There are two kinds of fantastic disruption in Julia Elliott's freshman collection of short stories, The Wilds - - in the first, the banal surfaces of everyday life swell and metastasize into strange encounters with the miraculous and possibly terrible; in the second, Elliott pushes and prods a weird but none-too-alien premise to its absurd and often hilarious conclusion. Stories like "Limbs," "Regeneration at Mukti," "The Caveman Diet," and "Love Machine" belong to the latter category. These tales float somewhere between social satire and comedy - - and remind me a lot of George Saunders' early fabulations or more evolved Donald Barthelme confections. To be honest, while entertaining, these are less successful stories.
The first category, the eruption of weirdness from within the grain of contemporary American life, is where Elliott really shines. These stories - -like "Rapture," "Feral, " the curiously truncated "Organisms," and the collection's title story - - work because Elliott communicates her sur-reailties in a voice that brings the grotesque poetics of Southern Gothic into contact with a world - - of Facebook, Garfield, and Hobby Lobby franchises - - dedicated to erasing mystery and danger. Wild dogs swarm suburbia in "Feral" and draw the story's narrator into stranger realms of freedom. A mutated bacillus in "Organisms" makes teenage alienation into a real and mysterious epidemic. In "Rapture," a levitating, grotesque, old-timey Baptist grandmother upends an innocent slumber party and offers the narrator a seductive glimpse into worlds beyond the bourgeois comforts of the Dixie City Fashion Mall and Neil Diamond "double shots" on AM radio. "Rapture" is one of the most charming tales in the collection. The other is the title story, "The Wilds," where first love blossoms amidst garden parties, adolescent pustules, and incipient lycanthropy.
Elliott's is just the kind imagination that's missing in so much American fiction today - - odd, rich, compelling, fiercely individual and beautiful.
Word on the street is that Elliott is preparing her first novel - - and I'm hoping she sticks to the twisted, overgrown, diabolically delicious and dangerously dappled path of stories like "Rapture" and "The Wilds."