The Terror of Identity: I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg gave us an unsettling novel of existential horror and grief with 2018’s The Third Hotel. Now she’s back with an excellent, similarly unsettling short story collection, I Hold A Wolf by the Ears, that grabs readers by the hand and leads them through stories of sisterhood, abandonment, natural disaster, and the hatred and horror that lie at the center of a society that is stacked against women.

van den Berg’s last novel, The Third Hotel, could be called a sideways ghost story about processing grief. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is a collection of ghost stories of a sort, in which the ghosts are three-dimensional, flesh and blood, living women who walk through the world like everything around them is quicksand or fog. Reality doesn’t hold, every house and apartment is haunted, whether by memory, grief, or more literal ghosts. These women walk at night because they can’t be in their own minds anymore, they sneak illicit photographs of strangers because they can’t look at reality straight on, they see mirrors everywhere, but their own sense of self seems to be slipping.

van den Berg is part of what I think of as a Florida renaissance, a nebulous group of mostly queer people and women that includes Jaquira Diaz, Karen Russell, Kristen Arnett, Lauren Groff, JD Scott, and T Kira Madden—who are all wrestling with Florida as a site and an idea. What constitutes “Florida-ness.” I have a lot of feelings about Florida. I have even more feelings about the mental institutions of Florida. So the opening story in this collection, “Last Night”, put me on edge immediately, because of every topic on earth this may be closes to my heart, and I wanted it to be good. Not, good—right. And then I got to this paragraph, when our narrator asks an orderly if she can go for a walk outside the facility in celebration of her last night before going home:

When I asked the question, I was banking on one of two outcomes: an unmovable no or a trade, because this orderly had always struck me as the type. In the lull before he answered, I calculated what I was willing to offer.

A hand job, for example, I could do in my sleep.

Because we wanted that warm midnight air.

Because I felt it would be my responsibility, given that this was my last night.

I knew I was OK. And each successive story: air that shimmers with heat; asphalt that looks “lunar” under streetlights that glow in humidity; the moment when a male character thinks: “He hates this walking habit she insists on clinging to. Once, not long after they moved and he learned that she’d gone one foot to the grocery, he had to take her aside and let her know that around here only poor people walked—a crass thing to say, perhaps, but it was the truth.” (n.b.: I walked everywhere when I lived there, and it was definitely a class marker, and I can trace most of my good memories of the place to that habit); labyrinthine apartment complexes nestled between interstates; lizards that casually move into those apartments, knowing that when you measure life in dinosaur time, the humans are a temporary inconvenience.

Many of the stories dredge up the worms wiggling around under the rock of relationships between men and women, with women under near-constant threat. There is a man roving the streets of Minneapolis running up to women and slapping them before darting away. There are kidnappers waiting to throw you in the trunk of a car and speed away. Maniacs go to parks armed with guns, open fire, and are, of course, later revealed to be obsessive misogynists. There are Supreme Court Justices who don’t bear thinking about. Husbands who seem fine on the surface but who turn out to have secret partners, secret desires, agendas. Men who are faithful up to a point but will happily fuck someone who looks like their partner if their partner isn’t available.

One of the joys of the collection is the way van den Berg will pull a half-dozen disparate threads into a single story, and allow them to play off each other, without ever trying to tie them up too neatly. For instance, in “Cult of Mary” a woman and her dying mother travel to Italy—a trip the mother has been anticipating for months, and is viewing as her Last Big Adventure. Of course nothing can live up to that kind of hype, so much of the story is concerned with the melancholy growing as the daughter tries to figure out how to grieve, and the mother blows up over minor inconveniences and bitches about their tour group. That alone would make for a complex story, but van den Berg creates a second thread about the growing tension between a boorish man and the rest of the tour group as he cracks ever-lewder jokes to try to shock his fellow tourists. Then there’s the tour guide herself, who uses her position to offer progressive feminist commentary on Italy’s history, much to the annoyance of a few of the U.S.-ians who don’t understand why everything has to be political these days. This being Italy, the tour takes them to a number of religious sites, which sparks an intermittent conversation on the Cult of Mary, and how people can never get the various Marys straight. And in a perfect gag, after many pages of the tour guide talking about the erasure of women in Christian history and art, and the importance of knowing which Mary is which, a tourist awkwardly attempts to wash dirt off their feet in a fountain, and another teases them by saying, “Where’s Mary Magdalene when you need her?” But Mary Magdalene was not the Mary who washed Jesus’ feet. This is the kind of nerdy meta joke I live for.

In many of the stories the main characters have a sister who provides a certain bulwark against the men, but these are not simple tales of feminist solidarity—often it’s the sisters who are the problem, failing to offer support when it’s needed, abandoning their more vulnerable siblings at vulnerable moments. And of course in a collection where the protagonists often don’t know their own minds or desires, the lines between which sister is which often blur—a sort of dark twist on the oeuvre of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. Women have twin sisters that look nothing like them, or non-twin sisters who are nearly identical, but either way the women become mirrors to each other. The protagonists’ sisters are more successful, more loved, insist on grabbing all the bills, and you can never measure up. Or they’re missing, and it’s their absence that becomes your mirror.

