Review: “The Bride Stripped Bare” by Rachel Kendall

The Bride Stripped Bare

“I am bridled. Hog-tied. Naked. My arms jutting out at odd angles . . .” So says the narrator of “I Know You”, the opening story of the debut collection of 23 fictions from the editor of the experimental journal of “Expressionism, Surrealism, and Existentialism,” Sein und Werden. But wait. We have only reached the second page, and things are going to get a lot weirder before we return to our mundane daily routines, indelibly changed.

Ranging in length from two to eleven pages each, the stories and vignettes in this decadent and generous collection (published by Dog Horn Publishing in the UK) explore the seedier side of human nature and experience. Kendall’s characters–male or female, many of whom narrate their sordid tales from a first-person perspective–are murderers, drug addicts, thieves, sex addicts, philanderers, rapists, circus freaks. Occasionally, the reader is voyeuristically implicated in their messy happenings, as in the science-fiction-tinged “The Pleasure Principle”, which suggests that “you” were willing to pay for “Aphrodizia”, a virtual sex program that caters to those with somewhat, er, unconventional tastes. Read it, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

For the most part, however, these stories are character-driven snapshots of life as seen through scratched, mud-caked lenses. Many of the narrators seem to have a strong desire to be raped, beaten, or to be made to feel some other form of pain, usually physical. The woman narrator of “Will Travel”, for example, revels in the sensation of strange bodies rubbing up against her in a crowded train; after she is raped and beaten by a man from the metro that she recognizes by his scarred middle finger, she reveals to us (her voyeuristic audience) that she will travel in order to see him again. The former trapeze artist, now mutilated stripper, of the story “Penny Whistle”, is all too happy when an admirer who comes to see her perform every night dominates her physically, calling her “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” And the male narrator of the tale “51 Weeks”, whose name is simply related as Mike, wants nothing more than to be involved in activities that will do him real physical damage. He gets angry with his mentor, Tuvia, for instance, when the latter will only allow him to watch a live pit bull fight behind a glass pane, and again for later assigning him a “passive role” in his own kidnapping and penile piercing. (I won’t give away the understated, yet utterly shocking, ending, for to do so would be a criminal act in itself.)

Whereas the freakshow elements in stories such as “Penny Whistle” recall Katherine Dunn’s seminal Geek Love, and the sadomasochistic themes in other of Kendall’s stories echo those found in some of the transgressive writings of Elfriede Jelinek and Kôno Taeko, it may be stated more definitely that the fable-like “Eat Me, Eat Me” is an intentional homage / response to Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” (itself a revision of the “Little Red Riding Hood” fable). In Kendall’s version of the well-known fairy tale, as in Carter’s, the sexual, decidedly bestial relationship between girl and wolf is brought to the fore after granny is gobbled up. Many other creatures populate Kendall’s disturbing tales as well, such as horses, birds, and, most frequently, insects. In “Birth Control”, for example, the female narrator tells us that she ate “things with two legs, six legs, eight legs and four” (p. 78), while her husband, ironically but fittingly, is a pest control specialist. In “Fly”, the couple Raynard and Lydia find themselves among buzzing flies that have somehow made their way into their room through the plug sockets. And in “Foetus”, we encounter roaches, mites, and a plethora of glass tanks filled with insects seen in their final stages of development.

Thematically, much of the collection–approximately 1/3 by my calculation–concerns itself with pregnancy and childbirth in various manifestations. (Alas, we have found our beautiful, depraved bride!) In the aforementioned “Foetus”, as in the title story, “The Bride Stripped Bare“, the female characters give birth to bird-like creatures, while in other stories babies disappear and are apparently experimented on (“This is Not Kansas”), or are murdered by their own mothers, swayed by the influence of Mother Moon shining sinisterly through the skylight window above (“Axis”). In the vignette “The Seedy Underbelly”, a woman constructs a “gritty neonate” out of the metallic objects she has vomited up after ingesting motor oil. And in the fourth section of “Le Café Curieux”, the collection’s longest story, the pregnant character Natalie worries about slipping when she is walking down the steps because of the baby growing inside her: “Never in her life had she suffered an accident more serious than a scraped knee but now she feels like some evil entity might stick out its evil leg and send her rolling down the stairs . . .” (p. 108).

As one has perhaps already gleaned from the examples cited, these stories tend to leave one feeling unsettled, perhaps a bit nauseated, definitely overwhelmed. Kendall engages all of the senses in her work, not least of them smell, as in “Still Life”, a short fiction in which a woman tries, in vain, to recapture the decadent sense of beauty she had felt upon discovering a dead Japanese girl’s body in a park years before. Smell–or, more correctly, stench–also plays an important role in the stories “Birth Control” and “Axis”; the descriptions of body odor, of urine, and of sour breast milk in these tales are so vivid that the reader may find herself unconsciously sniffing at the air, perhaps even curling her upper lip a bit. This would seem to be the intention of these tales: to make us feel and experience what the characters are feeling and experiencing, perhaps even to re-experience some of the less pleasant memories from our own respective pasts, as Zeb does in “The Suicide Room”, and to reflect on their possible significance.

Like the films of Gaspar Noé, the images from these stories, once implanted in the mind, are quite impossible to reverse or erase. The versatile Kendall is here able, via carefully crafted language and dialogue, to make us feel at turns trapped, lonely, scared, angry, horny, disgusted. This is her gift, and it puts her in a class with writers such as Georges Bataille, William S. Burroughs, and Anaïs Nin, who were brave enough to go places that others were afraid to tread in their day. The 23 disturbing, yet often deceptively tender tales in this short but powerful collection speak to our most deeply felt desires and fears, and are well worth reading. As André Breton once said, “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.” In The Bride Stripped Bare, it always is.

The Bride Stripped Bare is available from Dog Horn Publishing, here: doghornpublishing.com.

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Marc Lowe is currently pursuing his MFA degree in fiction at Brown University. He has previously done book reviews for Mad Hatters’ Review, and his fiction has appeared in various journals, including 580 Split, Big Bridge, Caketrain, elimae, Farrago’s Wainscot, >kill author, Prick of the Spindle, Retort, The Salt River Review, Sein und Werden, and Storyglossia. Visit malo23.com for more information.