edited by L. N. Pearson and Lidia Yuknavich
(two girls Press) $10
A FUNNY THING HAPPENS when Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal gets translated into English as Flowers of Evil. The English title proposes an aesthetic based on evil, but the French title doesn't distinguish so clearly between moral and aesthetic badness. If Baudelaire is aestheticizing evil, he's also doing something more perverse: finding beauty in ugliness, awkwardness, ineptitude. So, Flowers of Badness? Or, Badly Made Flowers? (Bad translation = evil translation?)
That's one way of entering the anthology Northwest Edge: Deviant Fictions, published by Oregon's two girls Press. The title plainly refuses to distinguish between writing that deviates from formal expectations on one hand, and non-literary deviant social behaviors on the other. So as a reader you're being invited to appreciate literary deviance (challenges to normative genre, syntax, chronology, typography, etc.) as well as thematic deviance (violence, dissolute living, etc.)--as in a horror movie, where the poor production values, clunky dialogue, and wooden acting are some of the most effective tropes of horror.
Take the opening story, Allison Owens' "Waiting," where a little girl discovers a rotting corpse (which could be left over from Baudelaire's "Une Charogne"). As a writer, Owens puts herself in the position of the killer: She commits the crime and leaves evidence for someone else to find. And you--hypocrite lecteur--are left in the position of the girl for whom the crime scene is something to look at. Or take the next story, David Pinson's "The Viewing," which invites you to look at the bloody hand of a street performer who manipulates pieces of broken glass to form the image of a face. Here again, image-making is a result of violence, although in this case it requires the artist to mutilate herself rather than someone else.
So there's a certain predictability to the deviations in Northwest Edge. In Lance and Andi Olsen's "strategies in the overexposure of a well-lit space," by far the longest piece in the collection, predictability seems to be the point: A man watching television sees violent death on every channel (shootings, stabbings, accidents, etc.). The form of the story--montage--is based on channel-surfing: By rapidly changing channels, the viewer creates an unrepeatable work of video art. But the Olsens imagine the viewer as an entirely passive figure who's ultimately absorbed into the images he's seeing. For them, TV isn't an object; it's only a medium for showing images of other things. You could ask why there has to be a TV at all (since what the TV shows is indistinguishable from what the story shows).
Doug Nufer's "Restraining Order" uses the columnar layout of a newspaper page as the formal model for a similar exercise in montage. But you couldn't ask Nufer if there has to be a newspaper. Here, the newspaper isn't simply a medium for depicting carnage (although the story does have a fairly high body count); it has a sensibility of its own, which Nufer forces you to think about by reordering the columns and suggesting readings that go across columns.
One of the pleasures of reading an anthology is that some of its pieces inevitably exceed the editorial project they're supposed to exemplify. For this reason, I find myself drawn to Meagan Atiyeh's "What It Lacks," a truly radical story in which dialogue blends uneasily into narrative, and the rules can change every time the speaker changes.
Similarly, Chuck Palahniuk's excerpt from Survivor, which appears near the end of the collection, is notable for its lack of bloodletting, whether beautiful or horrible. It seems to be the task of the unnamed, ungendered, disembodied narrator to clean up the messes left in the other stories--the blood-stained wallpaper, clothing, and furniture. Typical of Palahniuk to sympathize with service rather than management. Typical, also, to aestheticize decoration: concealing the evidence.
The Palahniuk selection ends with an image of a lobster on a plate, cooked and mostly eaten, its heart inexplicably still beating. It's an apt image for an anthology that, on the whole, distrusts imagery. And it's an image from the lexicon of horror--an image of undeath. Just as improbably, the postmodern dream of style, excess, and bad behavior lives again in Northwest Edge. The characters in these stories live among the undead, compelled to reenact scenes from other stories, compelled to repeat scripts that they did not write.