Lungs Full Of Noise – Tessa Mellas
Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps. A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex to reclaim the fragments of a dissolved marriage. Following the advice of a fashion magazine, teenaged girls binge on grapes to dye their skin purple and attract prom dates. And a college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has inadvertently seduced all the boys in their dorm with her exotic hermaphroditic anatomy.
Review: I’m pretty sure this book has one of the greatest covers ever. It’s so perfectly weird. Whoever designed it is brilliant and needs to design more books.
Lungs Full of Noise won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 2013. I loved one of the other collections that won the Iowa Award, so I decided to give this one a try. Judging by the synopsis, the stories sounded like my kind of bizarre. Now that I’ve read the book, I can confirm that it definitely is bizarre.
Many of these stories focus on characters who are trying to do what society expects from them. Competitive figure skaters make painful alterations to their bodies so they can win competitions. Little girls go to quiet camp and learn to be mute because children should be seen and not heard. Freshman girls dye their skin peacock colors in the hope that senior boys will invite them to prom. This collection makes readers question why people do the things they do. The stories take society’s norms and twist them into grotesque extremes. Even though the plots are fantastical, the characters are relatable. A lot of us have had moments where we think, What the heck am I doing? This is stupid. This book is made up of those moments.
Like most collections, I didn’t love every story. I have to admit that I skimmed a few of them because they are too abstract for my tastes. I lose patience with stories that are all pretty words and no action. Once a piece of writing gets rambley, I’m done.
Still, most of the stories are well-written and have surprising bursts of humor. These are my favorites:
In “Mariposa Girls,” figure skaters discover that some skating maneuvers are easier if they screw the skate blades directly into their feet. Soon, all the best skaters have blades on their feet. To stand out from the crowd, some of the skaters become more extreme. They shave all the hair off their bodies. Then they start skating naked. Then they start painting their bodies. When everybody is extreme, you have to be really extreme to get attention.
“Bibi from Jupiter” is about an alien who comes to Earth to study at an American university. The boys in the dorm building quickly fall in lust with her exoticness. The narrator of this story is an angry, judgmental bitch, which would usually be a turn off for me, but the story is so quirky that I was able to overlook it.
The girls in “Quiet Camp” talk too much. They wear muzzles so that they learn to keep their opinions to themselves, to not ask questions, to not complain when they’re uncomfortable. Good girls are quiet girls.
My favorite story is “Dye Job.” It reminds me of high school and the ridiculousness of teenagers. A group of freshman girls are desperate to attend prom, but they’re not allowed to go unless a junior or senior boy asks them. To get the boys’ attention, the girls try a fad diet that turns their skin purple. The boys definitely notice the purple skin, but as the girls squabble with each other over prom dates, they fail to notice that the boys have a competition of their own going on.
TL;DR: This isn’t the best collection I’ve ever read, and I skimmed some of the stories, but it did give me a lot to think about.