32 thoughts on “Singularity and Other Stories – Melanie Tem

  1. TELLS

    “– more than once I’d performed alone inside a room while the client peeped from the hushed and dim-lit corridor.”

    …via the security squint-hole of a hotel’s room door.
    As we do here, watching through the squint hole of the ‘pretty boy’ first-person narrative lens, but do we see the panorama of the mountains where he takes his male client called Jon, someone who seems only to need a snuggle or cuddle…nothing more overtly sexual.
    This story is full of ‘tells’ stemming from poker games, a serendipitous chance of buyer and seller of love, ‘tells’ that extend to all manner of human emotions and motives, and I learnt a lot about such machinations in this story, and the interchanging coldness and warmth of human nature, but who of our two main protagonists, could I tell, was which?
    Author and narrator, too? And through whose peephole?


    “…the crack in the windshield is spreading,…”

    …spreading to encompass the panorama of old Howard’s farm, as he dwells, from within his entropic truck, upon thoughts of his own marriage, his cityside son who has had no yen to inherit farming in his blood, his daughter in law Jody, and his own marriage to Eleanor…
    “…and Russian olives not far away.”
    Still entropic, we are using Howard’s widening point of view, and with the now proven capability of his becoming lost in one of his own fields that he planted, as one of those endemic hailstorms approaches over the mountains, mountains he can often discern on the horizon. Another story of tells, story spells, of tender insulation against others but a hidden love nonetheless, a guilt, too. A poignant story that irrigates the past?

    “You can’t keep your children from straying into the cornfield, but you’re duty-bound to teach them how to get out.”


    “Fiona was not playing ‘Misty’ now but a riff off her own, variations on themes of formlessness and formative love.”

    If there is a story designed for my own gestalt of tastes in stories, this is it, or at least one of a rare few. Slightly atonal key, at least. It is a Sinatra-Garland-Streisand-type-rhapsodic character study of a number of musicians and singers who tour the piano bars, members of the audience, too, with a deliciously unspoken-but-implicitly-sung-metaphor-smoky roomful, doomful tone. And its human repercussions, at an insulated level of imagined style and sound. Cannot do justice to it. Needs to be read.
    As if the cover’s peepful eye has become a musical key-hole?


    “cm + df, it said.”

    A truly aching story of an ever-loving 17 year old marriage. Oh, Bonnie and Adrian, I feel for you both, not just one of you. Adrian unaccountably and suddenly leaves off loving and goes wild in the Mall. Leaving Bonnie with the two sons. Towards her vision of a diaspora (a word I often use in connection with Joel Lane fiction in a similar context of grouping together lost souls), a diaspora of all her friends’ lost husbands on the banks of a river. I feel like the reading of this story is tantamount to carving my own graffiti, its word by its word, searing into the bark, like peepholes, a bark that once contained the pages’ wood and letting in things to destroy me from within, even though those things come from without. Not a SF prophecy of mass early Alzheimer’s but a real one of late Alzheimer’s come early enough to save our later pain. Or more than this. Or less.


    “The hole in the side of her head seemed to be deeper than thin scalp. She tried to reach the itch inside.”

    Extrapolating the Tempo from Tem…
    This is alien to me, as well as horrific, the concept of “amusia”. My whole life is drowned in music. A SF story that starts without music, straight-faced, battle of wills and alien care for this woman with a rare obsessive madness akin to amusia, even if the aliens couldn’t care, music being kept somewhere deep in their history – a woman fighting against music’s itch, its pressure for her self-harm, and I tried to empathise, but of course, music is everywhere eventually, in discordance and atonality, even, for me, in silence as composed by Cage as well as in a Cantata by Bach, and, here, in one of the aliens humming. DId that alien even WANT to care? Exposing her to the inevitable gestalt of music that we all must face, even when empathising otherwise. Music that is in our souls. No escape. An itch like death?

  6. ICED IN

    “Binding the star-pattern quilt with Mom, which didn’t make the long iced-in days go any faster but did give them edges and design; she still used the quilt, in tatters now because she hadn’t kept up with the mending. ‘Sorry, Mom.'”

