#361 Irony, beauty, and neon
First published Sept. 1, 2018.
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
by Dina Del Bucchia
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017
$17.95 / 9781551527017
Reviewed by Claire Mulligan
Claire Mulligan praises the complex, compelling, and masterful short stories in Dina Del Bucchia’s Don’t Tell Me What to Do. Mulligan also commends Del Bucchia’s use of irony. “It is not just the opposite of wrinkly; it is a balancing act, and it is on high-wire display.” — Ed.
In the fifteen wry and fiercely beautifully stories in Dina Del Bucchia’s collection, ordinary women hammer against the plastic ceiling of their ordinary lives. They chafe and subvert. They channel their resentment in peculiar and often destructive ways because they are bigger than, say, office politics in “A Beautiful Feeling,” or a front yard in “Keeping Things Alive is Too Much Work,” or a small-town beauty pageant in “Miss Supreme.”
And as in all great fiction, there is an ongoing dialogue between the reader and the page. These characters are like exasperating friends. You want to give them advice, knock it into them. Sometimes you question why you’re friends at all, given that many of the characters are not that likeable. But then liking is easy; it is the simplest of emotions. Great fiction raises difficult questions, creates hybrid emotions, and makes you unsure of where you stand. And this is truly some great fiction. The language is wry, precise, and fierce. It has a unique tone. A stamp. And irony, which is not just the opposite of wrinkly; it is a balancing act, and it is on high-wire display.
These women and situations ring familiar, and then hit you with subversive notes. Another writer would have her female character striving to create a beautiful green space in a concrete jungle, nurturing greenery as, you know, women do, but in the opening story Val — whose grown son sends her gardening magazines and whose long-divorced husband was outsmarted by the lawn voles — has different ideas. It hardly helps that the woman from the Neighbourhood Enhancement Committee hounds her for her sorry yard. Lawns were originally for rich people, Val recalls. “They didn’t have a patch of green to try not to kill. They had servants to fluff up their shrubs.” And so, after she fed that clover “perfectly good sugar and perfectly good poison,” she wages a one-woman war against the hypocrisy of lawn care, a war that has deeper, more personal roots.
The same subversion is at work in the titular story “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” It is told in the first person by one Alex, who has fallen in with longtime buddies, Robert and Gus. When she states of her lover Robert: “He knows I hate that more than anything. Being treated like a child, being told what I should do,” you sympathize; but then again, Alex, if you don’t want to be treated like a child, don’t be with men old enough to be your dad. Hell, Robert didn’t really tell her anything, just that they should go home. But, hey, this is her young determined voice. They’re older men. She must be a victim, a pawn. Let’s just say those black and white boundaries are blurred by booze, entitlement, and the unresolved past.
And “Miss Supreme.” Oh, I loved Miss Supreme, a.k.a. Sashay, the five-year-old, small-town beauty queen whose desperate-for-perfection mother Linda is bizarre at best, exploitive at worst, using vacation money to buy “a set of perfect teeth to fit over missing baby teeth and new grown-up ones,” and creating a monstrous wig from dollar-store hair pieces. But little Miss Supreme can stir things up in her own unique way. You go girl, go far away from all that glitter and bullshit.
In “That Beautiful Feeling,” one of the collection’s most hilarious and heartbreaking stories, Pamela’s over-gifting leads to escalating consequences involving bunnies and balloons, all in a desperate attempt to make her dull office a better place, and to be liked, because, let’s face it, she is not that likeable. You sympathize with her cohorts. They’re just plugging away at their ordinary lives, and here comes Pamela with the grand gesture, a thoughtfulness that is impossible to reciprocate. Like Linda in “Miss Supreme,” she risks debt and ruination in the drive for perfection. I belong in a bigger story, she might be saying. But here I am, and I will make your lives hell.
In “Nest,” a pet-home architect gets a commission from a strange, wealthy woman to make a nest for a wild bird. Meanwhile, the architect’s wife desperately wants a baby of their own. As the architect becomes obsessed with creating something truly extraordinary, she becomes less and less interested in filling her own ordinary nest. And then “In Cold Cuts” a young woman, Nat, crashes funeral services, loading up ziplocks with deli meats while the mourners mourn. She drags her boyfriend along, reasoning that “he was made for funerals, so quiet, solemn, respectful. A real suckhole.” Can we root for her? Should we? She may have her existential reasons, but even when faced with a dire situation she cannot entirely shake her self-involvement.
On we go. Bingo-loving sisters Shirley and Mary Beth’s admirable friendship after all the years of child raising and marriage suggest that bonds forged in resentment and betrayal are just as powerful at those forged in love. But then there’s the title “Under the I” referring to the women under the neon sign for the bingo hall, “who hold their Craven A’s like daggers,” but to selfishness as well. Is selfishness then to be praised? Or derided?
And what happens when you get everything you wanted? That question is raised in the final story, “The Gospel of Kittany,” when beautiful young Kittany becomes an internet sensation through The Light, a sinister devotional cult dedicated to beauty and superficiality in which the exploited Kittany exploits herself, then exploits her followers in turn. As in other stories in this collection, exploitation is a circle, not a one-way street. Certainly, however, Kittany achieves what the other characters in this collection do not — an extraordinary life; but the plastic ceiling is still there, just more polished to reflect Kittany’s banality, a banality that is oddly heart-breaking.
So, no, Kittany in not likeable. Many of the characters as noted, are not, but I read them with joy nonetheless. Because I, too, resent the constant upkeep of my crappy yard. And I know my fraught relationship with my sisters will outlast anything. And I want my gifts to be appreciated. And I really, really, don’t like people telling me what to do, and never did. But I do love Dina del Bucchia’s complex, compelling, and masterful stories.
Claire Mulligan is a freelance editor, writing mentor, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher at the University of Victoria and Camosun College. She is the author of The Reckoning of Boston Jim (Brindle and Glass, 2007; Giller Prize & Ethel Wilson award nominee) and The Dark (Doubleday Canada, 2013; Canadian Authors award nominee and The Globe and Mail Top Five Summer Books, 2013). Her multiple award-winning short fiction has appeared in Writers Magazine, The Hourglass, The Tulane Review, Grain, and the Antigonish Review, amongst others. See www. luminousedits.org for more information, or contact Claire Mulligan at email@example.com. Claire now lives in lovely Victoria, B.C.
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