Book Review: The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories, Melanie Lamaga (2014)

March 24th, 2014 12:31 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Bewitching Collection of Short Stories

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review at the publisher’s invitation. Also, spoiler alert for the story-by-story summaries and trigger warning for rape and racism.)

If The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories isn’t my favorite book of 2014, it’s definitely my favorite collection of short stories. When Metaphysical Circus Press asked me to review a copy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. (Especially given the title. I’m a vegan, yo!) To say that Melanie Lamaga’s debut is a pleasant surprise is a gross understatement. The ten stories in this book are a lovely and imaginative blend of magical realism, supernatural fantasy, dystopian science fiction, and reimagined fairy tales – all with a distinctly feminist bent.

* begin spoiler alert! *

What Kind Are You? – “Names are important […] You let people call you the wrong one, you end up living somebody else’s life.” Shortly after her twenty-first birthday, Angel’s mom skips town. Runs out on her family, without explanation or warning. Shortly after that, the people closest to her start dropping dead – and Angel discovers what her mother already knew, that her name is more of a cruel irony than a term of endearment.

The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags – In which the world ends in a “tsunami of trash” (exemplified by the titular over-sized reptilian handbags all the rage) – and the mayor’s wife Winnie runs off with their maid Esmeralda, only to become a mayor’s wife once again.

Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter – Frank Happy is an artistic, sensitive young boy. He enjoys playing dress-up, writing short stories, and making music with his guitar. He was also born in 1931, to a cruel tyrant of a father. Bigoted, bloodthirsty, and abusive, Ralph slowly berates all the kindness and compassion out of his young son. He’s forced to kill animals for fun (“hunting,” the measure of masculinity) and, later, joins the Army to kill “gooks” in Vietnam. Meanwhile, his childhood sweetheart Lara goes off to college…and then returns a broken young woman. She marries Lloyd, the neighborhood bully, while Frank falls for a socialite who’s drawn to him by his war record – and later leaves him because he’s not exciting enough. Frank Happy’s existential unhappiness comes to a head when he discovers another Frank Happy – the Frank Happy he might have been. The boy – the man – who lives on the other side of the mirror.

Waking the Dreamer – In a rather epic retelling of Snow White, Lamaga traces the roots of the Brothers Grimm’s version to the present day (spoiler alert: the Grimm stories are planted by Snow White’s rapist). When a beautiful, mysterious woman is found naked and unconscious in the woods, she’s spirited away to a hospital – but not before the white dog guarding her is summarily executed for her trouble. Snow White is a blank slate onto which men project their every desire and fantasy; when they gaze upon her, they see their dream woman, no matter how disparate their visions. She is every woman to every man. And she is untouchable in her hospital/fortress/prison.

Well, almost. The narrator – a man of spectacular means – manages to bribe his way into her chamber. He promptly rapes the comatose woman, thus awakening her. But instead of a grateful, devoted damsel, Snow White transforms into an angry banshee. In her fiery rage, she burns the hospital to the ground, but leaves the narrator unharmed. In superior health, actually: he does not age and cannot die.

What follows next is a textbook example of victim blaming and rape culture. The narrator faults Snow White for “corrupting” him. In retribution – and to thwart the development of a religion based around her – he hires an army to discredit every news story and witness account of Snow White, thus reducing her to a fairy tale, a work of fiction. He also builds a fire-proof suit and vows to track her down: “I want to savor the surprise on her face when I take her home and wake her again. This time I’ll be ready.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m rooting for the vengeful goddess.

Medusa – On the danger of hidden influences.

What the Dalai Lama Said – “Even if your best friend achieves enlightenment right in the middle of corporate America and leaves you behind, you’re only screwed if you stop believing it could happen to you, too.”

The Seduction of Forgotten Things – During her dumpster diving wandering around the city, Isabelle – an acetic punk of privileged means – meets a homeless man, Alejandro, who she assumes to be a veteran. (He remembers little of his past, though the scars on his feet and shins speak volumes.) Over many Sundays, the two become friends, and then lovers. She teaches him English; he teaches her how to live freely with nature in an urban environment. Isabelle leaves home and she and Traveler (as she now calls him) set up house on a small island in the river. But when a now-pregnant Isabelle falls ill with the flu, their utopia begins to unravel. In her sickness she and Traveler return to her family’s home, where “Alex” is assimilated into the upper crust of society. But hope grows in the form of her baby, Alexandra, the only one who can help Traveler find his way back to freedom. A beautiful and bittersweet story.

Purple House – This entry from The Metaphysical Tourist’s Guide to Disputed Territories, 4th ed. promises that, in the Purple House, “you will be undone and remade.” And, you know, possibly take part in an orgy. Standard sex tourism stuff.

Black Crater, White Snow – Lamaga imagines a bleak future in which winter spans much of the calender, stretching well into June and freezing what little hope the citizens of Iowa have managed to cling to. Several months previous, thirteen-year-old Jade was sneaking a cigarette on the playground when she was knocked into a crater by an earthquake. Or perhaps it was an airstrike. No one really knows. Ever since the accident, though, Jade hasn’t spoken a word. It’s as if she left them all behind in the bowels of the earth.

But it’s not just Jade’s inexplicable silence that’s got mother Anna worried. Jade is also different, somehow. Off. She falls into trances and is easily amused by the simplest things. The adults whisper that she might have brain damage or PTSD, the poor thing. But Jade knows better. She knows a lot of things that the adults don’t. Such as where to find an endless spring.

Invisible Heist – A bank teller unwittingly (or not?) assists in a bank heist.

* end spoiler alert *

When reading anthologies for review, I have a habit of starring my favorites for future reference. It wasn’t far into The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories when I realized that I was scribbling giant, smiley-faced stars next to nearly every entry. Among my absolute favorites are “Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter,” “Waking the Dreamer,” “The Seduction of Forgotten Things,” and “Black Crater, White Snow.” “What Kind Are You?” and the titular “The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags” are excellent as well. I found the shorter stories (especially “Medusa” and “Invisible Heist”) to be a bit more abstract than their lengthier cousins, and wasn’t quite sure I grasped the meaning of each. Still, each story is downright poetical and demands repeated readings.

Lamaga’s writing is so evocative that the words practically jump off the page in order to skewer your heart. While some pieces clearly have a message, Lamaga doesn’t beat you over the head with it; rather, she allows the story to lead you where it will. And The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags and Other Stories will carry you across the multiverse. Literally.

I also appreciate the great diversity of characters: we see people of different races and ethnicities (Angel’s mother is Mexican; Traveler has “reddish-brown skin”; Esmeralda the maid-turned-mayor is Latina) and sexualities (in addition to Winnie and Esmeralda, Justine and Max of “What the Dalai Lama Said” are gay). There are also quite a few female protagonists who do their best to challenge gender roles, class expectations, our relationship to the natural world, and rampant consumerism.

Lamaga has a new fan in this reader. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Last Line: “Like an ancient god on a ship of light, the thing that awaits her rises up.”

Favorite line: “You know, I want to throw up every time I eat meat. Always have. But I eat it anyway, because that’s what people do.” (“Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter”; Yes, that’s technically three lines. So sue me!)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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