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A Smile So Wide It Swallows: A Snapshot of Maryse Meijer’s HEARTBREAKER

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On Pharmakon’s album BESTIAL BURDEN there’s a track titled “Primitive Struggle” where the artist, Margaret Chardiet, dry heaves alongside a pounding, tribal bass for two minutes. It’s difficult to listen to, but equally difficult to ignore. The track holds an obvious presence, acting as a sort of blinder; it becomes all there is: guttural, fever hacking. Maryse Meijer’s debut short story collection HEARTBREAKER has the same effect; it’s uncomfortable, strange, but you can’t look away. Meijer takes risks with her subject matter and has the craft to back it up. Arson, rape, bestiality, paraphilic infantilism, molestation— the subjects all point to the examination of existential want, an obsession with human connection. The bizarre stories stare back at the reader, sort of taunting: You know you’re in here somewhere. And we are.

Like successful minimalist writers, Meijer knows exactly how much to give, and the direct, plain spoken sentences allow the collection’s sexual and violent backdrop to pop. An almost casual voice strings you into territory you may normally avoid. We meet a mother who searches Craigslist for a “daddy” while her husband and son are at the movies, a girl at summer camp who must hide her intimate relationship with a wild animal, a little boy who confronts a man about his possession of child pornography. Meijer has such control over these subjects. An expert of restraint, the reader cannot help but be in awe of her precision. And though the taboo litters throughout HEARTBREAKER, these stories are not going for shock value; they are the funhouse mirror that somehow show us clearer.

From the start, Meijer produces an ominousness that never lets up. Consider the opening lines of the first story “Home,” where a girl gets into the truck of an older gentleman after the two meet at a bar. Immediately, “In the truck she sits straight, her hands flat on the seat. At a stoplight, seeing that his head is turned away, she opens the door and thrusts one shoulder out into the night air before he catches her arm…I live down that street, she says. Maybe on the way back I’ll drop you there, he replies. She rubs her arm. No, she says. That’s all right.” What Meijer does so well is play with what we expect from characters. There’s a backwardness to their actions that feels so real, because maybe that’s how we really are. There are no tropes, no obvious turns or epiphanies. She does not allow the reader to anticipate anything. Characters are given exactly what they want only to realize it’s never what they wanted: “When she sees him raise his hand she thinks for a moment that she should try and stop him, but she doesn’t and he hits her hard, across her face…What do you want? he asks. Tell me I’m beautiful, she says.” What does our desperation for love do to us? Where does it drag us? Meijer’s portraits attempt to draw us into these questions.

The stories in HEARTBREAKER create a kind of vacuum for human desire: Now that what we wanted isn’t it at all, what are we supposed to do? HEARTBREAKER leads you right to that place of confusion, but doesn’t try to give resolution. Meijer isn’t writing to comfort you; she’s doing something more important: leaving you alone with yourself.

Heartbreaker: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374536060
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: FSG Originals - July 12th, 2016