Many of the stories in Julia Elliott’s debut collection The Wilds illustrate strange realities. A grandmother levitates while describing the Rapture. A nursing home outfits its patients with strap-on robotic limbs and embeds tracking devices in their arms. Packs of feral dogs roam the landscape. A robot is programmed to love. Though these premises may seem bizarre, the stories don’t feel remote. They don’t take place in imagined futures. Rather, these stories feel like universes that exist right alongside our own—tiny pockets of possibility. It’s as though, at any moment, you could stumble and find yourself within one of Julia Elliott’s tactile and grotesque tales.
The Wilds is couched in the texture of the modern world. As the grandmother tells girls about the Rapture, she describes the nectar of heaven: “Sweeter than all the best drinks put together—Dr Pepper and Pepsi-Cola, Mello Yello and Mountain Dew, grape Kool-Aid with five cups of Dixie Crystals sugar.” The orchard of the sci-fi nursing home smells of “chickens from the poultry complex down the road and exhaust from the interstate.” The feral dogs that roam the landscape can be found in an abandoned Target and a woman can sense packs approaching from a Frito-like scent. The modern fuses with the gothic and grotesque. In the title story, for example, a young girl adorns herself with spray-painted bird skulls taped to a Burger King crown.
Elliott’s stories depict both the synthetic world that humans have created and the natural one that they have largely destroyed. Her characters struggle to find a place for their own humanity—their spirituality, vanity, urges, fears, and identities—between these two conflicting poles. In some stories, humans grapple with the human-made. In that sci-fi nursing home, a woman with Alzheimer’s undergoes “an experimental medical procedure” that restores her memories bit by bit and enables her to find her husband in another wing. In “Jaws,” a woman vacations with her parents in Orlando, Florida, where it becomes clear her mother’s experiencing advancing memory loss. The protagonist lectures her parents on the “agri-industrial complex” under the fluorescent lights of an international buffet and works on her screenplay about a future in which people have become so car dependent that their bodies have fused with their vehicles.
In other stories, humans come face to face with the natural. In “Feral,” the story in which packs of dogs roam the landscape, a woman is convinced that she can sense their approach. The narrator blends the scientific and the sensory beautifully: “Fur floated in the air above their spastic bodies, drifted into my nostrils, tickling mucous membranes. I sensed the hot blasts of their panting, the throbbing of two hundred hearts, the clatter of four thousand toenails. I felt their tongues, pimply tentacles smelling of death, sliding over the flesh of my hands.” In the final story, “The End of the World,” former band mates dream up apocalyptic scenarios on a trip to visit an old member who has become a survivalist. Not surprisingly, other stories in the collection are referenced as they discuss the apocalypse.
What is most remarkable, however, is the way that the synthetic and natural worlds blend in so many of these stories. Visitors at a luxury spa are treated with a cocktail of “controlled pathogens” that turns their flesh into an itchy, scabbing shell they can shed to uncover the youthful complexion underneath. At a trendy weight-loss retreat, visitors are separated from the evils of caffeine and processed foods and learn to forage for their breakfast. Still, even this “natural” setting isn’t without synthetic elements: “Tribal electronica pumps from hidden speakers”; an iPhone pouch hangs from a fake Neanderthal’s loincloth; participants are given caveman and cavewoman costumes encased in plastic. A robot (with x-ray vision) has been programmed to fall in love with a woman: “Various regulators jumped out of sequence as I reveled in the perfection of her organs—especially the beautiful efficiency of her heart, which throbbed at the core of her, even when she was at rest.”
The stories in The Wilds echo multiple genres, but are not constricted by them. They are, fittingly, set in the South and contain elements of the Southern gothic tradition. Also, as in the work of George Saunders, alternate realities create social satire in many of these stories. However, Elliott’s yarns are written in distinct lyrical prose, full of modern texture. They have a style all their own.
Before reading The Wilds, I recommend that you take a look at its cover, which hints at what you are about to experience. It portrays a woman with branches growing out of her head (or is it a hat?). A cat-like tail slinks out behind her (or is that, also, part of the costume?). It’s hard to tell where the woman ends and artifice (or nature?) takes over. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser