My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine

You ever look back on your life and think about how easily influenced you were? The time that sticks out to me happened during both my masters degrees. For four years, in two different states, and two different graduate school programs, I was convinced of the genius of authors who challenged conventional storytelling. Instead of making it relatable, they made it avant garde. Instead of readable, it was an idea masticated. After I graduated and spent years reassembling myself into myself, I realized my heart longed for plot, emotion, character. Neither of my masters programs really offered such books. It is what it is.

But a couple of books stood out, including Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine (she/her). A novella that was so small in shape it could fit in your back pocket, and included a sewn-in ribbon book mark, Levine’s story of a nervous woman trying to get to a dance, but who is afraid someone will see a scar on her leg, in a location that includes a volcano that doesn’t belong there, struck me as real life told in slant. It was a familiar reflection but like someone punched the glass. Levine says she was inspired by old vintage nurse novels (I believe Cherry Ames was mentioned??).

Thus, I bought My Horse and Other Stories. I found myself often thinking “bleh” as Levine described a woman growing a hump that seems full of fluid. It wobbles in a sloshy way, and as the woman wearies with the pain from it, her doctors suggest it’s always been there in some way. Or the titular horse story, which is about a horse that is nothing like a horse. He’s small and has saggy skin covered in sores, and he lays on the hood of the car on sunny days. The details of bodies gone unfamiliar is gross in a weird way you want to explore, but not while eating.

And then a number of them repeat lines with only slightly different wording. A story, if you can call it that, movies forward almost imperceptibly. The more Levine showcased her experimental style, the more I found myself getting distracted and practicing the ASL signs for countries in my head, or thinking about that popcorn I’m gonna eat on Friday while I watch a scary movie, but not too scary because Nick won’t be home.

When Levine reels it in just a bit, she does something uncommon yet familiar. For example, in a story about blind twin brothers at camp, we actually never hear from the bothers. Their counselors and father talk about them and force them to lay quietly on their bunk beds while they’re talked to. It’s almost as if the talkers are blind to the twins.

And Levine gets tricksy on us, changing details. The twins are called boys, but it’s mentioned their hair is thinning (and that’s why they got sunburned at camp last year). The narrator notes the twins have their own cabin at camp, but really also called an apartment. They’re preparing for a hike, but a cavalry shall follow to track them. Their daily lives are charted, and the father is upset about their time at camp, for he can’t personally monitor the twins.

As the story unrolled, I puzzled what was going on. Were these actually children or adults? Did they actually exist? Were they a government experiment? Why couldn’t they move? They were fed on such a schedule I pictured hungry dogs awaiting their food. It’s true, this story also goes slowly, as the counselors and father talk for ages about putting on sunscreen, how to put on sunscreen, why they burned last year and that can’t happen this year, etc. But the story does move forward, almost comically as a result of the absurdity, and I didn’t lose focus. Here is an example:

But for now, boys, concentrate on preparing for this hike. That is the most important thing, the way I see it. Because it’s a fact that a thorough, no-holds-barred preparation is needed here; you see, from the moment I informed you about this hike, seconds ago, it became your responsibility to prepare thoroughly and correctly. I remind you of this now, brothers, because the right thing, the only possible thing for you to do as the hour of the hike approaches, is to prepare.

So, some hit and misses in my reading experience (a couple I skimmed or did not finish), but some of Levine’s style that I enjoy in her novella shines through, too.

CW: The body stuff I mentioned above might make some folks squeamish. Some references, unless I’m reading it incorrectly and it’s just a metaphor, to domestic violence.

27 comments

  1. Working in healthcare, not much grosses me out. Which means when I hang out with like-minded, non-squeamish people, people at the brunch table next to us get stories while eating that they rather not. I distinctly remember discussing a friend’s yeast infection in their belly button. Unfortunately, the tables at this restaurant were extremely close together and the young couple next to us did not approve. Lmao.

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  2. I’m definitely not going out to lunch with cc&m! But I enjoy absurdist stories, the author puts the onus on you to make sense of their trickery; sometimes you just have to enjoy the joke they are playing on you. And of course sometimes. after a while, you just get plain worn out.

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    • Last time I ate with her, Cupcakes & Machetes totally behaved herself. Ha! I love the absurdist stuff that leans juuuuuust a touch into something you could place yourself in, like The Room by Jonas Karlsson. This man can see a room in his office building that no one else does, so they just see him staring at the wall all day. That one punched me in the guts.

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  3. I love that one line you included ‘ like real life but in a slant’ because i feel this way about so many books, but I’ve been unable to describe what it felt like – until you wrote that! It’s sort of like looking at yourself in a subtle fun hour mirror – it’s you, but different and there are a few ways you can describe it’s differences, but it’s closer to what you are than anything else.

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    • I believe that when magical realism is done really well, what you get is real life in slant, but authors who overdo it make something too whimsical for real life. This is more like, “Oh, let me add in this one bizarre thing that we accept as truth.”

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  4. Sorry MP! I toted ZORA! on our spring vacation round trip 3800 miles never cracking it open. After arriving in Arizona Your Dad and I traveled 2100+ miles on motorcycles over the two week trip. I did listened to Lisa Unger’s Confession on the 7:45 and The Whispers as we traveled and I kept up on Little Women as well. I also read The Three Mrs Wrights by Linda Keir. I promise I will read ZORA! very soon. ♥️ BTW I recommend Lisa Unger’s books. I’m reading the Burning Girl which is the second in her three set novellas. I can’t put it down! XOXOXO! ~B ♥️

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    • Wow, you read a lot on that trip! We we talked on Sunday, I didn’t realize you finished so many books. I do like that Unger writes novellas. Sometimes I don’t want to invest 14 hours into an audiobook, you know?

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  5. Like Cupcakes and Machetes, I think being in healthcare has pretty much innured me against anything gross. I had a few friends over for a games evening recently – between us, we were two nurses, one school teacher, and two men who had got used to hearing about gross things from their nurse housemate/wife, so we spent a large part of the evening telling all our best poo-based work stories. Thankfully we weren’t in a restaurant for anyone else to hear us and be desgusted!

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    • Hahahaha, I can just picture you all having a mental folder labeled “poo-based work stories” that you trot out when the time is right. When I worked in direct home care, I was 18-20, so anything poo based was just horrifying to me. Now, I’m calmer about a lot of it.

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  6. And when I visit my grandson next week, the book I am giving him is “What is poo?” He’s nearly 4. What can I say?

    As for these stories, I’m struggling to think of anything I’ve read quite like these sound? I’ve read some micro-fiction and the occasional experiment short story, but I can’t think of a whole collection that’s as challenging as this one sounds. Your boys/brothers one sounds fascinating. I like absurdity/absurdism as long as I can find some sense in it or reason for it … which perhaps defeats the purpose?

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