The past several featured books in our Pride Month Extravaganza have been from the last few years—recent, sure, but not super-recent. However, there are also fresh new books coming out that fit our bill of “speculative and queer,” like Megan Milks’s surreal collection Kill Marguerite and other Stories. This one, I think, has a strong link to the bizarro end of queer literature—the stuff that’s not comfortable or friendly, the stuff that plays with a keen edge of what one might call meanness or provocative aggression, the unreal and the too-real.
That’s what made me want to talk about it, here: the sense that it’s got its feet firmly planted in both speculative genres and queer genres, that it’s dealing with issues of gender and sexuality through frames that far exceed the simple “coming out” story or the like. For that matter, a few of these pieces aren’t even all that concerned with exploring a purely human sexuality: a narrative about the codependent relationship between a female wasp and a male orchid, for example.
Frankly, this book is fucking weird—not that it’s an unfamiliar sort of weirdness, as Milks is often working through existing genres and tropes in her fiction, but nonetheless. These stories are frequently scatological, sometimes blisteringly sexual or violent, and to the last have a vivid sense of the strange and absurd. Several are also playing with the functions of text and narrative, adapting old forms to new purposes to reveal bizarre slippages in their content—such as the second “Twins” story, “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!,” which uses text from various kids’ series like The Babysitters Club and the Sweet Valley books in the process of creating a choose-your-own-adventure story about aliens. That is also about the twins’ imbalanced relationship. Another piece, the titular “Kill Marguerite,” is written in the style of a video game.
So, yes. Weird. Intentionally so, baitingly so—in fact, the initial reaction I had to the book was that it felt like I was reading a queer feminist revision of the Chuck Palahniuk school of literature, linked hard into the history of surreal and discomfiting fiction back to William Burroughs and then some. Milks is writing a different kind of queer fiction than most of what we’ve discussed so far, more in line with the out-there comics collected in No Straight Lines than with a down-to-earth narrative of identity and community like The Summer We Got Free. But that’s legitimate and significant, too. Milks is exploring the tropes and forbidden spaces of the short story from a queer perspective, rather than writing all-and-only queer-life-stories.
In fact, several pieces collected in the book are fairly “heterosexual” in their relationships. “Tomato Heart,” for example; also, “Floaters” and “Circe.” Of course I also want to back up and say, sort of, hence the scare quotes up there.
This is where the question of narrative perspective and queerness comes in. For example, one piece is about a girl who finds her regular relationships unsatisfying and who has sex with a giant slug and is then turned into a giant slug, who continues to have sex with the other giant slug. My partner described this particular story as “like something from the internet,” which might or might not be the most accurate way to consider its role in the world of queer stories and weird fiction. Another, “Earl and Ed,” is about a female wasp, Earl, who rejects her gender role as a hunter and becomes a pollinator entering into a monogamous relationship with a male orchid, Ed, which is variously codependent and fractious until finally they break up and Earl dies in her first winter.
These stories, though on their surface dealing with romantic or sexual pairings of male and female, are certainly mucking around with the whole concept of heterosexuality and gender—making it unreal or surreal, twisting up the idea of roles and perception. Other stories, like “Dionysus,” do so more directly by swapping the gender of a mythological figure. Throughout there is a sense that even in the least directly “LGBT” of stories Milks’ perspective is queer, and that these stories are enacting revisions to the world at large to reflect that perspective—sometimes aggressively, sometimes with more than a hint of self-mockery, but relentlessly so.
Plus, one of the other reasons that I enjoyed this book, despite my occasional “ugh” moments with certain stories (I’m actually not the biggest fan of the gross-out school of literature), is that the queer weirdness doesn’t stop there at all. It’s pervasive, and several—most, even—of the stories in the collection are, in fact, about queer people of various stripes and their experiences of the weird and uncomfortable. “Incest Dream. Or Slam poem for E” is one of these, though it does not directly gender the speaker of the dream. The story explores issues of class and race, of the judgments of family and the unintentional but brutal cruelty of a person who is “better off” to a less well-off relative. The act of sexual fucking in the dream of this story seems, also, to be a comment on the more general sociological “fucking” (to fuck up, in this sense) happening in the background narrative.
Also, several more stories employ the tool of refusing to gender their speaker or protagonist to good effect. In this context it seems to make the stories exceptionally queer, exceptionally relatable, and potentially also nonbinary or speaking to trans experiences. “The Girl with the Expectorating Orifices” has a speaker whose identity, for me, read as distinctly genderqueer or not easily decanted into a particular gender; there are little asides, like the reference to “my last cis male partner, the one who was passing as feminist” (184), that make the story read as familiar as an old glove in a few ways—though its strangeness and grossness evens that out pretty quickly.
Overall, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories is quite a ride. It left me bewildered and a touch grossed out—particular after the closing piece, which passed the end of my “nope” meter rather quickly—but also thoughtful, considering pieces like the short “My Father and I Were Bent Groundward” long after I finished them. It’s a look into the experimental end of what queer writers are doing at the moment: messing around with text, with narrative, with identity and self-referentiality and aggression, with the history of bizarro fiction and the hyperreal. Though perhaps best read in chunks and not in one sitting, I do think this is a book that’s doing interesting things with its generic experimentation, one that might appeal to the sort of reader who likes Burroughs and his ilk—but filtered through a distinctly queer-feminist lens. So, sure, it’s weird and at times offensive; it’s also fresh and likely to make you feel something in the act of reading, whether that feeling is disgust or anger or something far more complicated.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.