Camilla Grudova, The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
By Naomi Richards
The Doll’s Alphabet is a startling debut collection of short stories by Canadian writer Camilla Grudova. The stories are beautiful, disturbing and at times grotesque. They echo the world of Carter’s Dr Hoffmann who is convinced that “everything it is possible to imagine can also exist.” The Doll’s Alphabet avoids genre categorization and is best seen as a genre-crossing, most closely related to weird or speculative fiction. A wide range of influences can be seen in Grudova’s work: Kafka, Surrealism, Bruno Schulz, the Gothic, Freud, de Sade, Grimms’ Tales, Carter, Poe, Lydia Davis and Kelly Link as well as other literary and artistic traditions. This dystopian collection of fables is darkly humorous and frequently astonishing.
The biographical information given in the book only states that Grudova lives in Toronto and has a degree in Art History and German. Certainly the art influence turns up in almost every story. Many of the stories’ titles are like labels on conceptual art or poems themselves, such as ‘Notes from a Spider’, ‘The Moth Emporium’ and ‘Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead.’ There is a stream of allusions to art and visual representation: whether it’s to Italian Mannerist paintings in ‘Hungarian Sprats’ or in ‘The Moth Emporium’ to “Frida Kahlo pin-up girls”, Andy Warhol, Andrei Rublev icons, pornographic images or Disney cartoons. Minor characters are identified with striking images in a catwalk of strangeness. In ‘The Sad Tale of the Sconce’ a woman wearing “a black tuxedo and a hat shaped like a golden snail” appears, while in ‘Waxy’ there is “a girl with brown ringlets and a black eye patch.” Like a Surrealist painting, these cleverly constructed stories blend incongruous combinations and the marvelous with the mundane.
From the first story ‘Unstitching’, this collection announces its strangeness with imaginative vibrancy. ‘Unstitching’ could be read as a metaphor for the whole collection, as Grudova’s use of language, particularly through imagery, unstitches normal consciousness into something akin to dream consciousness. Its opening line is a deliberate parallel of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphoses’: “One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.” The story inverts the fate of Gregor Samsa’s musically talented younger sister Grete and her transformation from dreaming of the conservatory to a shapely salesgirl whose parents decide it is time for her to marry. In contrast Grete’s symbolic sister in ‘Unstitching’ leaves her husband, moves in with another woman “and soon all the women in their neighborhood had shed their skins.” Sewing machines become historical artifacts and “stitching things together was seen as a form of repression.” ‘Unstitching’ represents the utopian future that Grudova imagines, while the stories that follow show women’s oppression. In the majority of these stories there is mention of a sewing machine, rather like the spindle tucked away and waiting to be found in Sleeping Beauty. The sewing machine is a reminder of what is lacking: a feminist consciousness in the characters. In ‘Notes from a Spider’, a spider-like man is obsessed by a sewing machine to the point where he wants his legs to be stitched to become one with the machine. However, his obsessive stitching is also a metaphor for creativity, for a type that is painful, torturous and kills off the seamstresses. In describing his love for the sewing machine, his final note says: “I think she is beginning to love me. I feed her, she writes, she writes.”
The stories focus particularly on the struggles of women and their sadly limited aspirations. In ‘Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead’ Bernadette has to cope with the strange death of her boyfriend, who informs her that he has died. Another troubled couple in ‘Waxy’ are forced to flee from the authorities with their illicit baby hidden in the father’s overcoat “like a rancid molar in the back of one’s mouth.” While in ‘Agatha’s Machine’ two alienated teenage girls are obsessed by a sewing machine that projects images of dreamlike figures from an earpiece. This is partly reminiscent of present day adolescent obsession with technology. It indicates thematically how teenage girls become enthralled with the male symbol of the machine, particularly as the figures projected are all masculine: the handsome Pierrot, the angel and the crotch-grabbing Mr. Magnolia. It also echoes Salvador Dali’s painting Sewing Machine with Umbrellas in a Surrealist’s Landscape (1941) in which umbrellas float above a sewing machine casting shadow-like projections, similar to early cinematic imagery.
