Tessa Mellas takes us, the uninitiated readers, by the hand and adroitly through the looking glass in her award-winning collection Lungs Full of Noise. And while each story has an underlying potential for a normal plot and characters, it turns out they deal in a madness that resides immediately below the thin veneer of our lives as though it can’t be helped.
Some of these exceptional and engrossing stories portray widespread, cultural neuroses, like Mariposa Girls, which deals with the tortures young girls willingly undergo to look and perform to standards they have no say in setting. And which high school grad cannot say she has encountered a new college roommate so foreign that she must come from one of Jupiter’s moons? Or been pushed into sexual activity by intense peer pressure, like the smart girl in Dye Job? These three stories, respectively shocking, amusing, and disturbing, at least show emotions we can recognize, and social trends all too prevalent.
Then there are the stories of highly personal madness, like The White Wings of Moths and So Many Wings. The women in these stories pursue astonishing courses – projects so bizarre that they barely make sense even to their own addled selves. These two pieces, told in plain and highly effective language, serve to establish the outer boundary of mental instability in these outré stories. And as such, serve to expand readers’ consciousness and establish new perceptive territory, and I can think of no higher calling in quality fiction.
I want to end on a piece still further from our narrative norms. Landscapes in White consists of five prose poems with apocalyptic tone and content – they deal with birds dying in flutterings of feathers (with the horrific image of dead chickadees with their “claws branching up without leaves”); windblown pages of phone directories, and receipts, and newsprint – “Fall’s foliage stamped with Garamond font.”; acid rain: “Raindrops gorged on nitric acid streak the sable skin of night.”; in stanza 4 the apocalypse seems like it might be over: “When the rain stops, the world is missing its flesh. We walk on its bones …” We finish with an arresting note of festivity-amid-the-apocalypse, where a woman’s sparkler, which she waves around “like you’re conducting the disaster,” ignites without a match. This piece contains the clearest statement of Ms. Mellas’s dark worldview that runs like a bass theme through this collection. It’s a stark, plain-as-day recounting of the logical end of so much reckless will and power.
Lungs Full of Noise contains a few distinct species of short story, and you never know which you’re getting from one to the next. However, each displays Tessa Mellas’s amazing inventiveness, her dark view, and her exceptional flair for the English language. This is truly a brave – and extremely deserving - pick for the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and I congratulate the board on its pick.