April Ayers Lawson Virgin and Other Stories (Granta Books, 2017)
By Laura Waddell
Like a sinewy muscle, April Ayer Lawson’s debut short story collection Virgin and Other Stories flexes a visceral grace. The heady themes of eroticism, religion, and Southern Gothic present across its five offerings might make for a steamier book in the hands of another writer, but with Lawson’s stylistic elegance and probing of cavernous vulnerabilities, the atmosphere is sexy but existentially cool. Characters come together for sensual love affairs and well-rendered familial friction but inevitably retreat within themselves, as the narrating focus drifts towards interior, echo-y chambers.
One story, ‘The Way You Must Play Always’, is mildly reminiscent of Anais Nin’s erotic works, and the title and scaling background of piano-playing hint at a game of seduction. In it, a schoolgirl reluctantly taking piano lessons finds more interest in the recuperating adult brother of her eccentric teacher, opening his bedroom door one day to unexpectedly see him smoking “a homemade cigarette” in his sickbed. Forgetting her previous crush on a cousin, in a summer-come, summer-go display of flighty childhood attentions, she is drawn by such sensual details as his “eyes the colour of mint juleps” (a nod to the southern setting), the “ruined part of his scalp” and her own silk print dress, “inappropriate for lessons both because of its fanciness and the fact that it was dirty.” Lawson’s language is both evocative and enjoyable, rarely flourished but well-chosen and direct.
In another story, my favourite, ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’, a teenage boy at the customary age of misery is distanced from his mother and her home tutoring, her transgender best friend and dull church. Developing a passion for Andrew Wyeth paintings, he steals a book from the library and locks himself in the bathroom to gaze upon the painter’s devoted, lush nudes of lover Helga. Mapping the art he is passionate about onto his own immediate, lacking surroundings he comments, “It could’ve been a Wyeth, if not for the stupid SUVs.” Pairing romantic longing with everyday reality’s entrapment, a landscape not lush and green but post-industrial, the story evokes a teenage aesthetic wistfully and with touching nostalgia. The boy is willing to grasp at the smallest details onto which he projects a romantic and artistic vision. He does not have the languid love of a mature woman in a fertile landscape – like the visual art he dreams about – but he has the ambient yellow and green of dying grass, and time for kissing snatched while running an errand. Though he is aware of the difference, he makes the most of it with mixed feelings. Like Lawson’s other stories, characters manage to have complex relationships and the world is richly textured, as satisfying as a well-planned town at rush hour. Lawson depicts the boy’s mother and her new friend becoming close, his differing relationships with each of them and with his father; we also get encounters with animal rights activists, sensual meditations on wearing fur, depictions of differing styles of Christian worship, and a sensitivity to transitioning gender. All of these are depicted through the narratorial perspective of a teenager fluctuating between claustrophobic resistance to his environment, an empathy still in the stages of development, and hormonal outbursts of spite or love.
While it’s a strong collection, ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ sits somewhat awkwardly among its peers, mirroring the events of the story itself. Significantly shorter and less action-led than the other stories, it’s a dreamy reflection from a narrator struggling to relax at a birthday barbecue. There are some striking observations – “…the one in the middle would during dinner bring up that I’d sat stiffly beside her, while the other friend unselfconsciously slid into her”– demonstrating tension in contrasting bodily comfort levels. A bigger weakness than a slightly incongruous story is the motif of ageing women, as several in heterosexual relationships express anxiety over being replaced by a younger woman. Subtle but unexplored, the repetition of this fear appears to be an undeliberate trope of Lawson’s writing, and tackling the theme head on in future work may grant it a more satisfying and logical expression.
Virgin and Other Stories engages in a tongue-in-cheek way with conventions of Southern Gothic: an ill relative with questionable mental health, locked away in a room, teases and tricks his sister; fervent belief is depicted most notably in animal rights activism on the outside, not inside, of church; domestic claustrophobia is not the faded grandeur of ancestral mansions, but a teenager in a home with a ‘no doors closed’ policy, escaping “keen, eager” relatives. The titular story ‘Virgin’ does this most defiantly of all, taking the trope of a woman’s purity and turning it against the man who cherishes and expects it. He is punished with its continuation after marriage and his own paranoia over his virginal bride displaying lust. This is illuminated by shifting visual gaze and the theme of vision; we see a man looking at a woman, as she looks at someone else, and it all feels dizzily off-kilter.
At its most luxuriantly enjoyable and skilled, Lawson’s writing deals with isolation. It grasps its characters by the roots as their present interactions – sexual, romantic, or familial – are informed by motivations and inclinations from the past. But while emotions richly run the gamut of experience, including sadness, loneliness, and trauma, the collection leaves an aftertaste of seductive curiosity, of characters in limiting situations looking out from within. This is summed up in hopeful details in the best stories – the frisson of eye contact with a potential lover, unexpectedly opening a door to someone new, or finding transportive imaginative relief in art.