Review: How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

women>>Published: October 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

I aligned myself with another researcher. We held meetings after hours and made lists and lists of questions. In partnership, we created a new study that would follow the men from their formative, pre-man years. This was to be our life’s work. My partner took charge of the Centre for Specimen Generation. It was her job to sweep the men’s holes for tissue, sample the tissue for DNA, fill our test tubes with nutritive agar. We built glass enclosures, fifteen per lab, and incubated the bodies as if they were our own babies. Sturdy volunteers pushed the tiny pre-men out from between their legs.

Predictably, we divided into factions. My research team argued for an increasingly close relationship with the men. Authenticity, we said, depends on empathy. We held a naming ceremony, carried their photos in our wallets.

Some believed the intimacy of this process compromised the study as a whole. These dissenters were removed from the project.

Are we field researchers? the outgoing Chair screamed, and she watched as the Maid Brigade cleaned out her desk—their blue uniforms, their embroidered name tags. I straightened my white coat and stood firm. The lab, I told my loyal colleagues, can be whatever you want it to be. The lab can be the field.

***

A sinister naivety drives much of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s first published collection of short fiction, How to Get Along with Women. The twelve stories contained within offer a mostly monochromatic spectrum of broken families and tepid, fucked up relationships punctuated by Mariaffi’s sparse, economical prose.

Many of the stories focus on desired relationships that, for one reason or another, can’t or shouldn’t be. “Dancing on the Tether” introduces us to Zelda, her mother Mary, and Tim, Mary’s ex who Zelda wants to fuck, because he’s a stand-up guy who doesn’t beat dogs or command more respect than he deserves. The two young friends in “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth”—a girl and a boy—engage in a game of war that affords their lesser demons opportunity to rise to the surface. “He Ate His French Fries in a Light-Hearted Way” details the unconventional friendship between Del, a thirty-plus-year-old gay man dying of AIDS, and a teenage girl half his age, who, when she departs for university to find herself, abandons the one person to ever mean a damn thing to her.

“Field Work” is far and away the most playful entry in the collection—arguably the only playful entry. The story revolves around scientists—all women—observing the men of the future, who are all quite tiny and, well, useless, having shrunken over time because they were simply no longer needed. Interestingly enough, as much as the story works to knock men down a peg or two, it also serves as a brief indictment of the ways in which women are just as susceptible as men in painting the opposite gender’s worth in broad, stereotypical strokes.

Similar to “Field Work,” “Everything Under Your Feet” showcases a more imaginative, image-focused side of Mariaffi’s writing. The story introduces us to Lydia, who upon finishing school sets out to make her mark on the world, only to settle in the very same place she runs out of gas. She begins running up the side of a nearby mountain every day, determined to do something more worthwhile with her life than becoming just another factory drone (preferring, as she repeats the same actions day in and day out, to be a drone of a different colour). Lydia is certainly the most developed and intriguing character in the collection.

Contrary to the inventiveness and intrigue of these two entries in the collection, however, the stories “Super Carnicería,” “Jim and Nadine, Nadine and Jim,” and the titular “How to Get Along with Women” feel academic and isolated. The latter in particular is a bird’s eye view of a relationship over an extended period of time, told in short vignettes. Reading the story I felt like a voyeuristic neighbour peering in the living room or bedroom window of a couple, and each time I looked in it was another day, or another season, but my connection to the people inside was fleeting and without emotional resonance.

By the end of the collection I felt unexpectedly worn out by Mariaffi’s writing. As much as “Field Work” and “Everything Under Your Feet” are the stand-out stories within this collection, the remaining entries all fell into that unfortunate grey category of “just not all that interesting.” And unfortunately, like at least three other short fiction collections I’ve read this year, How to Get Along with Women saves its weakest for last with “You Know How I Feel.” It’s difficult not to feel at least a little let down when that happens.

Unfortunately, Mariaffi’s disaffected tone overwhelmed the content of her stories for me. So many of the characters within the stories were maudlin and without purpose that it was at times frustratingly dull; it seemed to me while reading the book as if the author were disinterested in her own characters, who mostly lacked distinctive voices of their own. Part of this can be boiled down to the sparseness of Mariaffi’s language, which was often punctuated to its detriment. Another element of this, going part and parcel with the aforementioned, is the stylistic decision of not using quotation marks to denote dialogue. This is a personal thing but worth mentioning as I find when confronted with this decision I often feel as if I’m being held at an emotional distance by the author through their employment of a stylistic device that hampers comprehension and increases the prevailing monotone voice.

How to Get Along with Women has received a tremendous amount of praise since its release, even landing a coveted spot on this year’s Giller Prize longlist. Unfortunately, like Lynn Coady’s recent collection Hellgoing (which was also nominated and subsequently made the shortlist), I simply didn’t feel enough of an emotional connection to any of the characters or stories within this collection.

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