At a time when so much contemporary short fiction is saddled with a dreadful marshmallow paunch -- it's all too soft, too forcedly quirky, too full of strained joie de vivre -- a book of supposedly tough little stories like Melanie Rae Thon's "First, Body" should come as something of a relief. But Thon's stories, well-crafted as they are, have another problem: they're all edges and sharp corners, filled with sentences like "My chest felt brittle as glass. If I touched my ribs, I thought I'd splinter in the cold" -- as if recurring metaphors of cracked bone and shattered glass were all a writer needed to make a story difficult and deep.
Thon, who recently made Granta's list of the best young American writers, is fearless about trying on different characters' voices. She writes from the point of view of a confused, compassionate African-American ex-con, a schizophrenic young crackhead living on the street, a respectable suburban wife whose comfortable home is invaded by an unseen intruder who simultaneously terrifies and fascinates her.
But all seven of the stories here strike the same chord, over and over again. All of Thon's characters are locked in parched, tortured fever dreams, burdened with memories they're doomed to carry forever: one young woman can't erase the vision of a menacing grandfather toting a shotgun; another recalls a wild, seductive teenage boy who slides his hands down her pants one minute and hisses that he'll slit her throat the next; a Vietnam vet is rattled by the memory of a young girl he couldn't save. By the time you've hit the second story, it's all rather ho-hum. And instead of coming off as spontaneous and wrenching, Thon's prose gives the impression of having been overworked, as if she'd cracked her sentences apart and painstakingly glued them into faux-impressionist mosaics: "Then I was lying on the grass with that boy. Cold stars swirled in the hole of the sky. In the weird silence, bodies mended; bodies became shape and shadow; pieces were found. Flame became pink gasoline guzzled down. Gunfire turned to curse and moan." Thon works hard to get at her characters' feelings, but ends up doing little more than spelling out their scrambled thought patterns in tracings of dust. In the end, they come off as scorched and lifeless -- a dry scattering of ash and bone, and not a drop of hot red blood in sight.