Megan Milks’s collection Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014) is both innovative and uncomfortable. The stories frequently use frameworks to shape the outcomes, such as the title story in which two adolescent girls battle it out for popularity and respect in a videogame, allowing them to use weapons, found objects (like jet packs and hearts), and lose lives when they are killed. Other stories, like “Twins,” which comes in two parts (“Elizabeth’s Lament” and “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”) use popular culture that many women today will admit they were raised on: Sweet Valley Twins, The Babysitter’s Club, and My Teacher is An Alien. The collection also uses song lyrics, Ancient Greek myth, violence, a whole lot of body fluids, and plays with concepts of gender.
The use of pop culture that is familiar to me was definitely my favorite aspect of the collection. Milks uses common conventions to make a connection to readers that also gives them the opportunity to reconsider what they thought they knew. In the title story, the girls live in a videogame world. Here, Milks is rather clever; the way players process new information in videogames and learn from it to make better choices after they die in a tough level challenges the notion that we can’t go back and have the perfect witty comment or knock the mean girl on her ass. Essentially, readers can relive their own brutal adolescence with the hope that a particular moment can be redone until it’s how we want it.
A problem with relying so heavily on popular culture is that it could leave a lot of readers confused. Had I not read hundreds of Sweet Valley Twins andBabysitter’s Club books, the references would have been lost on me. Personally, I’ve never read one of the My Teacher is an Alien books, but the title of that series kind of gives it away. There was also a story that uses lyrics from a song or band that I’ve never heard of. The relationships between the girls, though, are rather intricate but seemingly simplistic. Without knowing those relationships, some of Milks’s writing loses its power and sounds mean or trite, such as why one character is so popular and another is a loser. There is no room for expansion on these claims because they are well-known facts in the world of the Wakefield twins and the babysitters.
Another problem many readers may have is with Milks’s constant use of bodies being what we normally consider gross. Only in a few stories, like “Swamp Cycle” and “Slug,” did I have a deep-seated gross feeling (one that lasted for days). I expected “The Girl with the Expectorating Orifices” to be the worst offender, but instead I saw this story as the one that made the most sense. The girl with the expectorating orifices pukes when she’s drank too much, has snot running down her face when she’s crying, she menstruates, and gets diarrhea when she’s too anxious. This all sounds pretty normal to me, but we are so uncomfortable with our bodily functions that they are removed from public view. At first, the story seems gross, but as it goes on and the narrator shows how everyone has expectorating orifices, the story becomes almost comfortable and relatable.
Other stories, like “Slug,” explore bodies in a way I didn’t understand. “Slug” is the tale of a young woman named Patty who dates men and punishes them (I think) by shoving dildos in their assholes. She wears a strap on under her skirt and seems generally unsatisfied sexually. But when a six-foot slug climbs in through her window, suctions its way down her body, and then enters her vagina and nibbles on her cervix, Patty is sold. Eventually, she turns into a slug as well and, long story short, ends up eating off the other slug’s penis. Trying to figure out the symbolism of all of this is hard work—which doesn’t mean it’s not worth the work. At first, I thought that Patty wanted a penis and then became a penis (a slug), but then she…ate a penis? Or, the story could be a metaphor for a female to male transition (I think).
So, here is where I start to feel like both an idiot and a bad person. Because Milks’s characters are pretty gender fluid (pronouns switch, names typically reserved for one gender are used for another, roles disappear), I get that she’s writing about topics that are not discussed often in public, nor are we educated about such subjects, though I truly wish we were. I read as much as I can about gender so that I am educated, but I also recognize I am an outsider who may not fully understand. Since I don’t want to assume what Patty is doing in this story and end up looking like I don’t accept and respect gender differences, “Slug” left me feeling pretty awful.
On the other hand, “Earl and Ed” was a story that used metaphor to examine “unnatural” relationships that are shunned by the majority and how violence and sadness can result, and it was done in a way that allowed me to both learn and enjoy the story. Earl is a wasp (penetrating stinger—I’m making assumptions) that is referred to in feminine pronouns. Ed is a flower (just think Frida Kahlo) referred to in masculine pronouns. Ed can create life, whereas Earl is always leaving because she needs her freedom to fly (I kept thinking “and this bird you cannot change”). The roles of the characters change from what is “expected” and kept me reading and questioning what would happen to this bee-flower relationship.
Overall, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories stretched the boundaries of my understanding and comfort. I applaud Milks for writing challenging fiction that goes against the standard of easily-digestible reads that reiterate what readers already believe. Although a tough collection, readers who want to come away from a book feeling differently will enjoy this collection.
*Review originally published at The Next Best Book Club blog
I agreed with you that the ones based on cultural references don’t work unless you are familiar with the reference. That is a flaw.
I loved the slug story. I read it as 1) punk rock with the angry girl who doesn’t like her options on a date and so is firebombing it in her mind. And then 2) also as a liberating take on the attraction-repulsion inherent in sex (also a notable feature of online porn). Like, OK, attraction-repulsion exists, let’s take it to its most extreme extreme in an unapologetic way. And then the girl does what she wants and gets off. She is not scared of a slug. She eats his penis. I loved that.
But then my review of this book on HTML Giant drew some weird comments that made me think perhaps I didn’t understand it at all…. and I ended up feeling bad about myself, too!
This book generates reader insecurity, agreed by 2 out of 2 bloggers. 🙂
Though, you know, I consider it an unpleasant feature of a lot of this new alt-culture, social justice-type culture that everyone who is not on exactly the right page with the terminology and the issues gets policed. And since these stories don’t do much to make sure you understand them….. they are kind of part of the problem…. only the exact right type of cultural-insider reader can be sure she won’t be making some vast gaffe in her reading of them.
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That’s a thorough review! I feel like you got the letter to Jessica story much better than I did!
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