Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Picturesque and a lovely grotesque--stories by Michelle Reale

At the next edition of TNY Presents, we'll be welcoming, among many other excellent writers, Michelle Reale, whose chapbook, Natural Habitat, will be published by Cleveland-based Burning River Press.

Last night, before my 6-9 class, I checked out the Monkeybicycle site, and saw that Michelle had a story, titled Picturesque, posted there. At first, I was captivated by the detailed description of the bride, whose assymmetical face, discomfited behavior, and bird-like legs spark some uncharitable speculation about what it was that actually attracted the thrice-married groom. However, the real treat came in the paragraph that followed. I'll quote Reale here:

"On the day of the wedding, my mother slipped on the lime green gown and a turban headpiece, with a big diamond-like jewel in the center that I wanted to dig out with my fingernail and suck on. My father called her 'Houdini.' My mother stretched her lips over her equine teeth and said 'Har, har, har.' My father held his stomach and laughed."

There's a little of Flannery O'Connor's delightful grotesque here, but it's not the grotesque so often associated with horror or the unreal. Instead, anyone who's been to a family wedding recognizes that Reale is offering a hyperreal portrait of humanity, with careful attention to its imperfections and its many awkward natural embellishments. Of course, none of Reale's characters are beautiful in any conventional sense, but they are so engaging, so charmingly flawed, so apparently genuine, they seem to reach a level of beauty that is equated with picturesqueness, which is perhaps in part where she gets the ironic title. Here is the verbal equivalent of a genre scene by 17th century Flemish painters, like Pieter Breughel the Elder, who captured wedding scenes, completed with dancing, gossiping, cavorting, and overall intemperance.

Reale offers an undercurrent of disquiet, too, in the uncle's attentions towards his neice. Told from the niece's point of view, she interprets his attention as displaced fatherly affection, since he had no children. But when the uncle ignores his bride to dance with his niece, brushes his lips against her forehead, and finally pulls her in tigher, we know all is not right.

Reale's attention to the psychological is equally arresting. In "A First Time for Everything," which appeared at Word Riot, she opens with the stunner, "My mother puts on her Pennsylvania Polka record which means game is on." Maybe it's because I married a Polish boy, danced the polka with his Aunt Julie at our wedding, or even that I grew up in Pennsylvania: still, this first line lit me up like an incandescent bulb. I absolutely couldn't stop reading with this kind of invitation.

We're excited to have Reale and her publisher Chris Bowden coming in from Cleveland for the April reading. I'm looking forward to the stories they'll tell.

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