'The Doll’s Alphabet' is grotesque in the best possible way

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 12:04am
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“The Doll’s Alphabet”

Camila Grudova

Coffee House Press

October 17, 2017

Camilla Grudova’s “The Doll’s Alphabet” is a deeply weird and completely brilliant book. You find its images replaying in your head on an endless loop long after turning the final page, and for good reason: It’s kind of terrifying. Women unstitch their own skin clean off their bones, they turn into werewolves and eat their own children, and they give birth to alien tubers (eyeless and mouthless, but nonetheless alive and squirming). There’s a sewing machine powered by the blood of the young seamstresses using it — and a grotesque half spider/half man obsessed with keeping the machine alive at any cost.

The stories rarely follow a clear narrative path, but they make an awful visceral sense, pulsing with the internal logic of a nightmare. They’re distinct, but the stories share a world filled with rot, decay, rusty machines and bloody open wounds. Grudova’s characters are rarely heroes; they form dark fixations and obsessions that tear their lives apart. Sometimes they’re literal monsters, sometimes they’re just people in a bad situation — but they always feel real, lived-in. The characters are often just barely scraping by, living on carefully rationed food in tins and selling their very bodies to survive. There’s a vague dystopian atmosphere permeating the whole collection, but we never find out exactly what happened. In fact, a lot of the book’s world is sketched out through carefully-chosen but sparse details, where we’re left to fill in the rest ourselves. But this is intentional, a classic horror technique: There’s nothing scarier than the unspoken.

Grudova’s writing has a rhythm to it, a perfectly even rise and fall that is equal parts graceful and hair-raisingly creepy. The first story in the book opens with a casual narration: “One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out.” As you keep reading, you find yourself simultaneously mesmerized by the cadence and meter of the writing, and completely repulsed by the contents.

But Grudova is too smart to disgust her readers without a purpose. Every harrowing description, every piece of brutal body horror has a clear focus. At its core, this is a book about the danger and existential panic contained within women’s bodies. It’s a vivid externalization of female pain and anger.  

In “The Mouse Queen,” our protagonist starts transforming into a werewolf after her husband leaves her alone to raise their twin baby boys. She goes out every night, eating women and children and all the other vulnerable people she can find. There’s “The Sad Tale of the Sconce,” which starts with a wooden mermaid who has been carved into the masthead of a ship, until the sailors, “... ate her lips, her hair, her shoulders, and, using a knife, gave her the anatomy a mermaid does not have.”

Or there’s “Unstitched,” the short tale that opens the collection, about women learning to tear their skin off to reveal a secret, more truthful self within. “Men were divided,” she writes, “between those who ‘always knew there was something deceitful about women’ ... and those who lamented ‘the loss of the female form.’” Grudova is angry, with the kind of anger that’s never quite made explicit. It boils under the surface of everything she writes. “The Doll’s Alphabet” is a tribute to the fact that women are brutally hurt all the time — and too often, nobody cares.

It’s a testament to Grudova’s skill that it never feels heavy-handed, it only ever feels true. And that’s really what makes “The Doll’s Alphabet” induce goosebumps: it’s giving voice and form to a barely-contained rage, and a very real violence.

“Do not come here by yourself again,” a man tells a young girl in “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead.” “Remember you are a vulnerable person.”

It’s a familiar warning.