There is a particular scene in HBOâ€™s Six Feet Under when Claire Fisher is in art class and her professor, Olivier, is raving about how sensual sensation is the most reliable gauge for evaluating a work of art; he insists that if a work of art makes you sick to your stomach, you know itâ€™s good. I was reminded of this scene several times while reading Sarah Rose Etterâ€™s chapbookÂ Tongue Party.
Tongue Party plays on our most visceral emotionsâ€”hunger, fear, disgust, want for love. Etterâ€™s narrators are all desperate for something, desperate to keep what they need or lose what they canâ€™t bear to own. The tragic imagination of the young narrator in the opener, ‘Koala Tide’, was the most stunning aspect of the story. She was hungry enough to be colonized, she wanted enough to invent, and many of us have been, even as we grow up and old.
Want to get some ice cream tonight, kiddo?â€ he asked. â€œFor the sunset?â€
Eating ice cream and watching the sunset was my fatherâ€™s favorite thing to do.
â€œOkay,â€ I said.
My father turned and walked back toward the blanket.
I was lying about the sunset and the ice cream. I knew once the koalas came, things would be different. I wouldnâ€™t want to leave my koala home alone so soon. It would have to come with us, or else I would have to stay home and tend to it.
I knew once the koalas came, things would be different. I knew once I got into college, things would be different. I knew once I came out, things would be different. Whatever follows that sentence is an elegy to how unmoored our imaginations can be. Things, of course, were different, after the koalas came, but as always, we were fabulously wrong.
I did have two small reservations after reading Tongue Partyâ€”I felt that ‘Koala Tide’ was bit of a weak opener, despite it being mostly lovely. ‘Womb Peck’ follows ‘Koala Tide’, which I would say is the weakest story in the collection. It was also full of great writing, but it left me cold. Does every story have to get my heart punching; does every story have to switch on the skittering furnace inside me? Of course not, but I do make note when one doesnâ€™t.
What I love most about Etter is that sheâ€™s a literary sniperâ€”these brief fables are single shots to the dome. She needs no more than a page or two to bring you to your knees. My favorite story, the titular ‘Tongue Party’, which I originally read in this magazineâ€™s virtual pages, embeds all those primal feelings into the readerâ€”I felt sticky, queasy, starving from the narratorâ€™s hunger, fear, disgust, want for love. Be forewarned if you have high blood pressure or palpitationsâ€”this story will do things to your heart.
The room starts sizzling with something, a vibration Iâ€™ve never felt before. The air gets hot and the oxygen gets rare. The musk of their bodies takes over my lungs. The fear in the back of my throat tastes like blood or copper pennies.
â€œWeâ€™re doing this all at once!â€ one man yells over the heads of the other men. I can only see his bushy eyebrows.
I look across the bar to my fatherâ€™s face, bloated and red. â€œThereâ€™s enough to go around!â€ he yells, sounding desperate, protective, so much like a father that tears come and mingle with my makeup, creating a burning ring around each eye.
This frenzy, this captivity, these hungry men, this barely controlled pleadingâ€”this is the soul of Etterâ€™s stories. She takes you into this disturbing world with her phrasing; she takes you to a place that is a rabbit hole, a witching well, an unframed mirror. I could go on and on about every story in this striking debut, from the disturbingly beautiful ‘Men Under Glass’ to the elegantly suffocating ‘Cake’ to the almost-slipstream tragedy of ‘Husband Feeder’, but I donâ€™t want this to turn into a ten-thousand word screed. Sarah Rose Etterâ€™s Tongue Party is a brave book from a writer who Iâ€™m certain will go on to release a plethora of even more bewitching tales.