Surrounded by Water, Stefanie Freele’s debut collection from Press 53 (2012), is a mix of short-shorts and short stories. Many of the ideas in the collection absurd and funny, like when a woman buys her friend Hugh a birthday cake complete with a woman inside who will jump out and sing—except she waits inside the cake so long she has a heat stroke and dies. In response, Hugh and his friend go “stumbling off the porch and wandering through the night singing happy birthday to Hugh, [the friend], the neighbors, the dearly departed cakechick, and anyone else [they] can think of.”
The collection is most unique at the end: Nevada (the state personified) punishes a mother who tries to abandon her daughter; an illness is made human, when a man crashes into a woman on the beach and makes her sick; two men start a laundry service that appeals to bachelors, but must guess on whose clothing is whose when they forget to inventory their clients’ items. These are each beautiful short stories, and I would love to see more like them from Freele.
Freele’s short stories (by which I mean 5+ pages) best capture the most appealing aspects of her style, including unique imagery. In “Us Hungarians,” three siblings rent a house next to a refuse dump in California, which affects the water quality and animals’ lives. When a cow has problems delivering her calf, the sister watches as “Werner Waffin [drives] a three-wheeler through the driveway toward the road, dragging the wobbling mass of cow. For a quick moment, the bloody gaping vagina [faces] her and a head, almost as large as the cow’s, [flops] out of it, dragging on the gravel, its tongue collecting pebbles.”
Some of the short-shorts that are longer (about 2 pages) masterfully tell a story, providing unique imagery, and intense emotion. In “New Skis,” poor Nick is lying broken in the snow, yet finds comfort in a rabbit: “Yesterday I bought new skis, he tells the rabbit. They were on sale, free poles…. The rabbit sniffs around another pine and hops in the opposite direction. Rabbit, you chicken-shit, get back here, I need you!”
Occasionally, her short-shorts left me without a solid opinion of the piece, or even confused. The grammar in some stories (stylistic? messy?) confused me: “When I zip zip down the tunnel of darkened trees, knowing the chateau is below, but maybe not, maybe it forgot, to stay there, because it is so dark-sinister that the lodge, at the bottom of the lift, might have left.” The commas read more like line breaks and these particular pieces like incomplete poems, which may also have been Freele’s intent.
The most effective short-short came at the end of the collection and is about, believe it or not, toast and croutons! Freele likens croutons to “a one-hit band from ’78 still wearing the same garb and playing at seedy places that attract the same 1978 groupies.” These tight, playful short-shorts that set a scene and lead the reader to add to the work, basically by leaving her a map with directions, are the real strengths of the collection, like a bridge over Freele’s troubled waters.
*Originally published in JMWW