by Hold Your Fire
Simon & Schuster
Published March 2021
Chloe Wilson is the author of two books of poetry, The Mermaid Problem and Not Fox Nor Axe. The latter was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 2015 and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award in 2016. Hold Your Fire is her first collection of short fiction, and it is an assured and original debut. Bringing together a series of flash-fictions with several longer narratives, it showcases a sharp-eyed intelligence and a finely-tuned ear for rhythm and tone.
The stories collected in Hold Your Fire cover a range of ground. Some skirt the edges of realism, others step outside of it entirely. More often, they take as their subject the absurdities and peculiarities of the domestic sphere – the moments when normality slips into something else, exposing what has been hidden or left unsaid. And while the stories are not explicitly linked or connected in any way, common themes and circumstances recur. Over the course of the collection we meet five pairs of sisters, bound together in various states of alliance or antagonism. In succession female protagonists dissect the quotidian disappointments of their romantic relationships with merciless candour. There is also a satirical and distinctly contemporary attention to the unwell body: digestive discomforts, irritable bowels, rituals of toxicity and purification.
Wilson’s style is taut and confident, her sensibility blackly comic. Her stories share a lucid, sometimes caustic quality of noticing, an attention to human foibles and hypocrisies that can, at times, have the effect of distancing the reader from their narrators (notwithstanding the consistent use of first-person). Nonetheless, the polish of her writing and the acuteness of her observational powers are such that her characters – while not necessarily sympathetic – remain compelling.
The collection opens with a piece of flash-fiction, ‘The Leopard Next Door’, in which the narrator’s next-door neighbour has bought a leopard for a pet. Soon that neighbour has fallen suspiciously silent, but the leopard continues to prowl unseen in his apartment, and the narrator begins to feel a curious kind of union with it. ‘I liked the idea of having a leopard next door – someone who stayed up nights, like me; someone else who knew they were in the wrong place but didn’t know how to get out.’
With this shortest of short stories – less than two pages in length – the tone is set: a lucid, menacing weirdness, and a feeling of having come ever-so-slightly unstuck. Flash fictions in a similarly surreal style punctuate the collection, alternating with the longer-form stories at more or less regular intervals. These brief, often startling snapshots are where Wilson most frequently departs from a (loosely) realist mode, as if to remind her reader not to make the mistake of settling in. ‘Blood Bag’ offers a glimpse of a ghoulish gardener, whose preternaturally healthy plants are fed on stolen human blood. In ‘Future Moon’, we hear an insistent, disruptive echo, the ghostly voice of a girl at the bottom of a well. ‘We reach for her and she reaches for us. But each day her grip lessens. In six hundred million years, she will have almost let us go.’
The first long story of the collection is ‘Tongue-tied’, winner of the 2019 Iowa Review Award in Fiction. Its narrator is Amy, once a talented lacrosse player diverted from her chosen path by injury, now a high school gym teacher. As an adult, she retains the uncompromising, competitive eye of an athlete – and not a little of the bitterness of one who has failed to realise her potential. The world is peopled with winners and losers: those who are purposeful and sure, and those who are ‘weird’. If anyone despises the losers more than Amy, it is her spouse Peter. The focus of the narrative is a day the couple spend house-hunting together, escorted by one Pricilla ‘Cilla’ Jones, a former student of Amy’s turned real-estate agent. Cilla is, unashamedly, one of the weird ones, and Amy recalls her position in the teenage pecking order with devastating bluntness:
No-one was openly unkind to Cilla, no-one called her names. Instead, stories circulated: she had let a tampon rot inside her and nearly died of toxic shock. She had licked a kidney that she was supposed to be dissecting. And so she seemed not only odd, but unclean, possibly contagious, and the other girls avoided her with the instinct that makes herd animals avoid any of their number too sick or small or deformed to survive. I didn’t blame them. I felt it too, the urge to take a step back from her, to try not to breathe in the air she exhaled, or touch her hand or her hair by accident.
Amy does not disguise her callousness towards the young Cilla, acknowledging that ‘what they say about gym teachers is true: we are cruel’. Yet when the trio are met with an unexpected surprise at the final open house, Peter’s disdain for Cilla is given free rein, and Amy discovers that in fact she empathises with Cilla, whose essential and unrepentant weirdness she might even envy.
