ALTHOUGH CAROL MALYON has a knack for the picturesque and the poignant, the precious style in which The Edge of the World is written is rather disturbing if you take the book's subject seriously. In "Describing Water," for example, the story of a woman whose brutal husband (Bill) drives their son away from home when the boy is 16, here is the narrator worrying about her son:
I try to believe that he's all right, that a dog sleeps beside his bed each night, & the pair of them compare their dreams each morning. Their dreams are still always the same. That was the problem with Bill & me. Ours weren't. On Saturdays I bake bread.
This is the first book of short fiction for Malyon, who has published one collection of poetry; and the pictures she presents of women's lives are unspeakably depressing. Her protagonists are married women who live lives of quiet desperation with silent or brutal men, single women who fantasize about relationships they are too conventional to pursue, sad women who cope by trying harder, or visiting the family doctor: "He would pat her on the h-and and renew her Valium prescription. After she left the office, he would double tip with laughter at the thought of all the silence inside her pretty little house." There is no rage in these women, and no window out; they never seem to get the point. In view of the prettiness of Malyon's style, I began to question whether she had got it herself Beth Goobie, on the other hand, knows the dangers of her material. "I've never heard a woman / use rape as metaphor," she writes in Could I Have My Body Back Now, Please?, a collection of "Body-Fictions" (poetry and short prose) of startling originality. Metaphors abound for the risks of living in a sexist society, under "the corporate phallus of the skyscraper." A man's lecherous eyes are "a high range telescopic rifle." Looking away from a man who is ogling her in a bar, the narrator of "Peripheral Vision" realizes that she has given up control, surrendered the territory of her face. The battleground is the female body, which carries the wounds of its experience, its history stored in flesh. Goobie explores the limitations of the body, touching on the way that women are betrayed by their own eroticism.
Goobie's characters fight back with humour and fantasy. Could I Have My Body Back Now, Please? takes the device of detachable body parts about as far as it will go (and a bit farther). A scolding woman's wagging finger floats off. A child's ears extend, and creep under doors to listen to private conversations. A secretary's "erogenous zones" are appropriated by her staring boss, and float off into his territory as she takes dictation. A man's penis shows a persistent tendency to fall off, and a remarkable pliancy when unattached. (How would changing the shape of the male member change the male? Goobie seems to be asking.) There is nothing subtle about these stories. Goobie's outrageous, reckless manipulation of symbols is rather like that of Margaret Atwood's early novels.
In other stories and poems, Goobie draws from her experience as -a child-care worker in exploring the effects of abuse on young women. Some of the pieces look at the meaning of self-mutilation: "(marie's) phantom limb" is a poem about a young woman who is invisible to society, and whose sense of self is almost gone: her mirror is empty of reflection. Yet pain remains, like the pain in a phantom limb, and the mirror is a weapon to turn in shards against herself
Could I Have My Body Back, Please? is a noteworthy first collection. Beth Goobie's poetry is ambitious and interesting, if at times obscure. Her prose is occasionally laboured, as though she doesn't yet know whether she can trust her readers. I'm more than willing to forgive her this for her felicitous ability to open up cliche, which won me over in the first lines of the book: "agnes milwaukee felt the vietnam war / in her bones - mostly the right elbow."