Reviewed by Daniel Perry
Auxiliary Skins. Exile Editions, 2013.
In her debut collection of 14 stories, Christine Miscione examines the skins of hypochondriacs, steroid users, lecherous stepfathers, and plenty of lovers in order to understand how otherwise ordinary people create their aberrant exteriors. She sets out the conditions for her experiments in her first story, “Skin, Just,” by showing us a heroine who worries obsessively about a new mole – a strange appearance that could be either benign or cancerous – and throughout the collection the author explores this tension between growth and decay.
From the opening paragraph of “Skin, Just,” Miscione calls the reader’s attention to surfaces and blemishes: we see “[g]um on the sidewalk,” “layers of tar covering potholes,” “knots on floorboards” and “bruises on banana skins” (9). And in subsequent stories like “His July 13th at Mega Supermarket,” we see distinct symbols during a hyper-sexualized man’s journey through a grocery store, passing from fertility – “Firm apples[,] young apples” (69), and three sixteen-year-old “tight-lipped virginesses” in the bakery section, “muffin-topped and young” (70) – to souring milk that “begs for either complete ingestion or rot” and a “titanic ass directly in front of him in [the checkout] line,” in which “celluloid bulges” and “crack along jean hem” make him think of “parasitic growths, yeast infections, the confectionary aisle, the outhouse bucket” and worse (72-73).
In addition to the supermarket, Miscione shows the reader that growth and decay can co-exist in a single person in the opening of “July 13th” by putting the firm, young apples in the “old, reptilian hands” of a “Fresh Produce Cougaress,” a “plastic bass woman,” “in golden shimmer pantsuit and stilettos” and too much make-up (69); the idiomatic usage of “cougar” highlights the incongruity between an older woman’s superficial sexual aggressiveness and her biological age. The image builds effectively on two stories that come before it: “Timorous in Love” and “Roidal Conundrum.” In “Timorous,” a young woman embraces the idea that she can be more in love with a rock star’s persona than with any other partner, and in one captivating scene, potential success and previous failure meet in her mouth while she flosses out past lovers. “Roidal” shows Joe289 posting continuously on an internet message board about a worsening infection from steroid injections that will ironically cost him the bicep he was trying to improve. And later in the collection, in “Lemon Tart,” Miscione casts desserts on a three-tier tower as the last appearance kept up in a failing love affair, a conceit that treats people’s homes and possessions as similarly duplicitous skins. The cumulative effect is a collection that obsesses – like the narrator in “Skin, Just” – about the risks and rewards of crafting one’s new exterior.
For the most part, Miscione’s stories play out in and around her Hamilton, Ontario hometown, a setting well suited to her darker dramatizations of fertility and rot. “Breached Heredity” introduces a young woman who is simultaneously pregnant with her stepfather’s baby and mourning her younger sister’s death. “Herkimer,” (named after a Hamilton street), depicts two off-setting love affairs: an older couple includes a young prostitute in their relationship while simultaneously, the couple’s son adopts and eventually kills a stray cat. “Broken Swift” shows a couple leaving their industry-ravaged city for a canoe trip in lush Cootes Paradise only to be chased down by a ranting crone in a kayak, a pursuit that suggests even perpetually renewing nature cannot outrun the long history of environmental damage in the region and charges the setting with this same tension between re- and de-generation.
Regarding Miscione’s style, it should surprise no one to learn she was mentored by Stuart Ross, as her writing is similarly vibrant if not so frequently frantic and favours the elision of subject pronouns and articles. It’s a style best suited to very short works, and unfortunately, a longer piece like “Herkimer” suffers as a result: toward its end, too many one-sentence paragraphs stutter to an unsatisfying conclusion in which the two narratives come together in the lens of a neighbour’s camera rather than through character interaction. The device feels like a shortcut when compared to the inherent two-sidedness of the other stories’ characters, events and settings.
Miscione closes the collection with the heartbreaking “So Long, Bibbly Bobbly,” in which a son casts off his youthful identity and his race through cosmetic surgery but regrets it when even his own mother doesn’t recognize him. He undergoes the operation in order to hurt her, but in the end, he is punished and left wanting nothing more than her love back. More so than in the other stories, the author lets this final note resonate, and the result of her last experiment provides the reader with conclusive proof: the skins we grow are fraught with both (re)generative and degenerative potential. Thankfully, Miscione’s book reminds us, they are auxiliary to the one with which we are all born.
At press time: Daniel Perry's fiction has been short-listed in the Vanderbilt/Exile Competition, has twice earned Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest fellowships, and has appeared in more than 20 publications including The Dalhousie Review, Exile Literary Quarterly, Maple Tree Literary Supplement and Little Fiction. He obtained an MA from the Centre for Comparative Literature (University of Toronto) in 2007, and has also reviewed books for The Antigonish Review, Broken Pencil, and his blog: http://www.danielperryfiction.blogspot.ca/.