the name Agatha Ravine frequently ascribed to the narrator. Other names, such as the narrator’s brothers, also reappeared frequently. I had been trying to piece together the continuity of the stories, as they seemed like fractals of a singular life, or perhaps many alternate dimensions that were almost boringly similar. Different jobs, different lovers, but nonetheless, the life of a lesbian or bisexual Jewish woman from an Orthodox background in New Jersey, and the many people she knew when she was younger.

But there was Diane Lewis, not Agatha Ravine, narrating the story “Embryonics” in which a straightish Jewish woman from New Jersey is fired from her job at what she calls an “egg yolk facility” but you or I might call a laboratory for the harvesting and storing of embryos, because she dropped too many specimens on the floor. It is one of my favorite stories in the collection, full of the sort of irreverent human negligence, pithy observation, and fast-paced language that ties each piece of the collection together.

Diane Lewis does not reappear in Kissing a Tree Surgeon. But Agatha does again and again. Twice more someone who is clearly not Agatha also takes the spotlight: a Jewish psychiatrist called into Hitler’s office, and a Jack Russel terrier who experiences a conversion moment while listening to a Native American evangelist on the radio. These, too, became favorites of mine.

But what to make then, of the collection as a whole? Three out of 41 stories are clearly not about Agatha. Many stories do not name the narrator. As I read on, I came to think of the collection of a chorus of like-minded voices, with Agatha’s demanding the best solos. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Levine is up to something that I am not quite tracking, making me work to solve a puzzle. Agatha Ravine sure sounds a lot like Eleanor Levine. Who is Agatha? Who is anyone?

I read the collection slowly, over many days, in part to try to noodle over its 198 pages, but in part because I found the narrator(s) hard to swallow in more than small doses. She, or they, reminded me of a Jewish lesbian version of SNL’s Mary Katharine Gallagher or Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, whose intense humanness is visceral, corporal, and whose forthrightness contains an unlikeability but also a compelling completeness that can’t be denied. I wanted to peer closely enough into the pages to ask, “why are you like this?”

Many stories travel over the line from realist to surrealist, sometimes in their sheer absurdity, such as when the narrator retells the stories of acquaintances who joined the North Korean Army or who were convinced they were the illegitimate love child of Frank Sinatra. But some of the most striking go far beyond absurdity into classic fabulism. “Literary Mentors” kickstarts the collection as the narrator, Agatha, explains that though she went to high school in the 80s, due to a fluke, she and her peers returned to high school in 2007, having never technically graduated. This is a radical exploration of a common stress dream, told in the very mundane style of such a dream. The reasoning is never further explained, nor does anyone question or rebel against it. Ghosts appear in a few different stories, with mothers or grandmothers sitting in on everyday life after they’ve died. Some of this added to the feeling that I was looking at the same life across multiple dimensions.

What pulled me back into these stories, again and again, was the buzzing language, forceful enough that the words vibrated on the page. This language is propulsive and dryly funny, with off-the-wall comparisons that hit with a blunt edge. Consider, “She was a cheerleader in high school, whereas I was a protagonist in one of William Burroughs’s heroin runs,” from “My Mother Never Liked Me” or “… WASP-y women favor me. I’m like that Jew on the block who’s quite clever. It’s like having a pet you pay minimum wage to,” from “One Summer I Was a Maid at the Hyatt Regency.”

(On a personal note, all of this was heightened for me as I read these stories during the dual haze that is late third-trimester pregnancy and the effects of a second COVID shot. It was ideal ground to let words freely lead me wherever they felt like taking me.)

At other times the narration takes the sort of idiosyncratic detours that allows the reader to intimately take up residence inside someone else’s skull. In “Bestiality,” for instance, a paragraph ends in the sort of one-line hit that pops into someone’s head but is rarely uttered aloud: “We discussed our possible fourth date, in which she would return a belt that she busted after purchasing it at Lucky Brand Jeans. But Edith stopped calling, just like that, as if it were the end of a speech. To this day I am not sure if she was compensated for the belt.”

And sometimes Levine is downright funny. From “One Summer I Was a Maid at the Hyatt Regency” again: “‘Ahhhhhhhhh!’ they shrieked in German.” Or, perhaps my very favorite line, “We were both quirky, and though on different continents, we played Scrabble with slang words—me in English and her, also in English,” found in “The Dutch Girl.”

Whatever purpose its serving, Levine’s language is always taut, like you could reach in and pluck their strings. The stories are all in flash or the short end of short story, and words are never wasted. The narration stays at a fast clip throughout, though where, on the whole, it ultimately drives us to, I’m still not sure.

Kissing a Tree Surgeon, by Eleanor Levine. Guernica Editions, October 2020. 198 pages. $17.95, paper.

Judy T. Oldfield’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Portland Review, Barely South, JMWW, Gravel, and many others. Her flash fiction “Their Lists Long, Their Spreadsheets Lost” was a 2017 Best of the Net finalist. She grew up in the Metro Detroit area and earned her B.A. at Western Michigan University, where she majored in English and Comparative Religion. Since that time, she has mostly lived in Seattle and abroad, but currently lives in her hometown with her husband and daughter.

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