Jumping Off

by Laura J. Cutler
ISBN: 1896300596

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A Review of: Jumping Off
by Helen McLean

For most of the female characters in Laura J. Cutler's collection Jumping Off, the feminist revolution never happened. Women accept bad treatment from the men on whom their lives are inexplicably centered as though the idea of being in charge of their own fates had never crossed their minds. Important decisions are postponed or the wrong ones made; self-destructive habits hold sway, and what "jumping off" occurs is often out of the frying pan and into the fire. An alcoholic goes to an AA meeting, for instance, but backs out. A self-loathing woman mutilates her fingers with scissors and later prepares to commit suicide in her bath; another brings home a stranger for sex, and after he's gone deliberately gouges herself with the tweezers while shaping her pubic hair into a perfect triangle-to please the next man, one supposes.
In "White Muslim", Deborah refuses to acknowledge what the probable outcome of her present action will be. She has converted to Islam, not from religious conviction but for love, and tells her parents she is going to marry Halil and live in Saudi Arabia. When they forbid the marriage, she argues they cannot forbid. Her fianc agrees. Only he, when he is her husband, may forbid. Maybe Halil intends to keep his promise that they will live as equals, but it's doubtful.
Carolyn, in "The Third Tryst", tells her husband she's away on business when she's shacked up in a motel with a man she doesn't really seem to like. She peers into the bathroom mirror and asks, "Why am I here?" Their left-over takeout dinner, "an unappetizing pile in a congealed sauce," could be a metaphor for the affair itself, which, when it ends, will probably be followed by another of her habitual and meaningless liaisons.
Piggy Paula is eleven, four-foot-ten, and weighs 147 pounds. Now that she's got a little tuft of wiry hair between her legs, her father, "as a precaution against her imminent fertility," aims his semen onto her stomach when he assaults her. There is no way Paula can "jump off," and all she can do to assuage her misery is to eat herself square.
In "Twenty Eight Days" Tisha's husband of eight years wants a baby, but she can't be sure a baby would make her happy. She says, "The question for me is do I want this marriage and your happiness enough to do something that may or may not make me happy?' Your question is , Do you want a baby badly enough that you would leave this marriage if I don't say yes?'" Instead of facing the issue, she pops the first pill of a new Ortho disk, vaguely hoping fate or chance will make the decision for her.
In "Little Messes" Louisa works waitressing jobs to support herself and her freeloading boyfriend. Wealthy Julia lures Louisa's man into her bed, and when Louisa finds out, Julia gives her money to enroll in college and "go forward to true independence." This girl is about as likely to get a college degree as she is to turn away the next penniless stud who says "nice tits, Wiz."
These stories have some fine moments, but many of the female characters, especially those on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder, are almost interchangeable. Editing has been less than careful. There are egregious instances of grammatical awkwardness, as when a woman needs candles to enhance her "wishfully alluring decor." The author reaches for original modes of expression, and often chooses words so inappropriate as to make the phrase meaningless: indecision about whether to have a baby, for example, is called "natal nonchalance"; dishes that can't go into the dishwasher are "banned from automation." There is the occasional jarring use of words commonly used in the media but out of place in a literary work, as when the author-narrator refers to a hundred-year-old grandmother as "the senior," as though she were of a different breed.
Sometimes the word used is simply the wrong one. Friends dining together on an assortment of dishes are "seated before a buffet. . ." The best story in the collection, "White Muslim", demonstrates how effectively Cutler is able to write, but it ends with a thud when the convert's fianc and her mother each take a bobby-pin and fasten the girl's slipping head-scarf "in tandem," which means one positioned to the rear of the other, and surely not the image Cutler intended to evoke. Words and usages casually plucked from the air without regard for precise meaning won't do. These stories lack emotional breadth, and Cutler's reliance, for dramatic impact, on the victimisation of her female characters becomes tedious.

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