I’ve been meaning for some time to write some posts about short stories. Not so much the idea of the short story, but reviews of individual stories themselves, considered as stand-alone works of art instead of as a part of a collection or larger body of work. With tomorrow’s tonight’s launch of Pasha Malla’s first collection, The Withdrawal Method, now seemed like the right time to start. I didn’t know which story to choose, so I emailed Malla, and he suggested “Big City Girls,” which is the piece that he says has been most on his mind since completing the book.
“Big City Girls” is the story of Alex, age seven, who stays home from school on a snow day with his fifth-grader sister and a few of her friends. They’re bored kids, and without much to do after building a snow fort, they retire to the living room to play Clue and have a conversation that eventually turns to sex. Or at least sex in the unknowing way that kids of that age talk about it—“Maybe Miss Scarlet and Professor Plum were having fun with the candlestick, said Shayna…In the Secret Passageway! screamed Heather”—which is to say with imprecision and anxiety.
In wondering about the big city, the girls imagine that a day there would include being raped by a homeless person. They decided to play a game, which involves Alex waiting in the closet to “rape” each girl in turn. But none of them really knows what rape is. They decide that it must involve a knife, but that’s the only detail they’re able to nail down. So what results is a visit from the first girl, some gyration on her and Alex’s part, and a declaration of the act’s end. But when the second girl arrives, Alex goes too far, and his nipple brushing is punished by being sent to jail. Jail, in the classic way of games one plays when seven years old, is Alex’s bedroom, where he can only sit, vomit from latent anxiety, and watch the girls play on in the snow-covered yard.
Malla’s story draws its strength from several quarters, and most obvious is the tension between the idea of rape and the ignorance—one wants to say innocence, but can’t quite—of the kids. They’re aware it is a bad thing, yet they’re drawn to it; in their still-forming minds, it isn’t yet an independent atrocity but a part of an unknown world, although one they’re starting to understand and connect to their own. When planning their game, one of the girls suggests that another, Heather, could be raped by New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight. Heather, who is in love with Jordan Knight, screams out that “[she]’d rape him.” Childhood reminders appear elsewhere, too: when Alex is banished to his room, he lays down on top of his Star Wars sheets. Malla uses this sort of cultural reference as a shorthand for the awkward moment in which these near-adolescents are caught. As readers, we recall our own ALF lunchboxes—or Get Smart ones, for that matter—and we remember what it is to be at an age where you know just enough to know more than you should, but don’t yet know what that more really means.
For me, though, the story’s real triumph is its language. Stories about kids are often told in a deliberate manner that signals that the narrator is still a child, like, say, Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness. Other books, and think here of something like Tobias Wolff’s Old School, are clearly narrated by the adult version of the child described, which is probably easier insofar as it allows nuance and texture and insight that one couldn’t reasonably expect a kid to be experiencing during the action itself. “Big City Girls” hangs somewhere in between. It’s told in the third person, and while the narrator’s diction has the bracing freshness of a twelve-year-old, there is a distance too. (A sentence that haunts me, for a reason I can’t quite pinpoint: “In the kitchen Ginny got out the peanut butter and they all went into the den licking spoons.”) Basically, Malla denies himself both of the luxuries I suggested above. Instead, he’s created a narrative that simultaneously traps us within the child’s world while allowing us the advantage of being slightly apart. It’s not a long story, but its control and elegance are astounding.
The short story is an epiphanic form, and with a subject as loaded as rape, a tidy moment of realization would be precisely how a lesser writer would wrap this story up. But Malla’s too good for that, and he ends the story on a note of ominous grace that’s true to both his characters and the slight remove at which he’s held the reader. Surveying the scene as the story opens, the narrator describes the grounds from the house outwards: “From the back door of Ginny and Alex’s house the snow stretched along the yard to the fence, across the fields, all the way to the wall of trees at the edge of the woods. Then it was the woods and the woods were black and went forever.” At the story’s end, Alex, locked in the jail of his bedroom, looks out his window: “Alex’s eyes followed the shadows of the trees, stretching now in the red cleft of sun all the way back across the field, toward the house, past the fence to the square patch that was his family’s yard.” In other words, Alex’s world has expanded over these pages, and a system or orientation that once began with the house, as most seven-year-olds’ systems would, has been inverted.
The world as Alex sees it now begins with the darkness of the woods, and even the front lawn is a stranger, first identified as a square patch instead of his own yard. There’s no crescendo here, no gotcha moment in which the protagonist realizes the error of his ways or suddenly arrives at a drastic new worldview. Instead, there’s the subtle suggestion of realignment, the foregrounding of something different and dark and unknown, a sense that this child’s world has grown a little bit more sinister. And Malla doesn’t need to outline it further, because Alex is vivid enough a creation that we can imagine him living on and having plenty of time to explore this new darkness himself.