Xhenet Aliu. Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 156 pp. $18.95, paper.
The stories in Xhenet Aliu’s Domesticated Wild Things are stories filled with things that are body parts, body parts that are things. A coffee mug shatters into pieces of teeth and a mother becomes “limbs splayed over the bed like unwanted things.” Aliu’s sentences are things, too. Sometimes body parts: a sentence becomes the longing arm of a girl without a loving mother as it stretches farther, tries to reach out through the page and pull you into a sadness she cannot explicitly label as such: “I wanted to warn her away from a life that in four years would uproot her to New Haven with Stacey, working as a telephone operator by day, passing Sharpie markers and ashtrays to each other in a condo financed by the double indemnity paid out after the Metro-North commuter train kissed hard the Daytona that had somehow stalled on the tracks, Mr. Applebaum found inside still gripping the wheel.” It’s as if Aliu’s sentences want to be long enough to act as a chain, a leash, a link that holds her characters back from their unpromising futures, holds them suspended in the present, on the page, stuck in the time of narration, not swallowed into the time before or the time after.
Aliu’s characters inhabit the empty spaces in a six-pack beer carrier, the emptiness in the fridge that is the stale air around everything but a block of government cheese, the emptiness that is government cheese. She builds domestic spaces for wild things, wild spaces for domestic things. Her stories are populated with venomous snakes and orphaned kittens, lost dogs and unborn children, regrets and ambitions pinned to the wall or resting in a pile of mail by the door. Her characters are isolated, trapped by circumstance and upbringing, bad love and bad intentions. Her characters, alone, maneuvering through failed marriages, failing relationships, unwieldy children, neglectful parents, often find themselves unable to speak directly to their distress. They talk around their sadness—not to it, not about it. One character takes a class at the local community college, creates a spreadsheet of reasons to divorce her husband, posts it on the refrigerator and, mid-fight, half-angry, half-defeated, explains, “You never ask me anything, Vic, you haven’t let me talk to you in twenty years. I wanted a fight. I wanted you to see that list and stick up for yourself and tell me I’m wrong so I could prove I was right or something, goddamned anything. Then I wanted to make up and for you to ask me how I learned how to do that stuff on the computer, which three months ago I couldn’t turn on.”
Repetition keeps these characters trapped, or rather, Aliu’s brilliant use of repetition keeps them running circles around their own pain. Ramon the wrestler’s story ends: “any audience could see if they would just care to look, which they never do, they never ever do.” The story of a narrator’s friend’s failed love ends: “when I wouldn’t dare even say it aloud. Then I realized that was it. That was it exactly.” And a woman begging a stranger to end the misery of the moose he near-but-not-fatally-shot says, “Make it stop,” while the shot echoes through the night. “Make it stop,” the shooter repeats to himself.
Stuck in the repetition that prevents their endings from being a clean break, a setting free, these characters are also stuck in their minds, something Aliu deftly builds with diction crafted particularly to suit each character. In one story, a young boy defines his family tree through a series of labels intended to reflect something a little more complicated than blood relation but a little less complicated than incest: “Like, Mom is still Mom to me but not to Actual Dad, and Dad isn’t Dad to me anymore but Actual Dad, but to Mom he’s Your Other Dad and to Old Dad he’s Kevin Sr., and Grandpa isn’t Grandpa to me anymore but Old Dad since Mom married him, but Mom calls him Your New Dad and Actual Dad doesn’t call him anything at all.” In another, a YMCA camp counselor has her shoes stolen by a camper named Feather Ann, and on her hunt to retrieve the shoes, the counselor refers to the girl’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Feather Ann. The language of her narration reflects only what she knows about the world (the girl’s name) and nothing that she doesn’t (the parents’ names). Language defines these characters as much as their possessions: physical, spiritual, and otherwise. Language keeps them contained in themselves, reflects their world back to them, helps them to talk around everything they can’t quite bring themselves to say. “What I wanted to do was say many things,” Slatora reflects in the final pages of the collection’s first story, “tell a story laid out in pieces like a corpse tucked in cereal boxes if only I could get the different parts to imply one whole thing.” But often in the world of Aliu’s stories, the different parts don’t add up because they keep shifting, keep becoming and un-becoming bodies and things, keep disappearing into the void:
“And Lahli, she believes it’s her own blood she tracks in crosshatched prints across the gravel, and when she’s inside she looks over and over for the cut and even though she can’t find it, she knows it’s there somewhere.”
“The money kept running off, looked like. That’s what must’ve happened to it, it up and grew legs and ran off like their dog had…”
“The next morning the banana was gone, as if the thing had inched along as we slept and found its way from the blacktop back to the earth.”
The heart of these stories is a broken one, but one that is still beating. It’s a heart that could turn into a car engine at any moment, could combust, could walk out on its characters leaving blood but no footprints, or footprints but no blood. But it’s a beautiful heart, its hopelessness driving it ever forward, Aliu’s prose the director, or the orchestrator, the force that keeps the heart pumping, spewing its messy insides everywhere it goes.