[The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.]
The stories in Melanie Lamaga's dazzling debut collection investigate the pleasures and the perils of abandoning mundane life in search of beauty and meaning. Her characters may have to risk their livelihoods, minds, and even lives to get at something rich and strange, but readers need only turn pages and follow the clear, simple, yet transportingly evocative prose. Some of the stories are light and funny, like the delightfully absurd title piece, which features not only reptilian handbags but a trance like a lava lamp and a tsunami of trash, or "What the Dalai Lama Said," which begins, "Justine careened down the aisle toward my cubicle, her scuffed, blue flats sliding over the industrial carpet like water bugs on a pond." Others are harrowingly dark, like "What Kind Are You?", in which the transition that allows a young woman to escape her dreary industrial life bears a terrible price, and "Black Crater, White Snow," a post-apocalyptic blend of science fiction and fantasy with echoes of the Persephone myth. These variations in tone are a testimony to Lamaga's skill-- the language is always carefully modulated to create the desired mood-- and they make for the best kind of short-story collection, one in which an entertaining diversity of styles is unified by a consistent and powerful worldview.
Light and dark aren't the only observable variation: the stories also range from a mere two pages to a full sixty. And again, what's striking about this is not diversity but unity. The two-page "Invisible Heist," which closes out the collection, is a perfect encapsulation of its themes and its delicately magical tone, and as such an eminently satisfying note on which to end. "Medusa" and "Purple House" are short, sharp mythic fantasies about love, loss, and renewal, every bit as disturbingly resonant as the longer Sleeping Beauty retelling "Waking the Dreamer." The only thing that sets apart the two longest stories, "Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter" and "The Seduction of Forgotten Things," is that they are perhaps the collection's finest, and that they withhold this brilliance for a while, seeming more conventional and less poetic stories about flight from, respectively, midcentury suburban and contemporary upper-class banality. But each takes an unexpected turn that I would love to reveal but shouldn't, becoming gently elegiac in one case and disturbingly ambiguous in another, or perhaps in both. It takes real talent to make the desire for escape haunting and universal rather than selfish and shallow, but Lamaga is more than equal to the task.
Once in a very great while I feel myself incapable of capturing in a review what it is that makes a given book so remarkable. My usual solution is to offer a quote or two, in the hope that it will help readers figure out if they're on the right wavelength to appreciate the title as I do. Here, then, are a few passages from this hilarious, melancholy, magical, treacherous collection, one of my favorite books of 2014, by a writer who will, if there's anything vaguely like justice in the world, have a long and distinguished career. THE EVOLUTION OF REPTILIAN HANDBAGS AND OTHER STORIES is not to be missed by readers of literate, mythic, humane fantasy-- but don't just take my word for it:
"I imagined the Lynchburg landfill heaped with all those plastic pens, their luminous orange bodies forming a tower of Babel that reached into the sky. This image, which normally would have filled me with disgust, now struck me with pathos, as if I’d known each pen individually, as if each one had a soul and aspired to something higher—tiny shoots yearning toward the sun."
"I close my eyes and her voice takes me there. Souvlaki and baklava. Elliniko, bitter-sweet. White sheep, blue sky. Horses. People plowing the fields, singing. Corn ripening, gold and green. The final sheath of the harvest, reaped in silence, laid at my mother’s feet.
I open my eyes. Death flies in, kisses the walls, dives into the floor, reappears above the stove. She glows hazy orange. The sun behind the fog."
"I stood at the edge of the water, dipped my ravaged feet and watched the blood wreath my reflection in spirals—red snakes dancing around the head of a woman I’d heard of only in stories. Lies.
The last bit of stone melted to flesh. Eyes wide, I uncoiled down into her blue light, shedding this house, this worn-out skin, this apocryphal life."
If you're looking for the chance, however fleeting, to set aside your own apocryphal life, this book can be the pool into which you uncoil.