In Teresa Milbrodt’s Instances of Head-Switching, the fantastical marries with the familiar, the magical with the mundane. The Greek gods roam the streets seeking new PR campaigns, taking stances on whaling, and of course playing the field. Snow White settles into domesticity after she and her Prince (turned king, turned commoner) lose their throne. A pack of unicorns is sought out for a soap commercial; a sphinx acts as one part guard dog, one part therapy animal. There are heads for switching and marbles to eat and fathers trying to float away.
Disability and disenfranchisement are regular themes in this collection. Often, these protagonists are met with the too common trial of choosing how they can sacrifice themselves for a livelihood and how much sacrifice they can take. In “The Dreamlords” a widowed mother tries to support her family by selling her dreams at the cost of her own dwindling sight and increased hallucinations. She is struggling to make ends meet and to provide a better future for her daughter, one without such sacrifice. When her father encourages her to quit the job that is taking so much away from her, she thinks “Everyone in my family had sacrificed themselves for their paychecks. I never thought to question it, but even if I had, I might not have arrived at a different answer.”
At the heart of these stories is control. How we fight for it, the consequential and inconsequential ways we can get it, and what we will give up to have it. In “Costume Control,” the final story of the book, the Deputy Director of Costume Enforcement juggles her job—confiscating knockoff magical clothing—with her own use of magical objects, while her daughter Jenna struggles with what she perceives to be her mother’s hypocrisy. The core of their conflict is a magical amulet, one that will help Jenna see with her one blind eye. Jenna, however, does not want to be controlled and does not care that her mother is simply trying to keep her safe. In a particularly moving moment, Jenna asks her divorced mother “Why can’t you be okay with me? Dad is.”
“The Pieces”—perhaps my favorite story of the collection—follows a woman who gets a phone call from her mother saying her father has had a breakdown. Quite literally, he has fallen to pieces. What follows is both unbelievable—she takes her fragmented father with her to a coffee shop for a drink with her boyfriend—and close to home—the woman and her mother study and examine her father, this man who is in so many ways an antagonist for them. There is a switch in power here; for so long, the father has been the sun of their universe, his moods dictating the mood of the day. But as he lies in pieces, his daughter discovers that “for once, [she is] in control,” a position that helps her realize how much she loves her father.
Often, disability itself is turned on its head and manifests as magic, and in many stories there is a dichotomy between curse and blessing. The protagonist of “You May Mistake This for a Love Story” has been blind in her right eye since birth, but it is that very blind eye that is “Malleable. Mutable.” It is an eye that “can see anything but mostly the future.” As she begins a new romance with a coworker, already she can “see love like a landscape” and knows exactly where their feelings will lead them, how their relationship will one day end.
Though the broad ideas of Milbrodt’s stories shine with imagination, it is in quick phrases where she cuts deep. A character in “The Monster’s War” loses his parents not to war itself, but because “they suffered from the shortages.” The protagonist of “Marbles” wonders how “everyone else manage[s] the ebb and flow of emotions” and if she should have “remained the sweet and somewhat overly sensitive kid who worried all evening over whether she’d said the right thing at school.” And “In the Dim Below” asks the ultimate question: “What would you give up to be safe?”
In our world, a world where the unemployment rate is high, job security is wavering, it is unsafe for many to venture outside, and economic uncertainty stares us in the face, Milbrodt’s stories speak of magic and make that magic all the more accessible by spinning the otherworldly with the every day. As author Michael Martone puts it, Instances of Head-Switching “defines a magical realism for the domestically marginalized.” With these stories, Milbrodt proves again and again that magical realism is not only for the able and financially secure, but for everyone.
Publisher: Shade Mountain Press
Publication Date: June 23, 2020
Reviewed by Kathryn Ordiway