The Entire Predicament
by Lucy Corin
Reviewed by Micaela Morrissette
In Isaac Asimov's novelization of Fantastic Voyage, a miniaturized submarine navigates a dying body. When the oxygen supply is sabotaged, the crew members discover that they cannot harvest air from the lungs of their host, as the oxygen molecules are too large to absorb into their own tiny respiratory systems. That is what the world is like for Lucy Corin's characters in her first collection, The Entire Predicament: gargantuan, bludgeoning, unassimilable, vital.
Corin creates worlds with a kind of monstrous beauty: the external environment presses so close, insistent and invasive, that it begins to sound like the rubbing of hairs in the ear, to feel like the tips of the fingers, to taste like a tongue. The experience is too gigantic to digest, too mercurial to elude, for Corin's readers as well as her characters. These characters are hyper-sensitized, ultra-alert, compulsively descriptive, obsessively attentive. Many quail, agog, in the face of stimulus. Then, once experience has forced its way inside them, it grows towering and barbed, or ravishing and golden. They become echo chambers, magnifiers, amplifiers -- and are, understandably, anxious.
For the heroine of "Airplane," tremulous in the sky, anxiety is both a fear of flying and a perpetual, needling, nauseous expectation of intimacy. For the protagonist of "My Favorite Dentist," with her clean, metallic mouth sparkling, anxiety is a calm, measured pacing and repacing of the same mental space, a cruel elegance affirming control over fear at all costs. For the suburban anchorite of "Wizened," anxiety is a kind of murky rage: "You can smell my bitterness, it's so old." For the gentle, hirsute husband in "Mice," anxiety is wet, warm, saggy, almost comfortable.
When the narrator of "A Woman with a Gardener" first enters the story, she too is anxious, vague, overwhelmed, clumsy. A server at a resplendent dinner party, she is steamrolled by the munificence and magnificence of stimuli. But despite her fear of drowning in sumptuousness, she is like a goldfish in a fishbowl in a flood. As the waters of sensation rise, they bear her away, blissing out in a ravishing rhapsody broken with wry knobbly observations, little islands of selfhood poking out of a crystalline sea of communality:
I am one in a line of precisely undulating bodies from a long line of long lines...and I am balancing an enormous silver tray of twenty glasses of champagne as if the glasses and the liquid in them are suspended over my palm as weightless as any idea I've ever had....happy noises ring and hover, rumble and soar, and utensils punctuate, and behind me, Becky, or anyone, is slipping [the guests] pâté and crudité (what, did I pick this up in construction? did I learn it landscaping?) and golden bouncy bits of fish and vegetables. I've glided in figure eights so balanced I'm breathless, I'm elated.
That kind of passivity -- lying splayed open and wide-eyed as the world storms your senses -- is also the subject of the hilarious and devastating story "Baby in a Body Cast," though here Corin mostly leaves anxiety behind. The protagonist, a newborn infant encased in a full-body cast, is paralyzed, a complete receptor for sensation, but is also protectively enveloped in a kind of second womb. The degree to which Corin conveys the visceral nature of the baby's experience -- at once terrifyingly immediate and dizzyingly distant -- is stunning:
He didn't know what was wrong, yet. He could feel the insides of his head slosh. He was so tired from being immobilized and surprised at moving so quickly that he didn't cry. Inside the cast he jiggled, humid. His floating organs vibrated and shifted like raindrops on the window of a speedy car.
The baby didn't know that he heard as if underwater, all sounds surrounded, glaze over a dark cake. Still, sounds moved for him like heavy-headed flowers on a faintly jiggling earth.
The Entire Predicament is fiercely strange and written with keen control. You don't read these stories: you undergo them. They are an event that is lived, not an object that is scanned. Language here is a tangible sensation; Corin's words have weight, temperature, odor, texture, bite. Vision and noise invade you. You become anxious. Then you may find yourself pinching your nose, squeezing your eyes, so as not to let this world escape your body.