Several of the relationships depicted in Hold Your Fire have subterranean currents of malevolence, even those defined by the closest of ties. In ‘Harbour’, two half-sisters share an obsession with their mutual ill-health, a kind of neurotic folie-à-deux, which leads them to seek ever more unconventional forms of treatment. Nina and Tilly are partners in their suffering until they arrive at Harbour, a luxurious-seeming tropical retreat billed as ‘A Place for Healing’. The path to wellness favoured by its founder Dr Bellavit is through a course of ‘expulsion’: ridding the body of its myriad toxins with a rigid and exacting regimen. What follows is a process of starvation in the name of purification – an approach that might well appeal to the more devoted fasting-cult acolytes of Silicon Valley.
It is not entirely clear whether one or both of the sisters in ‘Harbour’ do in fact suffer from the persistent digestive issues of which they complain. Nina (our narrator) informs us that she is the one who is truly ill and that her half-sister Tilly’s symptoms are simulated. Tilly claims the opposite. Their Aunt Caroline regards them both as malingerers: ‘“The only thing making the two of you sick,” she’d say, “is each other.”’ Separated and pitted against one another by Dr Bellavit, the sisters wrestle for control – with fatal consequences.
There are irresistible parallels here to Linda Hazzard’s so-called ‘starvation heights’ sanatorium, which operated in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in the early twentieth century, and to the story of Dora and Claire Williamson, two wealthy orphaned sisters who submitted themselves to Hazzard’s care. Claire Williamson died at the sanatorium and Hazzard was found to have forged her will. If Wilson is indeed familiar with the case, there is no question that in ‘Harbour’ she has made this real-life material her own. The unobtrusive horror of the story is beautifully handled, as is its darkly humorous depiction of the wellness industry’s more alarming manifestations.
The best of the stories in Hold Your Fire are those which combine the keenness of Wilson’s perception with a sense of narrative containment. The title story is one of these – it comes halfway through the collection, and gives the feeling of tying the whole together. It features another of Wilson’s dryly penetrating narrators, who tend to evince a weary tolerance of the deficiencies of those they love. Fiona is wife to Connor and mother to Samuel, both of whom daily disappoint her. Connor, prey to a particularly pernicious variety of irritable bowel syndrome, has become wholly preoccupied with what goes into and comes out of his body – prowling online ‘faecal forums’ searching for donors, plagued by the frequency and complexion of his excretions. ‘While waiting for his faecal transplant,’ Fiona tells us, ‘my husband wasn’t as fun as he used to be.’
Weakness is not in Fiona’s wheelhouse. She is a scientist working for a company that builds missiles, and the ethics of her job do not trouble her. She endures Connor’s scatological fixation with a cool forbearance: he is manifestly inadequate, but he’s hers. Her feelings towards her pre-school aged son are not dissimilar:
I liked Samuel best when he was asleep, though even then his drooling and the curl of his little marsupial hands irritated me. No-one told me it was possible to dislike your child. Or at least, if you did, it was supposed to happen later, when they were bratty teenagers and then ungrateful, smug adults. I didn’t like Samuel right off the bat. Don’t get me wrong – I loved him, in the sense that I had every intention of discharging my obligations towards him – but to be frank, he was annoying.
The turn comes when an incident at Samuel’s ‘ludicrously expensive’ early-learning centre – ‘like a Steiner school but without the insanity’ – casts his nature in a new light and brings his mother to his aid. She is fiercely protective, staking her ground in a hostile pursuit of Samuel’s three-year-old nemesis, driven not so much by maternal feeling but by that same hard-nosed practicality with which she approaches her work. Someone, after all, has to be able to push the button, don’t they?
‘Hold Your Fire’ demonstrates Wilson’s canny sense of the satirical possibilities of the domestic sphere at a moment when satire of the public sphere is fast becoming redundant. It is precisely this turning away from the public sphere and from the challenges of political or social engagement – in Fiona’s case, of moral responsibility for her participation in the military-industrial machine – that Wilson is satirising. Connor, a man who ‘had briefly been an anarchist’ is now a marketing consultant, and he accepts the chilling pragmatism of Fiona’s work without complaint when hears what her remuneration will be. He is focused instead, like many of the characters in Hold Your Fire, on his own body. The wellness industry, a behemoth of modern capital, is fuelled by this kind of solipsistic hypochondria. If we are fixated on the individual body in all its functions and dysfunctions, Wilson seems to suggest, then any notion of collective moral responsibility – not to mention collective action – can be eschewed.
