The 15 stories in Maryse Meijer’s second collection, “Rag,” frequently begin with chance encounters — A high school-aged boy working at a pizza parlor has a strange series of interactions with a girl who has a miscarriage in the bathroom, a man befriends a woman he meets during jury duty for a murder case and becomes fascinated with the scars on her arms, a lifeguard saves a boy from drowning and feels an attachment to him indistinguishable from the visceral memory of the incident.
The plots of these stories stay in this space of plausible chance encounter for as long as they possibly can, teetering in the space right before decisive, concrete action. In the meantime, Meijer recounts the often subliminal reactions her main characters have on what’s unfolding in front of them, as they reckon with what they want out of the situation and what’s possible for them.
Meijer has written that “while I consume — and seek out — quite a lot of explicitly violent and sexual work, I don’t write it.” This statement might seem odd in relation to a collection where sexuality and violence proliferate fungally in nearly every story, but in truth, very little actual violence and sex happens in Meijer’s stories. She is instead interested in exploring the psychological tendencies that lead up to violence, suspending her stories in a space just adjacent of horror. Her stories tend to end right at the point where something is about to happen, leaving any conflicts unresolved, the plot abandoned at its point of maximum tension.
In the process, Meijer fuses sex and violence into an almost singular entity, and uses attraction and repulsion as a pair of emotions that fuel each other. In her story “The Brother,” a teenage boy at once desperately wants to be his stepbrother and feels a seething, jealous hatred for him. Other stories often track the progression of a dreadful longing right up to the point of unspeakable action. “Francis” sketches an uneasy juxtaposition between a protagonist’s job euthanizing dogs and his taking care of his deaf brother: “The needles rattle in my bag. One full dose and they’re done. No convulsions. No knowledge. Just the eyes turning to glass. My brother is asleep on the couch, the blanket half slipped from his hip.” It’s a situation full of the tense potential for violence, but that’s all it ever is. The story ends without anything definite happening, and we get the impression that things could just as easily slip into violence as they could dim back into nothing.
Part of what makes these stories so effective is Meijer’s striking prose style. She alternates long, tumbling sentences with short, clipped ones, like someone desperately trying to avoid thinking about what they’re recounting. It resembles a kind of oral storytelling in its simplicity, albeit maybe one performed under interrogation lights. The opener, “Her Blood,” is particularly terse, the language an integral part of the story’s sense of mounting dread:
“There’d been a trail of blood from the bathroom to the counter to the booth to the door, blood on the medics’ blue suits as they carried her out. I imagined having what she had, a place in my body that could splash an entire room with my insides and then let me walk away. I got an erection though I didn’t mean to. I pushed my hands into the front pocket of my hoodie and rubbed them against my crotch, grimacing, not feeling good at all.”
Her clipped and to-the-point sentences are bolstered by her breathtakingly precise word choice. The word “splash” in the passage above is a fulcrum around which the rest of it revolves; the word “blue” emits a garish, clinical color against the goriness of its content.
Meijer’s virtuosic use of language can work against her at times, especially when her stories are less than compelling in premise or plot. When she abandons the dread that fuels the best stories of the collection, I was left with the sense that nothing is really being communicated. The rather tedious story “The Lover,” which tracks the progression of a relationship between a young orphan girl and a pedophile, is a good example of this.
Meijer’s style is one that reads like it’s designed to disguise hidden depths, and in a story like “The Lover” in which the awfulness is on the surface, it comes across as a kind of melodrama. “It was important to the Dane that no one see her come into his house, so she came only at night, through the back door, with a key he’d given her, worn always around her neck. After he fell asleep she would go out into the garden to pull weeds or pick snails off the vegetable beds, his garden more beautiful than any place she had ever been, even in the dark.” The hyperbole of the story is certainly justified given its subject matter, but it sticks out in comparison to how meticulously restrained Meijer is elsewhere in the collection. “The Lover” is also one of the only stories in the collection where the lines of desire Meijer cultivates intersect in a meaningful way, and thus it feels like a wholly different animal than the more open-ended, bristling stories that make this collection a definite standout.