Jessica Alexander’s debut fiction collection, Dear Enemy, opens with a hilarious portrait of the MFA fiction workshopping process. Writing about tortured newlyweds, the narrator of the story, titled “Evil Creatures,” meticulously details her revision process and is full of overeager sentiments like, “By the stories [sic] end, I wanted the readers to reflect back on the title and ask themselves who the real evil creatures are: are they the flesh eating monsters in the basement, are they Priscilla and Luke, are they all of mankind, or is it CAPITALISM?” It’s an audacious start to a thrilling, unsettling collection.
“Evil Creatures” is the perfect primer for Alexander’s work, a refutation of what David Foster Wallace called the Workshop Story, “stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down.” She deals primarily in flash fiction, brief and biting works that usually clock in under a few hundred words. In one story, “The Problem,” a girl deals with the fallout of her mother bursting into a flock of pigeons; in another, “The Eyeball,” a man is so agreeable, he allows his lover to mutilate herself until she is just an eyeball. The twenty-one pieces in Dear Enemy, hint at worlds that don’t quite make sense, told by people who can’t quite cope with them.
The workshop model of storytelling is something Alexander knows well. At 36, she is a creative writing professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsyvlania, and before that she taught composition and creative writing classes as a graduate student. She calls the workshop process “a luxury and a pleasure,” while admitting that, yes, she is lampooning something in “Evil Creatures.”
Alexander has been writing all her life. She was born in Bridgewater, New Jersey, but spent most of her childhood in Buffalo, New York. Her father worked as a banker and her mother held a variety of jobs. She remembers writing and performing “very bad” plays with her four siblings. She studied philosophy at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where, despite the lack of creative writing classes offered, she began to submit poetry to various journals. “One summer I sent a poem out every morning. The poems were terrible,” she says. “I can’t remember whether I had particular aspirations or if I chose the journals randomly.” She cites the Brontë sisters, Edith Wharton, and Shirley Jackson as early influences. “As a queer kid, I related to all that repression and unspeakable desire.” Her first published pieces, the sardonic thriller “If You See Something, Say Something” and eerily romantic “The Crawl Space,” were published in New World Writing in 2012. Since then, her work has appeared in Fence, SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, and other literary journals dedicated to innovative fiction. In 2016, author Selah Saterstrom selected the Dear Enemy manuscript as the winner of Subito Press’s Prose Prize.
The title was taken from one of Alexander’s short stories of the same name, sans comma. “Dear Enemy” isn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but is a reluctantly tender account of watching someone you love die. “I added the comma because I liked thinking of the collection in its entirety as a means of formally addressing some deadly or alluring opposition,” she explains. Indeed, there is something sinister lurking in each of her tales, where characters are so eager to speak to anyone but are really speaking to themselves. In “The Pool Guy,” a woman talks through her recent divorce as she fails to seduce her pool cleaner (“It was not a separation. Not a wound. My mouth is the wound. I wish you’d stuff yourself in my mouth,”) while in “The Courtly Lover,” a man recounts his death to his unrequited love: “Yesterday a school bus struck me and I burst, Susan.”
This is not to say Alexander’s stories are plotless. The front action of these stories serves as a catalyst for characters to introduce you to their worlds, which they do with curious turns of phrases and leaps in logic. Her prose is fantastical, gleefully exploring the relationship between language and reality. To her narrators, everything is a metaphor. In “One Finds Oneself Fallen,” an institutionalized woman falls in love, only to be abandoned. When caretakers from the sanatorium discover her secretly rendezvousing with her lover, they intercede. She relays the scene to us: “The nurses swing their fists — those forcible bitches — like buckets, and fork their bulk into my eyes!” The verbiage is delightfully off-kilter, and its strangeness becomes a subtle kind of world-building. Half the pleasure of Dear Enemy, is how beautiful it sounds, the other its sheer unpredictability.
“Like fairy tales,” Alexander explains, “I tried to create fictional landscapes whose rules were arbitrary, alienating, and often violent.” This alienation haunts stories like “Domestic Still Life,” in which a man who believes he is a hawk (“I tried to touch her mouth. My talons hooked her lip.”) recounts the monotony of married life. At first, he seems to be another out-of-touch narrator, torturing his well-meaning wife, until he reports a scene in which she gnaws on his eyelid. Moments like this toy with our doubts about the worlds Alexander builds, and about the narrators who lead us through them. With no baseline of what normal might be, a reader can feel lost. It’s a challenge I don’t mind, but one that might frustrate fans of traditional storytelling. Still, Alexander pulls the story into focus with lines like, “I was a lonely husband. I reached across the table for my briefcase. I had no briefcase. I was no husband. I was the loneliest of husbands.” The pathos of her narrators is always lucid, even if their logic is not.
This same absurdity also makes for her strongest stories. This is seen in “Evil Creatures,” but also in her Hemingway meta-parody “After Key West,” about bored rich travelers on a train who drink too much, have sex, and are cruel to one another. Told from several perspectives, it opens with Nancy, who “wants to sing or light her dress on fire.” The narrator goes on, “She can’t decide. Every man in her life looks too much like Hemingway.” The story only gets campier from there, with splendidly malicious caricatures, like Don, the man who burns alive (“Lord, it’s hot,” he says after a lit match is dropped in his lap), or George, who bemoans the death of his friend right before he describes sexually assaulting her. But tenderness emerges in the form of a writer character, who longs to protect one passenger, Rachel, from the wretchedness of their companions. Alexander wrote the character after a friend, getting her Ph.D. in literature, asked to be written into the story. Alexander says, “I strangely could not subject her name to the violence of my parody, and so the story became…a rescue mission.”
“Rachel, crawl in,” the nameless narrator begs at the end, as the train’s passengers each meet a gruesome end, “I’ll birth you in a different fiction.” Rachel accepts, and Alexander manages to defy our expectations, even as she forces us to shift them.