Review of Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas

Tessa Mellas. Lungs Full of Noise. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2013. 133 pp. $17.00, paper.

The twelve stories that make up Tessa Mellas’ debut collection, Lungs Full of Noise, are absorbing, haunting, and unforgettable. The collection, which won The Iowa Short Fiction Award, is darkly fantastical and delightfully strange, calling to mind the works of Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Kevin Wilson. The stories feature a leaf-covered baby with vines sprouting from his body, figure skaters who affix ice skate blades directly to their feet, a green-tinted college roommate from one of Jupiter’s moons, three young girls stranded in an attic by rising sea levels, and teenage girls who eat nothing but grapes so they can dye their skin lavender to attract prom dates. Mellas’ prose is lovely, precise, and surprising; she takes no shortcuts and doesn’t rely on familiar tropes or clichés. Each sentence, and each story, is original and unexpected.

Although there is a lightness in the lyrical language and playful humor that runs throughout this collection, these stories have heft. They are concerned with issues of self-doubt and insecurity, ambition, jealousy, fear, loss, powerlessness, control, grief, and unfulfilled longing. Themes of troubled motherhood and the confinements of femininity appear again and again. Several stories address the deteriorating environment and the impending apocalypse. The stories also show a preoccupation with the body, examining the ways in which people try to manipulate their bodies, the ways in which our bodies betray us, and the body’s mysterious hungers.

The characters that inhabit this collection are often overwhelmed and outmatched by their desires, and the stories explore the ways in which their misguided attempts at fulfilling these desires go awry. In “So Many Wings,” a woman named Bea discovers that her ex-husband died in a car accident and steals his severed arm from the morgue as she is identifying his body. When she unwraps the arm back in her apartment, “it makes her body feel buoyant,” and she falls asleep with the arm tucked into the sheets of her bed. In “The White Wings of Moths,” a mother longing to make things right with her estranged daughter fills her home with thousands of caterpillars until the house becomes overrun with moths. The moths “coat the walls… Around the chimney, they huddle en masse. They smooth the chimney’s edges out. They bulge, a tumorous growth, a snowy beast… [Bea] unearths a cocoon. A cocoon the size of a daughter.” In “So Much Rain,” three sisters living in the top floor of an abandoned house during an apocalyptic flood struggle against their inevitable end, eating Polaroid squares and wallpaper and crayons, calling each other names and playing nonsensical games. Unable to understand, accept, or change their circumstances, Mellas’ characters follow their own flawed and desperate logic.

For me, the standout story was “Bibi from Jupiter,” in which the narrator moves into her college dorm to find that her roommate hails from one of Jupiter’s moons. “When I marked on my roommate survey sheet that I’d be interested in living with an international student,” the story opens, “I was thinking she’d take me to Switzerland for Christmas break or to Puerto Rico for a month in the summer. I wasn’t thinking about a romp around the red eye of Jupiter, which is exactly what I’d have gotten had I followed my roommate home.” The narrator’s sarcasm and sharp wit are flimsy covers for her insecurities and hurt, and the reader learns about Bibi through jealous and guarded descriptions. “She’s not an all-out green,” the narrator explains. “Tinted rather, like she got a sunless tanner that didn’t work out. Her ears are inset like a whale’s, and she doesn’t have eyelids.” But Bibi is smart and popular, especially with the boys living on their hall, and the two girls’ relationship becomes complicated and fraught. The narrative deftly delves into the unexpected, but the outcome still seems inevitable and fitting.

Another favorite, “Quiet Camp,” about a camp for girls who talk incessantly, is breathtakingly lyrical and immensely moving. It begins, “We arrive on a westerly wind, our lungs inflated with speech. Our mothers said this would happen if we didn’t learn to quiet our tongues. Our tongues couldn’t be stopped, so up we went. Up and up. Until we knocked the chandeliers with our heads.” The story, told from the collective perspective of these chatterbox girls, follows the girls’ attempts to quell their natural proclivity for constant speech, and the harsh punishments they receive when they fail to do so. The descriptions of their time at the camp are evocative and lovely: “A rowdy tribe, we walk through the woods…The sound of our speech swarms like the hiss of cicadas thrashing out of their husks. Syllables tap off our teeth. Our dimples crease and uncrease in a Morse Code frenzy.” Told with the peculiar mix of grotesque hyperbole and dark beauty characteristic of fairy tales, this story left me unnerved but enchanted.

These stories are unsettling. They work themselves into your mind and climb under your skin, and they linger. Mellas’ characters are eccentric but wholly convincing, and it’s difficult not to feel the full and devastating weight of their vulnerabilities, wounds, and desires. These stories relentlessly examine the weakness of the body and the desolation of a future where the world’s resources have dried up. They lead the reader far into the realm of the impossible and the strange to expose the familiar in a new and harsh light. But buoyed by the beauty of the language and the wonder of these unexpected narratives, this collection is captivating. This is an important, intelligent, and mesmerizing book, one that establishes Mellas as an original and unflinching writer.

Rebecca Turkewitz is an MFA candidate in fiction at The Ohio State University and the managing editor for The Journal. Her humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker.