Seek and Ye Shall Find
You Can't Read The Girl with Brown Fur Like It's a Normal Book
It is kind of a shame that Stacey Levine's stories have to be published in the form of a book. It's not that they should appear in e-books or anything so mundane as that. Rather, I wish it were somehow possible to hire elfin booksellers to sneak into your home and hide Levine's stories in odd places—inside a cereal box, tucked into a pair of swimming trunks, taped to the back of the oven—so that you could discover them at random and, perhaps, inopportune times. Levine's stories are rare and mysterious things, and confronting them in a book makes them feel less wondrous somehow.
They all begin compellingly: "Hallo. I'm a fool. I married Mike Sump." "Imagine being a bean: a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time." "Oh, to be Bill Miller, the unreachable one with the invulnerable eyes, the 35-speed bike, the sixty years more of life and a future as good as real." Some of the stories are plain as day; others are willfully obtuse, as though jealously guarding a secret. You can't just read fiction by Levine the way you'd appreciatively read a short story by, say, Alice Munro. You have to pry the words apart like a poem and trust the language to reveal something of value.
Sometimes the stories seem to be about nothing but language. "Sausage," set in a sausage factory powered by 90 upside-down bicycles, is prickly with em dashes. Every page has at least a handful of the slicing lines, and whole paragraphs end with an em dash that connects to nothing except a fresh paragraph ("All was fine, I reassured myself, combing my hair, rearranging my smock, forking, when no one was looking, steaming heaps of meat into my mouth—") like a tiny blackout and a struggle to regain consciousness.
When you buy a book, you are buying a slice of time as clearly as if you were buying a ticket for a movie. That fat genre novel will require at least a day's attention from you, spread over a few weeks. The skinny celebrity biography will pass just a few guilty weekend hours when you should be cleaning your house. Reading the stories that make up The Girl with Brown Fur in rapid succession, one after another in the order in which they're presented, is not recommended. They lose their uniqueness that way.
Which is not to say that they're random bits lashed together like a semifunctional life raft. Levine's fiction focuses and builds on the same themes that old fairy tales do, like weddings and family disputes and food and creatures that behave strangely and the wonder of flying (the collection is subtitled Tales & Stories, and the entries are not labeled as to which is which; maybe each entry is both a tale and a story?).
Some of the talestories feel as though they should have morals. "Lax Forb," about a businessman enduring a metaphysical and cor- poreal breakdown in Ohio, could either be positing Twenty Important Things About Life and Love all at once, or it could be about nothing at all but the sheer pleasure of starting with one sentence and moving forward in a confident and stylish way until you reach the only logical end. Another story, called "Parthenogenetic Grandmother," is as full of terror and wonder and confusion as an old Polish folk tale.
Reading quickly and at a staccato pace, a reader can get too swept up into pummeling the stories with his eyes, trying to discern some kind of universal truth from them. And, sadly, no matter the fee, booksellers will not come to your house and hide stories in it. So here is what you should do: Open The Girl with Brown Fur. Read one of Levine's stories. (Slowly!) When you're done, find a child, preferably one with wise eyes, and pay the child 50 cents or a dollar to hide the book somewhere in your home. When you happen across it again, read a story, track down the wise-eyed child, and repeat the process over and over again, 25 more times until there are no more new stories left to discover. And then you can start over.