    Deeply felt decision-making that makes us human, and here is Kelly in the house – where she lived with her Mom and others – now beset by an ice-storm without snow, with cracks in the wall the size of icicles. The description of ice could cut you, literally, gouge you as if you were aspen? Denny, her man, I guess, had wandered off in a similar ice-storm some years ago? Well, that’s what resides in my mind from this powerful tale, having read it this morning. And we have followed Kelly as, disoriented, she tries to route herself towards that part of the house known as the ‘just in case’ room where some of her Mom’s warm quilts still might be. We all need our own just-in-case room, in case those human decisions don’t go well – and where death cannot reach us?
    (The woman to whom I have so far been married for 47 years also makes quilts, her name variously known as Killy or Denny, depending on who is calling her.)


    “Madison’s thoughts were babyish, full of holes and sharp broken pieces and mushy spots, mostly about fighting things off — fighting something off right now, something circling and poking and trying to get in –”

    Little Shit knew this space. An important story, I guess, the next one in this Singularity of Stories. This growing gestalt of go-betweenness.
    About a woman who acts as a honey trap for paedophiles, physically challenged by height with child-like proportions, while needing a ‘boobie girdle’ and being shaved. A rite of passage as her latest case is someone called Lourdes whom Madison/Littke Shit already closely knows, Lourdes who works, too, as a social worker, allegedly exploiting the access allowed.
    Rôle-play scenario (as in UBO?) where fingering is just a way you’ve been fingered before, using a doll or something more real. Madison and her alter ego Little Shit in interaction, too. This is a very clever scenario, one with which one can become involved, I guess. A story that is a honey trap itself? Sex like music in the amusia story? Full of ‘tells’.
    Very well characterised and defiantly memorable. Important, as I say.


    “One time Ib showed her where Layayx is. First it was a dot that kept moving lik a teeny-tiny ball.”

    “Then her tooth come out, a little bloody white kernel between her two fingers.”

    A socket story, one I needed to work hard at to extract its node of vision. The story works hard with itself, too, as the aliens’ language when living with People people on Earth whom they are progressively adopting needs to fit root in socket, language AND bodies, and the text takes time to fit the two together, by dint of phonetics, semantics, mores and the bodies themselves (teeth and hair and limb or flipper appendages etc.) And also with bodies, peeing, pooping … and their organs of sex? It is the story of Sonya looking forward to adoption day when the Judge’s hammer will make her an alien in one fell swoop, in all respects, or so she thinks. Poignantly, the outcome is different. And this story being published alongside ‘Little Shit’ is, for me, revelatory. Is this review the first time the two stories have been mutually synergised, as they must be? The touching of body parts, the social worker, a complementary and foul, here Axan, curse of unwelcome touching? Whether rôle or real.

  9. I read and reviewed the next story in March 2013 and below is what I wrote about it then in that earlier context –

    “The rotation of streets (right on Monroe which had been yellow, […] asphalt streets with potholes and faded center lines and traffic lights, […] the red energy kind of aggression…”
    If the previous story was ‘plainly told’, this story of mnemonic triggers instead of (but comparable to) the ‘spores’ is constructively and densely textured with a wonderful acquiral of prose you can chew, smell and taste and send your mind along it: ever towards its satisfyingly accretive meaning, revealing an inferred, spikily sexy plot that climaxes with an effective SF Horror scenario one is rarely privileged to encounter. Without giving too much away, it’s a theme and variations on memory via jigsaws of gender, intention, self, culture, holo and body, each consciousness managing to uphold some sort of integrity when faced with others also trying to manage their own integrity, with an aura, amid this process, of prize fighting (or sexual congress (or genetic engineering)). Personally, I found all this forming a parallel with my five year tussle with shaping gestalts from fiction’s leitmotifs as part of my real-time reviewing. Canetti’s crowd participants towards a unit, Butler’s spores as a crystallisation of a particular emotion, images passing through a “phenakistoscope” becoming whole and real…while tuned to the dissonance of a bow across cello strings…or is this all “strategic hyperbole” on my part?

  10. DREAN

    “You didn’t want to be in trouble with Muvver. You really didn’t want to be in trouble with the Protectors.”

    An engaging story with some words from a playful lookalike language (Clockwork Orange, Riddley Walker?), where there are accepted strictures of behaviour for Agnes (aka as another name, too), with a GG as well as a Muvver. And the Favver with Proctectors, not for him to be protected so much as children like Agnes. Protected by being emptied of drean. And of a story in the head after sleeping, And of soft music: Cf amusia and the encroaching of music earlier in this book. Also other accretive destructions of Agnes’ trust as there were for the ‘girls’ in the Little Shit / Corn Teeth diptych of stories.
    Reminds me felicitously of the tone and aura of a place called Oothangbart, in a novel I read and reviewed recently, and they have ‘a place beyond’, here in Tem a place out-of-Wernatown with shiny buildings, and there a place called Bristol…


    “He kept repeating, ‘Can’t stay go away can’t stay go away,’ until finally, to stop himself, he burst into tears.”

