158 pages, $16
Review by Sara Lippmann
The human body is a mysterious, contradictory bully of a beast. Capable of extreme cruelty, of exercising raging pain, humiliation, and destruction upon others, it also is an emotional vessel of hope and love, the tender home of the brain, the spine, the heart. Is the body ever knowable? And what’s inside – can all that ever be understood? In his brilliant and remarkably strange debut collection, Coma-Thompson explores these questions, examining the complicated and conflicting impulses of the human body, and the human collective through divergent lenses. The result is a daring, beguiling body of work unlike any other that demands your attention. Read The Lucky Body slowly, then reread it again and again.
The opening and title story sets the tone of the book. “The Lucky Body” has been brutally murdered and mutilated. Who was the body? Conjecture follows, accruing like an incantation, an ode to the body, what it might have been, who it was, the life it might have once contained. “It might have attended one of the better boarding schools in the upper Northeast.” Also possible: “A series of women had loved the body for its many perfections, but also for the gentleness with which it inhabited: the warmth coming off its naked length.” Coma-Thompson is also a poet, and his stunning lyricism is evident throughout, such as in this passage that describes the motivation for the hunt and capture, the subsequent killing:
The body had walked this earth as one of the lucky, and because of that an ineffable glow radiated from every part of it, and it was this they spotted one day and followed for three blocks and admiring it made plans to eventually snatch it off the streets and mine it for what they imagined was its hidden gold.
The “they” remain unnamed, a faceless murky, nebulous mankind. Coma-Thompson employs this idea repeatedly, to haunting effect. In “Atown” humanity is lumped together as an indistinguishable mass in an indistinguishable place.
Will you hear the old woman then tell you the town’s history, which is a history of people coming and not going, arriving and not leaving, as if coming and arriving were the same thing –coming, as if they were drawn there, arriving as if they had always intended to come?
In a somewhat Borgesian fashion, Coma-Thompson eschews traditional storytelling and narrative. Two of his stories, “pG” and “About Grimm,” are breathless, one-sentences feats; two others, “Lost Dances” and “Stories on the Half Shell,” build through a structured list. Instead of following a chronological projection in real time, many of his stories possess an overheard quality; only now are they being retold. The author makes the reader privy to information on a need-to-know-basis, thereby turning us into eavesdroppers, as if we are hiding behind a closed door or peering through a peephole, receiving bits and pieces of information — which are being relayed by someone else — that we must paste together. As readers, we are being held at arm’s length, distanced from the page, from the stories contained within other stories like organs inside a body’s casement, now being filtered through a third party, the action having already transpired off scene.
In “A Wild One” the entire story is delivered through dialogue, more like a monologue by a man named Claude. “‘There wasn’t one girl, there were two,’” he starts. To whom is he telling his story? “Us” is all the reader knows — a general, nonspecific party, which implicates all of us while simultaneously turning us into voyeurs trying to access a world that is not ours.
Throughout the collection, Coma-Thompson artfully plays with intimacy and remove, the inside versus the outside. His story “Vesna” begins, “Years later, he’ll wish he took a photograph of them with his camera phone, lying in bed, sheets bundled to their necks to stay warm.” The arc of this sentence feels emblematic of the style of Coma-Thompson, in that it starts from a place of distance, the moment already gone, followed by a generalized longing couched in pronouns rather than proper names, but then ends up in a place rooted in striking detail and closeness. This movement typifies much of his work, and the collection as a whole. The reader may feel initially detached, as if we have been left with an inscrutable puzzle, but as we slow down and thoughtfully engage with the text, we are rewarded by its startling, intimate beauty.
Take “A Thing About Mouths.” Similarly, that story moves from humanity as a whole — “The things people will do to regain their mouths” — to a remote individual to a peculiar particularity: “John Lee Cane, this friend of a friend, was so hard up for cash he actually sold his mouth to a mouth dealer; this was in Central Florida, at one of those huge flea markets where they sell everything under the sun — live shrimp, doll houses, prosthetic limbs, puppies.”
Perhaps the most traditional story is also the collection’s centerpiece. In “Spring in Zurveyta,” Anna Petrovich is a journalist in an imagined post-Soviet town where a civil war is underway, with all its attendant brutality, a place so inured to violence that security agents pose next to beheaded rebels for photos with their camera phones. She has arrived at the President’s compound, with the hopes of securing an interview with the leader, a hope that feels increasingly foolhardy. Yet for all the graphic savagery this story contains, Coma-Thompson renders it with an elegant poetic grace. “Bodies were thrown thirty, forty paces. The leg of one man landed on the hood of a Russian armored car….Without any feeling for the girl, he had blown her up along with six men.”
In “From Anna,” a couple is in a hotel room after a long day of traveling “several hundred miles of road passing through us like the worst kind of tapeworm.” They watch a violent, bloody Ultimate Fighting match on TV. This triggers Anna’s knowledge, a lengthy disquisition on the Romans, followed by another story. Her lover says, “Anna is telling the room about something she read once.” The room! Not him? It is a purposeful, odd word choice that shifts the private moment – two people in a room – into something more anonymous. The narrator has been erased from the equation. And yet, like us, he’s listening. As she talks he wonders if he is dreaming — “When’s the last time I’ve lost all sense of myself, fallen into a steady advance of words like this?” She goes on, retelling another anecdote retold from what she heard from an anthropologist once, about the discovery of an ancient, historical mass grave. “There must have been hundreds of bodies. Maybe thousands. Difficult to tell, so many of the bones were cluttered together in a mess. For all they knew it could have been an infinite number of bones belonging to a single body, some naked sleeping giant the crows had picked apart,” Anna says. Exquisite writing, and yet, through this passage on the nameless dead the reader aches from the intended disconnect between two lovers and can’t help but wonder what is left unsaid: what would become of them?
The last story, “Ahead,” perhaps best sums up Coma-Thompson’s take on humanity. Here we have first person narration and an acknowledged conflation of “storyteller and listener.” The narrator, we are told, has a gun to his head in a tense, harrowing moment. On the precipice of self-destruction, the narrator has decided to squeeze a bullet through his head “once there was nothing else to think about.” What does he do to stave off suicide? “I tell myself stories. Every last story I remember.” In the end, the narrator becomes so filled with stories he rises from the abyss, resisting his nihilistic impulse, his death wish averted, at least for the time being. “What [the bullets] could so easily put to an end they couldn’t even begin to explain.” The body. For all the terrible, dark power the body contains, mankind still shimmers with a wild, physical light. That’s where hope lies. The narrator moves toward that light. The reader follows. “As long as I climb, it keeps shining.”
Sara Lippmann is the author of the forthcoming story collection Doll Palace. The recipient of a 2012 NYFA Artist’s Fellowship in fiction writing, her stories have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, Construction, Joyland and elsewhere. For more, visit saralippmann.com.