*This is a guest review by one of my most talented former students, Jennifer Vosters. Thank you to Catherine Gammon for sending me Beauty & The Beast: Stories from the 1970s for review. Gammon’s collection was self-published in 2012.
I would never have guessed the short stories in Catherine Gammon’s engaging 2012 collection, Beauty and the Beast, were “from the 1970s.” Sure, there are a few references to Vietnam, the death of Mao, and Pope John Paul I, as well as a lack of Internet or cell phones. But the prose is fresh enough to feel risky, innovative, and new. The characters might have sprung up in a “simpler time,” but that makes neither them nor the stories in which they’re planted simple.
The timeless feel of Gammon’s stories is impressive given that several were written when the author was still in graduate school. The prose is mature and deft, at times muscular, at times breezy. It is also intellectual: occasionally weighed down by its headiness, but never tedious. It takes its title from the central story in the collection, “Beauty and the Beast,” which is spun — or perhaps reclaimed — as a fable teeming with violence, manipulation, danger, and abuse, closer to gothic horror than fairy tale. Though different in style than the rest of the stories, it captures the core conflict that unifies the collection: the beauty and brutality of love.
Sexual love, familial love, confused love, fading love, unrelenting love, painful love – all of these and more lace their way through Beauty and the Beast and the flawed, fascinating characters within it. Gammon dramatizes relationships between people with a kind of careful skepticism as she highlights the collateral damage people who love can create. The distance between sex and love is wide and all but insurmountable; some characters rely on this, others deny it, both to great damage. Violence, madness, disappointment, betrayal, failure, and regret plague the quietly desperate characters within these stories. Even the calculated detachment of Gammon’s narrative voice can’t conceal the fact that these people are suffering. Even doomed.
Despite Beauty and the Beast’s dark undercurrents, the quest for the good and the right in life comes across as a worthwhile, even noble pursuit, whether or not the characters succeed. That’s where the beauty comes in: the desire for connection, for value, for truth, for peace — for life and love without pain — unites these characters with each other and with the reader.
The stories I consider highlights demonstrate Gammon’s command of both form and style, her willingness to experiment, and her ability to craft universal yet interesting dilemmas for her characters to face. One of the more disturbing stories is the first, “The Body,” in which a father looks for answers after his daughter’s senseless death abroad. “Silence” charts a daughter’s heartbreaking inner dialogue with her increasingly absent mother. “Just Another New Year,” one of the most interesting in terms of structure, is an anonymous, ambiguous, cyclical dialogue that captures the paralysis caused by the inability to communicate clearly. “The Waitress” describes a woman shaken out of contentment by the expectations of those around her . . . and a mysterious patron at her restaurant. And “The Spokesman” — one of the most unique in the collection — could have been written this year, with its chilling exploration of the twisted relationship between media, politics, and leadership.
One marker of the collection’s decades-old origins is the lack of any romantic relationships apart from heterosexual ones. We see men and women fall in and out of lust, love, and commitment in many of these stories; but we also see men and women grapple with identity, family, mystery, loss, mental illness, and combinations of all of these.
“Interesting” is the word I keep returning to, not in the vaguely condescending way in which a teacher might dismiss a student’s idea for a term paper, but with a reader’s appreciation for having her attention held — and rewarded — throughout its fifteen pieces. It’s not a hopeful or empowering collection, but the questions it poses, the ideas it puts forward, and the writing it showcases make it interesting — and by this millennial’s standards, that’s no mean feat.
*Jennifer Vosters is a writer, actor, and musician from Milwaukee. A 2016 graduate of Saint Mary’s College, she has published fiction in Slippery Elm and Bridge literary journals as well as an article in the National Catholic Reporter. She is currently reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.