    A woman’s monologue as story, about her three children (one adopted, one a daughter, but not the adopted one, with his own special needs, his birth mother with drugs, the monologuist herself as a mother with alcohol) over a long period of time, their differences from each other, their staying power, their loseability, her daughter’s seeming normal, alongside her own, the mother’s, normality or otherwise, her own, the mother’s, differences and frailties and eventual strengths within herself over the same period.
    But are the three children the parts of a single gestalt child? And with their mother, the monologuist, as her own part of that gestalt, and as eventual G (and later as GG?), as all the stories in this book will eventually become a gestalt’s gestalt, a singularity of stories stemming from the same mother?
    A telling story that does not give its pay-off after a single reading, but predictably will do so should I read it again, giving me birth as its reader, to stop me rambling, wandering?


    “I said that once to one of the two or three grandmas or great grandmas who live in the Emmons household.”

    A shortish coda to the Gs and GGs from the previous pair of stories, here another druggie-mothered now adoptee child (continues naïve as she grows up) eventually developing pregnancies with those in the adopting household, but whose snakes were made to transcend lessons in biology or astronomy? The universe is one enormous generative organ, I guess. Sad, thoughtful story about naïveté and nativity, yet devastatingly horrific on the quiet, if you read it one way. A gentle fable about the relentlessly meticulous rituals in the art of honey traps in cake-making, if you read it another way. Which are you?

  13. DHOST

    “We’re carving punkins, Grandma! Bye!”

    Whether Dhost or Drean, in childspeak, this is another G as grandparent story, one about Gail’s three, then four, year old granddaughter Corry, a name short for a word that would be a spoiler to divulge here. Corry’s father is Gail’s son. The father and son and Holy Ghost? What about him? He is in prison, unvisited, almost incommunicado till the end. The daughter in law a feisty go-between between the grandparents and the granddaughter. The ghost and dhost in symbiosis?
    As well as an intriguing contribution to this book’s singularity, the story is an effective ghost story around Halloween – and includes cookie baking. And not being able to handle the future properly even if you saw the future.
    One day will there be a Corry’s son, I wonder?


    “…and the rainbow fringe of its mane.
    The aroma of horseflesh and flowers without a name.
    A nickering at the border of words.”

    My enjambement, not the book’s.
    The apotheosis of poignancy, if any story can claim such a superlative.
    And this story surely can.
    Amelia is at the stage I can recognise in myself of brain mush and dozing that I can imagine daytime TV instilling, or is the onset of age? Well, she has visits from a boy, she whom he adopts as his Half-Grandma. With waffles and astronomy, and more, and in this book’s preceding conducive context, even more telling. And an extra horse in the paddock in her garden, a white one with a knob in the centre of the forehead, an incipient cancer or the nub of a horn? – or the omen of a fatal cancer-saving stroke? And the boy’s reaction, and Amelia’s, to the beast.’s vicinity between them….exquisitely, constructively sad.
    ½G + small child = a Singularity?


    “a foreign language: fractions”

    I wonder if this is the same type of gorilla as in the Flannery O’Connor story. If so, it takes on a Peeping Tom in plain sight theme, where the gorilla sitting outside a girl’s bedroom window as she grows into puberty takes on a new light!
    The girl is lonely, only one friend, and so there is a referred way she thinks the gorilla is lonely, too. A lonely female gorilla, she assumes by the pronoun she uses as ‘her’. There is no single interpretation of this story, the way the gorilla’s yellow eyes actually come into the room through the glass of the window. No rhyme and reason for this gorilla being where the girl sees it – a new Fay Wray not with her KK but her better ½ as G? I could go on with other interpretations. They may become central to some future gestalt of a gorilla… or some unique foreign language that nobody yet knows how to translate.

  16. HOUSE FULL OF HEARTS (with Joseph R. Tem)

    “Scary stuff could get you anywhere, anytime it felt like it, and the world was full of scary stuff.”

