A Taxonomy of Lies, by Amanda Marbais. Skagway, Alaska: Bottlecap Press. $10.00, paper.
Amanda Marbais weaves together metamorphic myth, science fiction, and current literary style to give us her debut chapbook, A Taxonomy of Lies. Transformation and omniscient narration are hallmarks of fairy tales, but Marbais uses both to successfully subvert expectations and tie together traditional fairy tale elements with modern malaise. Undercurrents of dissatisfaction and miscommunication run throughout the collection, but neither stem from the physical transformations the characters undergo; rather, the combination incites the transformations. With characters ranging from a droid porn addict turned giant squid to squabbling lovers trapped together as giraffes in a zoo, Marbais hones in on people who have become alienated from the human condition through transformations into animals, but her characters remain undeniably human in their desires and anxieties.
These transformations invite comparison of Marbais’ fiction to Kafka’s seminal story The Metamorphosis, but Marbais has pared down each of her tales to their bare bones to achieve in twenty-seven pages what Kafka did in seventy. Marbais’ characters also don’t evoke the same kind of pity as poor Gregor Samsa; instead, they are petty and belligerent, the kind of people you’d be unlikely to make friends with, but remarkably compelling. “Colossal,” the first story in the chapbook, introduces readers to Gerald, an angry fatalist who becomes a bioluminescent colossal squid. His only friend Joan, who “unfortunately resembles Minnie Driver—an actress he irrationally hates,” is determined to help him adjust to life as a colossal squid. Gerald is not resistant to squid-hood, but cannot connect to it despite Joan’s attempts to help him reorient. The element of unrequited love in Joan’s stubborn attempts to better Gerald’s quality of life paint Gerald in an unlikeable light as he continues to believe that she “has unrealistic expectations about their relationship” and that “she is not resourceful” enough to save him. His liminal state between human and squid leaves him uncertain and though he claims to accept his transition, it seems less acceptance than apathy.
The second story, “Horns,” deals with Marcia and Sue, previously mild-mannered accounting assistants who transform into a male Muntjac deer and a domestic goat, respectively. Marcia adjusts to it with surprising ease, taking a job “extracting things from holes in the back section of a power-plant,” and as such the story focuses more on Sue, who suffers for refusing to identify with her new form. Though her family develops a Morse-code like system for Sue to speak to them in hoof tapping and constantly caters to her condition, she remains forlorn and unable to cope. She cannot identify with being a goat and ignores the attempts of local goats to get her to join them, but neither her human friends nor her former boyfriend wish to keep contact or learn the complex tapping language. The distance created by the omniscient narrator allows for open interpretation of tone, but though at times the tone seems sardonic and almost cruel, “Horns” most definitely ends with a lingering sadness.
“Twining” continues the trend of metamorphosis with two anxious, miscommunicating lovers who become giraffes. Like the other stories, Jeanine and Geoffrey do not connect with their new forms; however, Jean and Geoffrey are the most dynamic characters introduced so far and the realization of the importance of their relationship seems to be the trigger for their transformations. After transforming, Geoffrey becomes an alcoholic, “[puking] contraband, fermented elderberries in the bush.” The lovers go through great lengths to continue communicating, but their inability to understand each other as giraffes mean that most of their connective efforts are in vain.
“Nest” is the weak point in the collection for me. It lacks the thematic connection to metamorphosis or the vividly created world of the proceeding story “Gate Count.” Like the other stories, it does deal with miscommunication; this time, the inciting incident is the discovery of a rat’s nest in the apartment of newlyweds, Kyle and Amy. Kyle and Amy go back and forth in a series of frustrating un-interactions that never seem to connect. The connection seems to almost come together at the end of the story with the introduction of Zelda, an occultist hired by Amy to expel the rats, who just happens to be an ex-fling of Kyle’s. This new injection of tension never comes to a head because the story ends in the same breath that it introduces Zelda, and her introduction feels more like it should be the climactic moment rather than the end which leaves the story at a dissatisfying moment.
However, Marbais ends the collection on a strong note, showcasing the minimalist prose that makes her world-building skills something to pay attention to. She doesn’t attempt to contextualize much of the strangeness of her worlds and doesn’t offer rules for her magic; instead, each story states as fact the inciting weirdness and continues on in a straightforward manner, offering only as many details—or as few—as the story needs to continue on. This is at its peak in the closing story “Gate Count,” the only first-person narration in the collection. The narrator and her boyfriend Lenny are ranchers of a sort, watching over a herd of android deer named after silent movie stars and slowly gaining sentience. There are offhand references to teenage ghosts that live on the ranch, sometimes following the lead stag George Beranger and “announcing his departure like seraphim” and other times taunting the herd. The ghosts are never explained, but throughout the story seem to serve as counterparts to the robotic deer; though the ghosts are supernatural and the deer artificial, their behaviors and struggles are often lumped together by Lenny and the narrator.
Though communicative anxiety threads every story and connects them all, the complexity and diversity of the characters creates a range of reactions during reading, and allows each tale to shine on its own merits. A Taxonomy of Lies is a fantastic addition to the world of weird fiction, and a slim enough volume to be toted in a purse or back-pocket and turned to in brief moments of free time.
December Cuccaro is an undergraduate English student at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She divides her time between reading, writing, and arguing with her husband about fantasy tropes.