In An Indoor Kind of Girl, a collection of short stories by Montreal-based writer Frankie Barnet, we encounter a pessimistic voice, a bleak vision of the future, and characters who seem to sleepwalk through their precarious situations, perfectly suited to the millennial generation’s present mood of cynicism and disillusionment. Barnet has previously published a chapbook, Something Disgusting Happening, and her short fiction and other work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Joyland and Papirmasse. Geared toward people in their 20s and younger, An Indoor Kind of Girl‘s characters are mostly young people, estranged from their parents, suspicious of authority, and stuck in precarious situations.
The collection opens with “Gay For Her,” a peculiar story about a troubled friendship that might be something more. At several points the story builds on contradictory “maybes”: “First you meet her at a potluck, that girl from the party… Or maybe you met her in eighth grade”; “She isn’t as pretty as you or maybe she is much, much prettier.” The maybes and second-person form of address make the story seem like a pattern or archetype more than a story, as if the whole text is a run-on sentence beginning with “You know that thing where…”
The two most vivid stories in the collection are “Cherry Sun” and “What I Was Looking For.” “Cherry Sun” is about a zookeeper trying to cajole a stubborn capybara (a large rodent) into getting pregnant during mating season. In an equally funny and gruesome turn, the zookeeper is forced to play matchmaker, and eventually to stifle her sense of guilt and hold the restive animal down by brute force. “What I Was Looking For” is a surreal story of a call centre employee plagued by an infestation of turtles in her apartment. She dreams of the glamour of big city life after her workplace introduces a rule that “it was integral to say that we were calling from New York City” because “no one will do business with you unless you’re American.” In reality, she drinks and gossips with her unlikeable cousin and agonizes over her recently deceased brother while projecting her family troubles onto the turtles living in a bucket under her sink.
These stories drip with drunken ambivalence, unfulfilling casual sex, and uneasy relationships with parents and other authority figures. This is the millennial experience distilled into literary form, and all but one of Barnet’s protagonists are youngish women.
The exception is in “It Is Often The Beautiful Ones You Have To Watch Out For,” the centrepiece of the collection, which follows the middle-aged male painter of a mural celebrating his town’s history. In successive revisions to the work, he struggles to come to terms with the news that one of his subjects, a celebrated local football coach, is guilty of various sexual misconducts. In the final version, he finger paints the coach naked with a “comically shrivelled” penis, prompting a cry of “what the fuck?” from the descendant of one of his other subjects.
Absurd moments like this act as hallmarks of the whole collection. In one scene in “Cherry Sun,” the zookeeper urges the distressed capybara to look on the bright side as it tries to bury its head in the ground. In another, the call centre employee tearfully flushes a dead member of her turtle family, asking, “why do you have to be like every brother I know?” The collection’s final story, “A Plot of Ocean,” ends with an extended – and quite strange – conversation between a young mother and the baby she gave up for adoption.
Barnet ends her stories abruptly, usually with some unsatisfying revelation or disintegration. The painter’s mural is dismantled and put in storage, he learns by email. The troubled friend composes and then deletes a confessional email. The baby simply says, “I have to go at some point.” The stories don’t so much conclude as collapse, their inner logic exhausted.
It’s a bleak outlook, but that’s in keeping with the spirit of the times. One of the few glimpses of hope is in the last few sentences of “What I Was Looking For,” in which the narrator reveals she is reminiscing from a distant future. Perhaps, it seems to say, the best we can hope for is that time will pass and eventually none of this will matter.
Metatron | 72 pages | $14.00 | paper| ISBN# 978-0993946493