Aimee Parkison is a lovely and dreamy writer, so it is unsurprising that the stories in her latest collection, The Innocent Party, have a gauze of poetry wrapped around the frightening narratives. In fact, the first story, “Paints and Papers,” left me with something of a dream-hangover. In this sensuous and ominous tale, an addled, angel-seeing painter, having been clubbed by a youth on the beach, watches and relishes the youths’ bodies and their doom: “the children don’t know they are winos,” but “they are only as lovely as they are lost.” Under the eye of a leering, godlike painter, the denizens of the beach seem both Eloian and a poetically compressed summary of the spent youth of many a wine-soaked beach-goer. They are swimming around my head still.
Thinning and obsessed, artists in other stories here express a violent devotion to their arts. Even the young arsonist in “Shrike” is regarded by our narrator of shifting names as a creator: “I thought of him as more of an artist than an arsonist and more of a gardener, really, than a fire starter. The fire was his creation.” Appropriately, the collection ends with a theater-director whose aesthetic is informed by and devoted to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. All of these figures might cause a reader to wonder: is this Parkison’s own sense of her work?
Certainly, Parkison taunts and teases, turns surreal, turns cryptic. Her characters change their unnatural hair colors (“so marvelous false, so oddly colored”), change not only names but also their entire identities, morphing into other people. Everyone’s hands seem to tangle in everyone’s hair, even in the clay locks of a sculpture. Oh, what a tangled web we weave? At times, the stories can seem a bit overloaded in their dreamlike symbolism, such as in the dog-children of “Alison’s Idea” and the ghostly lover, who has a new name and a new character after death, in “Dummy.”
Still, I’m bowled over by the sheer beauty of Parkison’s language—she really does write terribly well—and what seem to me her sturdier plot-lines. Stories such as “Warnings” and “Call Me Linda” do more than intrigue me: they move me and satisfy my thirst for narrative. Here, I feel the characters coming to life: I hear them; I see them. Moreover, the paradox of our desire to both create and destroy feels woven into the web of the believable scenes:
“We’ll leave you alone if you just tell us why you did it.” “Did what?” he asked. “Shot the crows.” “Because I liked them,” he said.
Perhaps the description of crows at the end of “Call Me Linda” might serve as my own summation of Parkison’s stories. Our narrator imagines the young murderer of the murder of crows looking through his new rifle’s scope at the black birds on the wing:
Each creature traveling indistinguishable from the others. Nameless, homeless, myriad, free. Unprotected and unspoken for, they found a way to change us from far away, a swoop of dark wings across gray sky.
Parkison accomplishes two interesting things in this ending: we, as readers, are taken into the perception of Isaac, the boy who has destroyed what he delighted in, yet, even after the shootings, the birds still, in our imaginations, fly.
Aimee Parkison writes fiction and poetry. She has an MFA from Cornell University and is an Associate Professor of English at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches creative writing. Her first story collection, Woman with Dark Horses, won the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize. Parkison's work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Mississippi Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Quarterly West, Hayden's Ferry Review, Fiction International, and Denver Quarterly.
Cathleen Calbert is an American poet and writer, author of five poetry collections. Her writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.