    Delightfully child-like naïveté about the nativity of childhood’s monsters, like an alligator under the bed, but soon the birth of what I thought at first was Steve McQueen’s pink cinematic Blob or Noel Edmunds’ Mr. Blobby, but soon to overtake the story with a plague of its own eponymity. At first a frightening plague of this story’s eponyms but, by following Kelly’s lonely gorilla, the horror trope itself seems paradoxically a welcome replacement for one’s parents and for the safety that the nest between them in their bed once provided? Scary stuff can indeed get you anywhere!
    Still thinking about it. That’s no mean feat.

  17. THE NAME

    James the elder brother acts as babysitter for his two younger brothers or brats as he calls them, when the feisty Mum goes out to work, the father having departed after the divorce, the Dad who once took James fishing. He always needs to read aloud to them the story of Rumpelstiltskin … the imp who pops out the book like a real pop up person and only James can interact with him…. curse words, baseball, guessing the imp’s real name…
    I have failed this story. It was as if it taunted me for failing it. I even tried to work out a name from the letters that make up ‘mad’ and ‘scared’ so as to appease it. A story that now suddenly looks over my shoulder as I write this review about it. I hope half measures are better than none.

  18. THE CO-OP

    “…mother and daughter, how closely they both must resemble the mother and grandmother who had died at the mouths of her children…”

    That G equation and fraction again, but here the path of one to the other is almost unbearable as children are often unbearable in more ways than one. This is conveyed by a story of a child-minding co-operative, held today by various mothers with their babies and children in Julie’s basement, a day when the sky’s waters break, and serious floods from this rain ensue outside… with the scene inside threaded with food images, squirmy and slick-coated, and the women’s tales of their mothers and mothering – and the sheer attrition of having children at all, eating their way from inside, eating away at our lives, with at least one reference to throwing out sacrifices from the womb-balloon, as I might put it, if not the story putting it that way…
    You will not forget this powerful story. Don’t forget fathers, too, I say!


    “But for many years now, her needs for sleep and wakefulness had had as little to do with cycles of night and day as her aging did with the seasons.”

    By this Grace,
    Go we all.
    This work, at first, I thought was a retelling of Hansel and Gretel where there are now two witches (one with an ulcerated leg) and their explicit oven, the well-characterised people they tempt together with their enmeshed stories into the negligently upkept and littered house, but with both witches effectively becoming an aging Hansel and Gretel themselves, Babes in the Wood, after one witch was tempted in by the other witch many years before. (After all, their cat was a male mis-named as Jennifer.)
    This engagingly, if age-and-body-revoltingly and pathetically, literary-Beckettian story pans out differently but tellingly. And I, for one, think of all our ‘trails and webs’, in the context of gestalt real-time reviewing, and of these two quotes from the story…
    “…but the stories didn’t enmesh — hers with each other, or hers with theirs.”
    “Incomplete webs hovered in the air, strands straining to twist with other strands, tentacles hungry and groping.”


    “Parents can’t win, you know it?”

    Loosely associated with the earlier ‘doll’ story, social workers, a ‘grandmotherly’ influence, a father confesses the circumstances of his battle with bereavement when his wife dies and with his daughter caught in the trammels of the grandmotherly-seeming woman who lives opposite, who makes dolls, some life-sized and who co-opts his small daughter.
    This is a genuinely nightmarish story of dolls, and one of empathic fatherhood. Including the many daughters with whom you often have to deal, mood by mood, look by look, even when you only have one daughter…


    “He wasn’t good enough for her. I could not imagine what she saw in him.
    Unless it was the unlimited opportunity to play puppeteer, sculptor, inventor.”

    The author, too, all us authors. Until we work at crafting our characters, set them moving, and wait for them to discover who we are…
    “A role-reversed Pygmalion” to be “filled out like an inflatable doll”?
    This is Brenda talking to us, perhaps talking back to her author, as she visits another Kelly in this book, her friend from college who married Ron. Kelly appears fey, attenuated, but later temporarily inflated, warmed back from her chill, by the arrival of her young sons. As once Brenda’s father was attenuated in her own arms before his death.
    In which direction is your life’s attenuation, along the route of the G of gender or of the G of generation?
    Homely cooking, though, continues. The show must continue…
    This plot’s outcome as an example of this series of spiritual vampirisms of both Soul and Body makes me think that our inflatability is never proof against the puncturing of either Soul or Body. To the sound of wind chimes made slightly incarnate.


    “It took only a few seconds, and both she and Nathaniel shattered into some other form, countless other forms, shards and slivers of other forms forever beyond her reach.”