At their coldest, Wilson’s stories ripple with malice. Moments of sympathy, in which we see the strength of human connection, are scarce; but when they do occur, they are drawn with precision and insight. In ‘Rip’, the attractions of a narcissistic and demanding diving teacher threaten to drive a wedge between two motherless sisters, the elder having raised the younger from infancy. The revelation of their loyalty is one of the collection’s most affecting interludes. Perhaps the most poignant story in the collection – and for my money the most well-crafted – is ‘The Drydown’. It focuses once again on two sisters set at odds, and once again one of these sisters refuses to let the sororal bond be severed.
The narrator of ‘The Drydown’ is Luce, a woman who has recently begun taking antidepressants on the recommendation of her boyfriend Andrew. ‘Of course I love you,’ he reassures her. ‘It’s just, all the crying. The moods. I can’t handle you when you’re like that.’ Luce sells perfume – a profession she has inherited from her late mother – and the drydown of the title refers to the base note that lingers when the top notes and the ‘heart notes’ of a perfume have disappeared. As the prescribed SNRIs do their work, the complexity of these different notes begins to elude her:
I breathe in the new scents that arrive, and the checklists that used to form in my head – rain, crushed stems, lilacs, peonies, sweet pea, jasmine – just stop, like a road at the edge of a cliff. They evade me now, those other notes; the faint, crucial ones separating one scent from another, which I used to be able to catch.
Andrew encourages her to simplify her life: to throw away her possessions and keepsakes, family heirlooms she has fought with her sister Isolde to keep. When Isolde learns that Luce has thrown away their grandmother’s wedding dress, she recovers it and sends it back, with a note that reads Va te faire foutre, or ‘go fuck yourself’. It is a curse, but also an act of love – a reminder of what ties the sisters together.
Where true bonds are present Hold Your Fire, they tend not to be found in heterosexual relationships. Moving from story to story, it is hard to overlook the accumulation of unflattering depictions of male characters – from Pete with ‘his untroubled conscience, his sense of purpose’ and his contempt for those he deems to be ‘weird’, to Andrew serving Luce his ‘special dish’ for dinner: ‘He set an LED candle in the middle of the table. My gut didn’t sink, the way it would have, once. It just rolled a little, like when you step into an elevator that travels more quickly than you were expecting.’ There is the title story’s hapless Connor, ‘spending his days in tracksuit pants – a garment that could be quickly lowered and easily laundered’, and Tate, husband to the narrator of ‘The One You’ve Been Waiting For’, an aspiring entrepreneur who makes how-to videos on cultivating the art of male ‘charisma’. He films from the waist up to hide his awkward build:
Tate never admitted this, but he hated his legs. He was built like a griffin, with a long neck and broad chest above the slight pudge of his abdomen, his top half promising a length his legs did not deliver. He was the only man I’d ever seen with cankles.
There’s a mordantly funny acuity to these descriptions, though their remorselessness can at times be wearing. Some stories in the collection are, perhaps inevitably, stronger than others, and those that are most effectively executed tend to expose the flaws of the less successful.
Wilson’s satirical vision is both original and persuasive, taking aim at a strain of neurotic egotism that feels especially timely. Her stories are not, for the most part, grounded in a strong sense of place: they might be set in any industrialised, late-capitalist society. Social bonds are displaced and atomised. While individual relationships tend to be the primary subject of her stories, these relationships are most often distinguished by their failings. Only sisters can, sometimes, be trusted. It is her focus on the body – the flawed, disorderly, ungovernable body – that resonates most powerfully. Some characters, like Peter, seek to exert control over its weaknesses, rejecting imperfection. Others, like Connor, Nina and Tilly, allow the pursuit of wellness to shape (and in Tilly’s case to end) their lives. A very few, like Cilla, are impervious: they are the ‘weird’ ones, the ones whose refusal to conform offends those who do, and threatens to bring them unstuck.