Misfits and Other Heroes
by Suzanne Burns
Reviewed by Sheila Ashdown
Suzanne Burns's Misfits and Other Heroes is a marvelous and weird collection of short stories, full of carnival-esque characters, fresh prose, absurdist touches, and... baked goods? (I'm still trying to figure out that last one.) There's a lot to unpack in these thoughtfully crafted stories, each of which merits a rereading, and Burns offers a fun-house mirror of human experience where everything feels distorted yet true.
In "Tiny Ron," a normal-sized woman marries a movie-star dwarf, whom she meets while researching a news story at the Little People of America convention. While there's an obvious physical incongruity between the two, the real problems are emotional: Tiny Ron is abusive -- he bites and slaps and brags about all the "pussy" and STDs he got as a single guy -- and his wife, the narrator, carries him around in an oversized birdcage. They stay together for the usual reasons that mismatched couples stay together: inertia, self-loathing, love, etc.
In "The Miniaturist," Cole's wife, Sabina, is obsessed with a 70-pound Victorian-style dollhouse -- complete with stained-glass windows and tiny gaslights with real flames -- which she demands they haul with them wherever they go. Which, in this particular story, is a weekend trip to a lakeside cabin. For Sabina, the dollhouse offers a comfortable, controlled environment, so different from "their life-size house" where "things got away from her." For Cole, however, the dollhouse is "the wooden assassin that dissolved his marriage faster than sun dissolves fog." The dollhouse becomes the scapegoat for the deterioration of their relationship, where fights that are ostensibly about the dollhouse are really about the myriad ways they've "[let] each other down until there is nowhere deeper to go."
While Burns's stories prod at the darkest bits of human nature, their bleakness is tempered by the author's deft use of use of hyperbole, metaphor, black humor, and downright strangeness. Because, man, if you haven't already guessed, this book is strange -- and I mean that in the very best way, where strangeness functions as a writer's sleight of hand, a little magic wrapped around a kernel of truth. Sometimes, when stories have absurdist or surreal elements, it's easy to accuse them of being weird for the sake of being weird. But I would argue that oftentimes -- and, in this case, for sure -- their extraordinary nature gives readers a two-for-one deal: We not only get to bask in Burns's crazy imagination, but we get to revel, too, in her ability to write poignant stories that get straight to the nerve of the human condition. "Tiny Ron," for instance, is a story about an abusive dwarf, but it's also a story about a man who hits his wife because he feels small, and a woman who endures it because she has low self-esteem and "[wants] to be one of those couples who convinces themselves that they love each other." And while "The Miniaturist" is about an obsessed hobbyist who buys Swarovski glassware for her dollhouse, it's also a critique of domesticity, delusions of control, and the burden of the so-called dream home.
In each story, the familiar complexities and frustrations of romantic relationships are made fresh in their absurd scenarios, like a girl who dates her three-handed boyfriend because she's in love with the extra hand, or a former TV heartthrob who kidnaps a local baker and holds her hostage in a fully stocked kitchen. It's downright refreshing to read stories that say something, that show a willingness to turn over the rocks of romantic relationships and shed light on the muck below -- and to do it with such fun and dazzling prose, to boot.