Rae Bryant's The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals
If I were to classify Rae Bryant’s The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals as an B-movie horror creature, I would call her a re-imagined Bride of Frankenstein. Bryant’s wonderful and monstrous text invites and evokes dismemberment. The collection is hybrid in form: Bryant has cobbled together flash fiction (some pieces are as short as a single sentence), image-text work, and a few longer stories in order to make her creation. And while the pieces stick together (glued by string and tendons) in her book, Bryant invites her readers to separate them. This isn’t the kind of collection that seems to merge together in my after-reading memory. Each piece is memorable on its own right, and while it’s a pleasure to read them together, I enjoyed being able to pull them apart and consider each on their own merits. To continue with my lady monster analogy, I left the book with a jumble of story-parts at my feet, a heap of refuse and internal organs.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t read Imaginary Morals straight through from start to finish. In fact, I devoured it. Eating is not such a bad metaphor in this case— Bryant’s language is meant to be chewed on and turned over on the tongue. Her sentences are elegant mouthfuls that mingle lyrical passages with moments of stark, plain prose.
Consider this sentence from “Emperatriz de la Orilla del Río or Empress of the Riverbank,” where the Empress “lies on cerulean silk, arms and legs undulating in fleshy waves over bedcovers as if pushing and pulling deep-earth water, a silk and mequite cenote beneath gauze canopy.” It’s easy to get lost in that melodic rhythm, those moments of sexuality that embrace the weight and sweat of the flesh. But Bryant doesn’t traffic in sanitized and safe bodies. Later on, in “City in Spires,” she tells us a pond “is still and clear and void of the duck shit and muck that rimmed its banks years ago.” Bryant conjoins shit and silk to express the most beautiful filth. Although the book is short (172 pages), the language is best read at a slow pace. If you don’t have a day to devote to it, then I recommend reading a few pieces at a time to fully enjoy them.
Most of the pieces are dominated by women, who are split and stitched together as well. Sometimes literally— in “City of Spires,” a young woman’s lips are sewn shut as punishment and to prevent her from using her abilities. In “Intolerable Impositions,” one of the most memorable pieces, a lover gnaws through her left arm in order to escape. Bryant’s characters may remove their limbs and organs easily, but they still bleed. These are no bloodless Lady Frankensteins, but women who have to eat and drink, sleep and screw.
In many of these stories, violence and sex are intertwined. Byrant thankfully doesn’t resort to second-wave feminist narratives, but enters a new realm of relationships. Her characters are not victims of patriarchy or unequal sexual dynamics, but active participants in their own desire. Bryant’s stories give me the grotesque hilarity of sex. Sometimes she is painfully funny, and sometimes she reaches straight into my most bloody fears and fantasies. And most of the time, Bryant skillfully combines dualities— laughter and fear, pleasure and pain.
Bryant’s reality blends the grotesque with the magical. Her stories can be set at a beachside resort or an alternate world, and it’s a credit to her that there is no dissonance between the two. In “Collecting Calliope,” a brothel is furnished with life-size dolls for the enjoyment of patrons. One in particular can be taken to pieces and then put back together again. Bryant doesn’t bother establishing a baseline of reality, but enjoys creating her own mythology. Her world is the darkly dangerous one of Grimm’s fairy tales and Greek myths. You may have to take off your own arm in order to leave the bed, but that’s the only way to get out the door.
Some moments in the collection are quieter than others, but all are a pleasure to read. In many ways, the shortest and quietest narratives are the most memorable thanks to Bryant’s incisive prose. “Featherbedding,” a story of sex and time, was one of my favorites. Bryant leaves us with a final image of green-jellied corn muffins, stale and covered in feathers, resting next to a pair of lovers. Time is beautifully condensed and stretched in these pieces, which creates a dreamlike, otherworldly feeling. It's a pleasure to leave my reality for a time and enter Rae Bryant's.
Bryant invites her readers to reach into her collection and fish out a doll’s elbow, a child’s mouth, a woman’s breast. She teaches us to hold the pieces of these men and women in our hands without needing to assemble them again.