In “Your Second Wife” van den Berg gives us an eerie commentary on the gig economy. A bereaved man fills out a questionnaire with details about his wife, and our narrator essentially takes the man on one last date so he can make peace with his loss. This is a ghost made flesh, a haunting made banal. A ghost taking you on a trip to the planetarium of the greenmarket, but this time you know this part of your life is ending, and you’re able to notice the details and process the importance of this ordinary moment. Like a few of the stories it veers into more uncanny territory -I won’t spoil anything, but there are three clear zigzags it makes until at one point we’re in something like a superhero story, at another a thriller, and another in a sort of Lynchian horror.

The most topical story in the collection, “Lizards”, is also one of the most obviously speculative. van den Berg uses the specfic aspect to knock us off-balance so we can look at the reality in a new way. The reality part is a couple dealing with a series of hearings for a new supreme court justice who has been accused of rape. The couple is at odds, with the wife being full of rage that she can’t direction anywhere, at anyone…except her husband. Her husband, meanwhile, is spending the hearings tallying up every moment from college that might put him in a bad light, explaining those moments away, and lashing himself to the idea “my wife is just paying too much attention to the news” like it’s a raft on a turbulent sea. But the story doesn’t just puddle around the idea that the wife is righteous and the husband is an asshole, as it could have done—at points the husband is actually fighting to be a good man, despite a society that expects almost nothing from him. (At other points he basks in the knowledge that he is better than most of the men he interacts with.) The wife is instantly relatable, but it would be easy to show us a woman watching those hearings and ask us to feel nothing but sympathy. Instead van den Berg shows us her anger, but then, especially as the speculative element unfolds, shows us how she’s willing to look away from reality rather than do the hard and frightening work of channeling her anger toward a better society.

van den Berg’s language is equal parts delightful and fucked up. She makes a cancer diagnosis somehow even more gross and invasive: “…an MRI revealed a malignant tumor burrowed deep in her spine like a fat white tick and we were lost to the equally terrible wilderness of chemotherapy and radiation and drug trials, of oceanic despair and hope as fragile as eggshell.” But many stories later, a character is shot, and the bullet is described as “a tiny egg trapped in her skull”—a grotesque inversion of potential life. As I mentioned, the protagonists of these stories often seem like ghosts in their own lives, cut off and missing some essential thing that would make them whole. When one character tries to express it—of course, she’s trying to explain it to her sister—she says:

Earlier I tried to explain to my sister how life felt like circling a giant dome, knocking and knocking on the smooth shell, searching for the door. Real life was happening in there, I was sure—if only I could find my way inside.

“Happiness is a choice,” she said, and I hated her a little for talking like that.

Natural disasters haunt the book, until it feels like the natural world is a sentient antagonist trying to prod the characters into ever more desperate reactions. The protagonist of “Volcano House” wants to see a volcano, but instead wakes up (she’s sharing a bed with her sister) to discover that an earthquake is shaking the city. The sister sleeps through it. Another woman travels to a conference in Mexico City a few months after an earthquake devastates that city, only to find her former sister-in-law, who challenges her memories of their family. In the title story, a woman worries about her (more successful, but missing) sister as fog settles over a medieval town. Soon nothing feels solid, or even real. Is the protagonist herself? Or is she her sister?

And while my skin tends to prickle when people say things like, “place is a character in this book” I’d be failing as a reviewer if I didn’t mention that Florida is a character in this book. It was fun for me as a Floridian to track the movement of heat, lizards, water, thunderstorms, and to watch as character after character settle briefly into anonymous apartment complexes and temporary jobs. Refreshing to watch as van den Berg poked at different types of tourism, looking at the ways an economy built on pleasing people you sort of hate can warp your experience of home.

One of the most resonant themes of the collection is time and its meaninglessness—or maybe it’s better to say its constructed-ness?—which is a particularly perfect thing to explore now. Time is measured out in long months in a mental ward, where you’re so far outside conventional time and its markers in the pocket universe of a locked ward, that you understand that a “month” is just an idea. There is grief time, when every second caring for a dying loved one feels like an eternity unfolding, but then suddenly the loved one is a memory and you can look at the whole arc of their life, how it fits into your own, and it might as well have been a month. that makes your loved one more of a memory than a person feels like an eternity unfolding. There is sleepless time, when days tumble forward and suddenly it’s been a week and all you remember is anger and physical pain. This is especially true in the stunning “Hill of Hell”, when van den Berg skips through forty years of a character’s life, zigging and zagging through past and present, compressing memories and showing you how the reality of time collapses in the face of loss. And reading this collection now, five months into quarantine? I think this collection will be read for years, and I certainly don’t want to tie it too much to the current moment. But the hospital in the collection’s opener feels so close now. When you stumble outside for the first time in days and feel the shock of remembering that there’s an entire world out there, and you used to consider it your own, but now “ordinary life” feels even more made up than usual. You have to re-learn how to fit into society, how to arrange your face for other people, how to keep distance when you just want to fling yourself into connection.

Van den Berg’s characters all tell their stories to you, like you’re a friend sitting with them in the bar car, landscape sliding along outside the window ignored as we lean in so no one else will hear. These stories are jagged, we open a door and we’re in them, living them; when the door clicks shuts a few pages later there is no doubt that the story is still playing out on the other side.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is available from Farrar Straus & Giroux

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