    I presume this is one of Melanie Tem’s acclaimed classics, even one of the great classics of all literature, on the level of Flannery O’Connor’s best. It tells of Abigail finding herself as a whore as young as possibly 13 in what I see naively, Britishly, as the mid-west and then, as she grows older, her journey by stagecoach as a product of a marriage agent to the Wild West. Her attachments and loves. So brilliantly characterised and described stylishly, with sagebrush, souls or not, snakes, flies, wingspans, orphan trains and, yes, again, snakes.
    Memorably special.

    “: high swift motion, bright sun and bright sky and bright wind.”


    “Made a mistake
    Kissed a snake”

    Can you imagine a ‘creature’ called Kathy? Or a precocious, petulant, tantrumic 11 year old girl called Crystal with pendulous breasts? I somehow think this textured fairy tale in modern times with a modern mother, complete with skipping rhymes about Cinderella, is told from the point of view of mild-mannered Cynthia, another 11 year old, rather than her mother Bridget’s from which it is otherwise ostensibly told. But who the changeling, who the captive, who the capturer and who the still point of this poetic wordstorm of nightmarish mothering, one that co-opts even the Co-Op as well as the snake in the previous story?
    God the driver, who’s up with Him on the top, who riding inside? After all, the Grimms and Hans Christian were men, but there are no men in this story except an imputed darkened Dale.
    This story itself is a changeling I somehow feel. And if I return to it, it will tell quite a different story from the one I think I have just read. Each reader a disturbed foundling.


    “Perhaps we are related. From the Diaspora.”

    A monologue, addressed to many named people, discretely, no?
    It has a broken rhythm tinged with Français; he is a guide in the Aroostook County, bigger than a lot of states, he says. Of gorbeys, moosebirds, jays, fog and his daughter Lina. And ring doughnuts. Engagingly idiosyncratic to my English ear. A genius loci I got.


    “It wasn’t long before I was thinking about my daughter, which was where my thoughts always settled when no place else would have them.”

    This is another story of social workers and mother-daughter relationships, relationships here in a negative symbiosis rather than a positive synergy, relationships of adopters and adoptees, too, tied into images from Grimms’ fairy stories, including Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. This includes the social worker’s mentor’s own such symbiosis with her own vanished daughter as well as that of those individuals who are subject to such social work. I found this plot a bit contrived compared to earlier ones, but beautifully written nevertheless.
    Meanwhile, here in this 1999 story, for another tantamount to a wilful child? … “For a little while the stand-in was treated like a king, wore fancy clothes and jewels and told everybody what to do. Then they burned him at the stake or buried him alive.” ….One can only hope.


    “a plain dog for his dog”

    Then Loozy the ‘guide’ dog wants to eat Clement’s unplain dog, and like finding oneself in a country of the blind by reading a blind story that slowly unfolds its visionary story by allowing the reader to feel the way into it rather than seeing it clearly straightaway.
    Seph’s family-building, the enforced eye-harm as a version of self harm, the no nickname girl unlike Katharine/Katha in the previous story. Backs to Walls, if not sunk in Wells. Workaday being an empty plate to be filled with unknown coins and notes. Alt-time, this review revealing its own inchoate version of blind real-time, blindness being something all story texts after all depend on to make your vision sharper, not seeing the characters, but truly feeling their harsh love and survival techniques, give or take the many rooted eye-props in this book….(by Jessica Fortner)

  27. BRAIDS

    “Once you get a boy friend you braid your hair. My mom’s got braids and all my aunties. I’m the oldest girl cousin. Don’t have a boyfriend. Don’t want one.”

    A very striking story, so utterly literary but free-flowing of this young girl called Regina and her extended family, their customs and expectations, the nature of their hair, one Granny’s feisty jigs, and Regina’s love of riding of GGs (gee-gees, aka horses) with her Sapphic horse mentor.
    Her Mom doesn’t know who her dad is. And Marcus wants to be her boy friend and braid her hair. A significant scene ensues of subtly were-horse riding and braiding and a final Sapphic kiss. Beautifully done.

    I am about halfway in this book, and it has slid down so easily. I may now have a sabbatical from reading it for a short while to let its wonderful pent-up expectations percolate. It is certainly a landmark book, and it seems, so far, in blended synergy with three other marathon reads and reviews of mine In recent years: Silvina Ocampo, Clarice Lispector and Leena Krohn.

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