The women in Grudova’s stories accept their low status, as if they have been indoctrinated rather than being complicit with it. In ‘Waxy’, children are removed from their parents when they are aged three and brought up by the state. Girls are given five years education to prepare them to work in factories usually to make boys’ clothes and toys, while men study for important Examinations (always capitalized). If they fail these Examinations it is the women’s fault for not “providing a nurturing enough environment.” A woman’s existence is driven by capturing a Man (always capitalized) which is “The Goal of Life.” Hilariously, the low expectations of the women in ‘Waxy’ are shown by them judging a Man’s worth by whether or not he brings them “a gherkin from the bar.”
More disturbingly, the low status of the female can be seen in ‘The Tale of the Sconce’, where sexually frustrated sailors find “small wet creatures” to be “adequate substitutes for women.” Sordid sexual encounters occur frequently in these stories. In ‘Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead’, Edward sodomizes his girlfriend, following his flatmate’s advice that “it was the only clever way to do a woman” despite making Bernadette “weep.” In ‘The Moth Emporium’, when middle-aged Wolf, a Bluebeard figure, and his much younger wife make love on top of a rattling stove “swarms of cockroaches came rushing out.” Much darker is the trinity of violently pornographic sculptures bought by Wolf and installed in the couple’s bedroom. This shows Grudova prepared to confront the furthest extremes of sexual depravity and misogyny, territory explored by Carter in The Sadeian Women (1979).
A counterpoint to this sexual darkness is ‘The Mermaid’, placed almost half-way through the collection. The mermaid, unlike most of the women in the collection, is able to follow her desires, which are for “silver things.” However, this mermaid is not just an ordinary mermaid: “the fish and the human were blended together like tea with milk” and she also wore glasses. She is lured, caught and kidnapped and presented by Evelyn to his brother in a rolled-up carpet. The mermaid, however, is not easily contained and despite being locked up, keeps appearing in the house, collecting or licking silver things or “standing in the bathtub” looking for water. In a tale of female rivalry and short-sightedness, Evelyn’s wife Emmeline, who also wears glasses and turned down university for marriage, decides the mermaid must go. In the final amusing and heart wrenching image, the mermaid is dumped off at the beach, still obsessively looking for silver things, while the dull couple run away “holding their glasses in place.” This urban fairy tale is one of the strongest in the collection and also the most uplifting, because the mermaid is freed.
There are also frequent mentions of umbrellas and zoos. To borrow the Uruguayan poet Comte de Lautréamont’s expression in Les Chants de Maldoror, these stories are “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. The chance encounter can also be seen in the structure of ‘The Mouse Queen.’ In this story, two Latin graduates are struggling after an unplanned pregnancy resulting in twins. Suddenly the corpse of an old lady the size of a dwarf is introduced into the story, after being brought home on a whim by the narrator’s gravedigger boyfriend. This is not unlike the found objects the Surrealists used in their work. Although intriguing, this storyline is never developed but is linked by association to the narrator’s pregnancy through Grudova’s remarkable visual imagery: the narrator refers to the old woman’s black coffin as reminding her of “the eternal pregnancy of death.” The corpse is later hidden in an organ, which the narrator worries will become haunted and “the keys would play” the old lady’s voice. This wonderful Gothic idea, which could have made a story in itself, is however left as surface description. Impressions, images, obsessions, desires, dreams and cultural references combine in Grudova’s writing, producing a surrealist story-world and a form which at times may seem disjointed, though serves the style of her work well. In fact, there are parts when Grudova seems to draw attention to this aspect of her work, such as the figures projected in ‘Agata’s Machine’ appearing “in an odd, nonsensical sequence” and the footnotes, which are almost like separate stories in ‘The Sad Tale of the Sconce.’
Despite their strangeness, Grudova’s stories often start with a deadpan sentence such as “My new bedroom was an old kitchen” in ‘Waxy.’ After the opening line, the reader is led into a fascinating world: a defamiliarizing space where ordinary objects, such as a jar of Ovaltine are juxtaposed with bizarre details: “Loeb books” and a leather suitcase “green as a toad.” Vermin and insects also make regular appearances in the stories, which heightens the horror and sense of the Gothic. There is even a very short story called ‘The Gothic Society’, and in a collection abundant with references to art, it is fitting that the first act of the Gothic Society was “a grotesque scribble.” Often the associations of horror are indirect as in ‘The Mouse Queen.’ In this story, a doll’s house contains books by Robert Louis Stevenson with “microscopic words”, which evokes associations of horror with the works of Stevenson, while framing it in a new context, triggering something similar to Freud’s sense of the uncanny.
