‘The first breakup conversation with his wife needed subtitles. Everyone has had these conversations; even a monk might have one with another monk, scrubbing potatoes or polishing Jesus’ wooden bones’
- 32%, ‘Some Weird Sin’ in ‘Planet Grim’
By Alex Behr 7.13 Books, October 2017.
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‘Planet Grim’ is one of those rare books that remind me of gritty shells on the beach. They are beautiful, unique oddities filled with tiny stones and the memory of dead things, but they are treasures and full of truth: that life keeps turning. Something lived and then that something died, something that knew a life alien to me and yet the remains of it were in my hands, between the fingernails I gnawed to the quick. There is an ‘unfiltered’ feel to Behr’s twenty-eight dark stories, an unprocessed authenticity and originality that really gives this collection its striking voice.
We open with a story called ‘White Pants’, which focuses on the Tara, a Portland girl who bleeds into her white pants during a school performance, who wonders the streets musing on others, who gets married to Ebin and experiences the 90s in a clapped out van with her artistic husband. To me this story was about perception: how we perceive our lives and how others perceive us. At the end, Ebin sells a collage of Tara and it is the piece that gets the most attention from the public. Tara herself cannot see why it sells, she perceives it as hideous.
‘Ebin had taken my rhinestone pants, the white ones, and had handstitched red velvet down the side of one leg, like a lava flow. And he covered the pants with my stories, poems and secrets...I thought it was hideous, but it sold’ (%9)
So many parts of this story express the self-reflection teenage girls and young women, and how they can so often be wanderers in their own lives. This feeling of displacement and femaleness spreads throughout this collection. Possibly my favourite story ‘Fairyland’ treats us to a few days in the life of Cookie, a sheltered repressed girl who is both fascinated and appalled by the antics of their lodger Theresa, who collects drugs from men with ducklings in their bathtubs. She wants to be free and be loved ‘purely and completely’ (25%). In ‘Teenage Riot’ we read the undated diary entries of an unnamed girl who wants to love something but can’t love herself, she doesn’t believe she can do anything because she needs ‘people to party with, a boyfriend, a new body, and a better personality’ (17%). This collection is full of broken girls and captive wildness. Much like Rebecca Gransden in Rusticles, Behr often cut the stories off at their conclusion to provide us with that feeling of incompleteness and bewilder us by the chop-change of story-to-story. These stories bleed into each other, much like a continuous soundtrack that keeps playing, a playlist of the damaged and lovelorn. A serenade to America.
This soundtrack is not restricted just to women, but men are also part of Behr’s gritty choir. In ‘The Courtship of Eddie’s Father’, a man falls in love with his son’s birth mother, in ‘The Passenger’ Jon longs for Royann and the band life of good music and in ‘My Martian’ a forcibly sexually-repressed Martian desperately needs someone to touch him and love him. Behr writes with skill from a male point of view as well as the female, though there is a sense of distance with these characters and I find there is less intensity. The lives of her male characters tend to be more structured and focused than her females, who see the world through themselves while the men see it through those they desire: the birth mother, the rockband love, the women on the street. Life would be better if they could be with them.
This collection is peppered with short fiction, small pieces of life that refuse to provide us with the whole picture. Only the moments, only the smashed out shards of a mirror. This is where the true darkness lies in Behr’s Planet Grim. It dances briefly between the longer stories, like ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Scorpion’, but fills these small corners where echoes have been stolen and stored away. ‘The Desperate Ones’ – which could be the subtitle of this collection - stands out for me as the greatest of these. It is the numbered ramblings of a drugged up character – who sounds female but we never have it confirmed – who in the last paragraph repeatedly writes ‘god damn this motherfucking shit’ over and over. For me this was incredibly powerful: a voice calling out for god to damn their life, their scrap of the world. Each character in Behr’s collection does this in some way, each is voice is unhappy and screaming out for something better. It is their voices we hear when we put the shells to our ears.
These stories won’t leave you happy, but they will leave you enlightened. They are beautiful told, the language is gripping and Behr excels at planting strong images in your head that linger there, like the grit in the shell. I implore you to read this collection, because this is one of the truest voices I have read this year.