short story collections I read last month, was not at all what I expected. The cover, a white horse, got me thinking I was about to read some dreamy, fluffy stuff, so imagine my surprise when Incendiary Girls turned out to be full of ruminations on the fragility of the human body, meditations on the mysteries of the afterlife, and large helping of surreal, Cronenbergian body horror.
There are two ways to look at most of the stories in Incendiary Girls. The first is as a character study of their protagonist(s) and their responses to traumatic events in their lives. The second is as horror stories where the greatest fear of all--death, of course--is writ large. But these aren’t navel-gazing internal monologues. Scheer’s characters cut open their own bodies and the bodies of others (dead and alive alike), find body parts in their bathtubs and under their beds, watch as bodies burn--in the world of Incendiary Girls, your body provides protection in the same way that the Alamo did--it keeps you safe until it doesn’t, and then you get massacred.
Although the first couple stories are good, particularly the second, about a woman who converts to Islam as part of a bargain with God to cure her cancer, the real turning point in the book is Miss Universe, which I’d like to talk a little more about.
SPOILERS FOR MISS UNIVERSE IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH
The story begins backstage at the Miss Universe pageant, as the girls are getting ready. What seems like the setup for some psychological torment quickly gets much darker, as Miss Afghanistan says the wrong thing to her fellow contestants, inadvertently convincing them that the scar on her leg is fake. To prove it, the girls hold her down and cut it off, only to decide that the skin underneath is fake, as are her toes, her fingers, her face--you see where this is going. The story ends with Miss Afghanistan turned literally inside out in a, uh, pile on the floor, as the other contestants walk out onstage.
Obviously there’s some political commentary here, which is worth unpacking, but I’d like to focus on the way that this story encapsulates a lot of the book’s M.O. Except for one story in the middle, a foray into light comedy(!), these tales are uniformly dark and mostly don’t have happy endings. They emphasize the trauma in the lives of their characters by literally tearing them apart, or, in a couple instances, turning them into something completely different, as in Primal Son, where a comic-sounding concept--human couple gives birth to a monkey--is played so straight that it becomes disturbing.
I don’t know what my final conclusion is on Incendiary Girls. I found it challenging and difficult to read at times, and I don’t know that I’d want to read it again. It was moving and off-putting at the same time. But, as bleak as it gets, Scheer ends the book with a moment of triumph. Maybe we can’t stop the world from doing what it will to our bodies, but we don’t all have to end up like Miss Afghanistan.