Lists frequently add to this impression: a pile of nouns rather like the contents of a junk shop, or a trip to the rubbish dump, which are both relevant to the bleak landscape Grudova creates. The soundtrack of The Rocky Horror Show, April Stevens, Patsy Kline, Schubert, Schumann, The Beach Boys, The Monster Mash, Beethoven, the string quartets of Tchaikovsky, Sid Vicious, Elvis, Siouxsie Sioux, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and The Magic Flute echo throughout ‘The Moth Emporium’. This list mania perhaps partly satirizes our own society but it can be overused, such as in the list of the Baron’s bizarre “canned” luggage. These lists are clever, amusing, revealing but occasionally frustrating. Nevertheless, they can be used to powerful descriptive effect, as in ‘The Moth Emporium’ where “bald heads” are likened to “a round encyclopedia of horrible things: crystal balls, marshmallows, testicles, turnips, eggs”, which also tells us a great deal about the character’s feelings.
Grudova’s work contains frequent references to a range of fairy tale traditions, from the delicate work represented by an “Arthur Rackham fairy” in ‘Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead’, to the “badly done woodcuts” of Grimms’ Tales mentioned in ‘The Moth Emporium.’ In some ways this reflects the origin of fairy tales. As Carter noted: “the chances are” that the fairy tale was put together, “out of all sorts of bits of other stories long ago and far away”, which was “tinkered with” and got “mixed up with other stories.” Furthermore, the “endless return” to these fairy tales, as Julie Sanders says, is because these “stories and characters transgress established social, cultural, geographical and temporal boundaries”, which is appropriate in dystopian fiction.
The sheer number of references in the collection results in a feeling of fragmentation, of echoes of the past and detritus similar to T.S Eliot’s “heap of broken images.” The almost constant naming of disparate cultural icons also highlights what is missing: the deeper connecting mythology, similar to Bruno Schulz’s ideas in his essay ‘The Mythologization of Reality.’ For Schulz, if words are not joined to their “universal sense” what is left is only “a fragment, a rudiment of some former, all encompassing mythology.” It might be tempting to join the dots between the references, but that does not seem to be the point. Instead, the references intersect in interesting ways, creating a personal web of free associations.
The cultural references also form a poignant juxtaposition to the squalor of the character’s lives. The stories are about ordinary people doing the best they can, but being deprived of so much we take for granted. The characters live on the edge of poverty in regimes that are faceless and authoritarian. Women’s rights are nonexistent, birth control is difficult to acquire, zoo cages are empty, flowers are made of plastic, food is tinned and processed and people live in a landscape full of rubbish bins and decay. The natural world is largely absent and lacking and becomes represented by other things such as a woman’s underwear hanging in the room like “cobwebs, insects, flowers”; in ‘Waxy’, a gramophone is described as “a grand rotting flower”. Other odd topsy-turvy combinations drawn from the natural world include details such as a “bedbug kept in a velvet box” in ‘Rhinoceros’.
The unbalanced and undernourished society that Grudova creates is best symbolised by the title story, a tiny concoction of two lines, which informs us that the doll’s alphabet has only eleven letters. This is echoed in ‘Waxy’ in the colourful alphabet blocks being sold at the flea market, even though the characters are too fearful to buy anything for their baby. In the world of these stories, where so much is missing or repressed, we come to value our own lives and see their beauty and abundance.
Dolls, as the title suggests, feature throughout the collection. Perhaps this is a reaction against the broken and sexualized pubescent dolls of a Surrealist such as Hans Bellmer, or the female body parts in much of Surrealist’s art reducing women to unconscious limbs. Gaby Wood, in her fascinating study of dolls and automata, points out: “whether out of sentimentality, mania or superstition, a doll never exists merely as a physical fact. A doll is always also a figure of imagination.” Despite the portrayal of an oppressed society, imagination in all its curious forms is projected lovingly and creatively onto every page of The Doll’s Alphabet.
 Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1973).
 Angela Carter, The Sadeian Women: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago Press, 1979).
 Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) in Maldoror and Poems (UK: Penguin Classics, reprint ed. 1978).
 Angela Carter, Introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (London: Virago, 1990).
 Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006²).
 ‘The Wasteland’, see section one ‘The Burial of the Dead.‘ https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47311
 Gaby Wood, Living Dolls (London: Faber and Faber, 2002).