Shannon Hozinec Reviews Meghan Lamb’s COWARD

Meghan Lamb’s COWARD opens with a burning sky that smells of blood. This is no harbinger of the apocalypse, however, as one might assume—we are promised that this burning is “natural, […] a part of life”; that it happens every year, and that there is an “other side”—an end—within reach. We need only sit and wait until it passes, as it always does. It is with this assurance that we crawl inside the pulsing cocoon of a world that Lamb has constructed for us.

The book follows three narratives: that of an unnamed male narrator and the mysterious Kate McClane, a young woman with whom he has been communicating online, but has never met in person (and who very possibly could be dead); an unnamed adolescent female narrator and her friend, Marianne Lee, with whom she is secretly in love; and one of the anonymous “zombies” that amble down the streets, underneath the burning sky—the people forgotten by society and abandoned to inhabit the “sepulchers” of the town’s closed-down factories. 

The concept of masks and identity is one of COWARD’s main obsessions, and it is fitting that we behold it through the gauzy lens of the internet. Anyone who grew up during its early days will recognize it in all its nascent glory here: the room (typically in the basement) devoted entirely to The Housing of the Computer; the “weird ghost-hiss-shriek-siren wail” (remember dial-up?) that served as the aural accompaniment to the breathless anticipation you felt while waiting for it to connect; the veritable sea of possible chatrooms and forums and websites in which to indulge your most lurid curiosities, where you could slip into and discard different identities as easy as silk. The anonymity of the early internet provided both a heady rush of freedom and the safety of operating at a remove, both vital when the open exploration of certain desires—those queer, or “perverse,” or otherwise subversive—could prove dangerous.

Hanging out with her friends one day at her house, the female narrator—at Marianne Lee’s urging—enters a hookup chatroom for young gay men. The brief interaction that follows is nothing explicit, but she recognizes Marianne Lee’s interest in taking it further.

Sensing an opportunity to get closer to her, she begins her “research,” which consists of learning a new language heretofore unknown to her, looking up unfamiliar terms (“blowjob”; “go down on”; “giving head”; “face-fucking”) and diligently copying them and their definitions (“sucking cock”; “sucking cock”; “sucking cock”; “sucking cock”) in her notebook, and sneaking down to her father’s den in the middle of the night and cybering with random men (behind a crafted male persona) in chatrooms, anticipating how she will use everything she’s learning from these interactions on Marianne Lee, fantasizing about what lies behind what she sees of her in public, imagining that she is “by day—a girly garden full of curls and barbs, her hmmms, and ahhs, and are you serious-es, and—by night—oh, in that soil-dark, becomes—maybe—she thinks—this grinding, deep unearthing, low moans, like unholy bodies underground.”

At several points, she searches the internet for pictures of “herself” to send to whomever she’s cybering with. “Yeah,” she thinks, whenever she finds a suitably sexy (but not too sexy) man whose photo she’s decided to use as her temporary proxy, “I could be that guy,” at one point even thinking of their identities as merged: “[…] and yes, she/he/she likes the thought of his/her/his bright-swelling warmth, and yes, she/he/she likes the thought of his/her/his huge cock.”

Soon, she and Marianne Lee begin cybering directly with each other, still using the avatars they’ve adopted, and Marianne Lee compliments her, saying that she’s really good at “this”:

And—for the first time—she wonders what this might mean.

What it might mean, to be so good at being someone you created.

And so bad at being anything—anyone—else.

Across town, the male narrator keeps his Kate-McClane-related documents in two separate folders: “Kate” (which contains all the extreme, violent pornographic images she’s sent, hoping to—shock him—intrigue him—scare him—? He doesn’t know (and might not care beyond a perverse curiosity); their interactions concerning these images are almost non-existent, with her sending him zip files accompanied by only a short, cryptic message, files that he views with detached interest, files that he must force himself to react to) and “Conversations,” where they bond over their misery, their suicidal inclinations—

I don’t feel right, living where I live. I don’t feel right, living inside this body.

I don’t feel right with anyone, anywhere, and I want to die.

—allowing a connection to form over a feeling often ignored, if not actively suppressed, by society. But as much as the internet fosters connection, it frequently (and often concurrently) facilitates passive dehumanization. He must constantly remind himself that she is—or was—a real person, that “[…] her thoughts of dying, thoughts that never felt quite real to him, […] must be real to her.” He imagines who she is beyond what she’s told him, imagines her “[as] some shadow figure standing at the apex of a tower. Some Rapunzel of the open, empty fields.” Elevated, mythical. He thinks of her throughout the day, imagining her activities, her preferences for the most mundane things, “[carrying] […] the weight of what he doesn’t know.”

All day, he looks at himself, picturing himself as her.

All day, he punishes himself in small ways for being Not-Kate-McClane.

Through them, Lamb illustrates both the protections and vulnerabilities of masks, the freedom and limitations bestowed by anonymity, and the layers of masochism inherent in comparing yourself not just to someone else, but a fictional (or fictionalized) persona that you yourself created. (One of the book’s epigraphs, from Nine Inch Nails’ song “Only,” speaks directly to this last one: “I just made you up to hurt myself.”)

But how does one know when to shed the mask, as one must if there is any hope to forge a genuine connection? Is vulnerability a limited resource? Is authenticity? Is there a particular point at which the construction will supplant authentic identity, or does it happen slowly, insidiously, like black mold or ivy, something that will creep and infect until there is little hope of salvaging what’s underneath? Is it possible to splinter and distort the self so thoroughly that when the shards are picked back up, they no longer fit together?

Lamb’s penchant for suspending us in a liminal place between reality and—not unreality, exactly, but a not-quite-reality that skirts just this side of the familiar is present here, perhaps in its most compelling incarnation yet. On the surface, the town that COWARD’s characters inhabit is recognizable as the northwestern US during their recent horrific wildfire season. In Lamb’s alchemical hands, however, the setting transcends mere place and almost becomes a character in its own right, a dark and ash-choked landscape given life with daubs of anthropomorphization: the hills are covered in “blonde hairs,” dotted with “bleedy scabs of brush”; we stalk amongst the “shadowed shoulders of […] high-rise building[s]” and along “ache-stretched skeleton ribs of old line rails.” The town becomes a living being—a sweltering chrysalis, a static womb within which the characters have no choice but to wait and writhe and become.

They exist in the spaces—literal and metaphorical—between life and death, death and decay, decay and ash—both stagnant and restless, tossing and turning with their aching emptinesses mirrored and illuminated by the hypnotic glow of whatever is nearest: a blinking computer screen, an open refrigerator, the bleeding eye of the distant firescape, beckoning you ever closer. And that is what lives, tenderly and furiously, in the central chamber of COWARD’s oozing, Gordian, thorn-cradled heart—howling voids in the shape of human longing, calling to one another in the fragmented language of loneliness, paralyzed by the terror of possibility, of impending transformation.

What does it mean to be truly seen, to be understood? Is it even possible? Do we really want to be? What would it take for us to relinquish the comfort of huddling in the shadows, lest we be revealed but then found wanting? How does one cope with the desperate hunger for connection that grows greater and greater the longer it goes untended, to the point of mindlessness, almost like, well, a zombie—and what will we use, to our benefit or detriment, to sate it?

COWARD is for anyone who has ever been afraid of their own desires, fearing they were too strange and damaged to be loved; anyone who has felt simultaneously catatonic and feral with loneliness; anyone who stumbled through the lurid forests of the early internet; anyone who has ever had trouble navigating their identity, their otherness; anyone who has yearned, feared, despaired, confessed, loved; it is for the despondent, the starved, the hesitant, the bitter, the bored, the suicidal, the curious, the tender, the numb, the desperate, the brave, and the cowards—which is to say, it is for everyone.

The questions that are unearthed and dissected in this book are existential, pervasive, and enduring, questions that humans will be asking for as long as there are humans—and Lamb knows better than to offer any answers. COWARD resists simplicity and resolution, eschewing a tidy conclusion in favor of an ending far murkier and more compelling, more honest—if this book is tied up in any sort of bow, it is one fashioned from intestines and electrical wire. You will finish this one with soot in your ears and blood in your teeth, and you will thank her for it. COWARD is Meghan Lamb at her most bewitching and unflinching.

COWARD, by Meghan Lamb. Brooklyn, New York: Spuyten Duyvil, September 2022. 96 pages. $16.00, paper.

Shannon Hozinec’s writing can be found in DIAGRAM, Radioactive Moat, Thrush, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube.