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The other day, I Googled “slug sex.” It was and wasn’t my fault—wasn’t, because I was reading Megan Milks‘s debut collection, Kill Marguerite, and I wanted to check some facts. But, also, I should have known: of course Milks got all the slimy biological details right. Throughout these phylum-hopping tales, truth is consistently stranger than the fictions we typically construct around desire—perhaps even as strange as desire itself.
Take Patty, the protagonist of “Slug” and apparently a quiet woman being driven home from a bad date. As we come to see, however, the guy is really just bland prey for her gender-bending S&M daydreams—fantasies so increasingly graphic and grisly that they become humorous before they can become truly horrible. There might not be a man on earth who can fulfill them, but fortunately her room is soon entered by the ultimate phallic figure: a giant slug, “six feet of pure muscle.” Their violent romance suggests that proclivities denounced as unnatural might in fact be perfectly so, in another part of the animal kingdom.
Full of barely-double entendre, “Slug” takes the conventions of erotica and supersizes them. The microscope zooms too far in; the mechanics of genre are pushed into view, blurred and set wriggling. Milks repurposes a number of familiar forms this way throughout Kill Marguerite, including young-adult serials, choose-your-own-adventure books, and the anonymous confessionals of teen magazines.
The title piece begins as a tale of bullying among ordinary exurban preteens, although there are some weird interruptions: “The sky opens and flashes red” when protagonist Caty senses her tormentor’s presence, and later “one of her hearts explodes.” We’re not just in a young-adult novel, we’re also in a video game, and the heroine must gulp down frog hearts in science class and collect weapons hidden in trees if she is to conquer mean-girl Marguerite.
The figure of the teenage girl focuses many of Kill Marguerite‘s preoccupations: the good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy, the sudden emergence of strange desires, and, especially, the unstable, changeable body. Elsewhere in the book we meet, for instance a wasp and an orchid who fall in love, contrary to the habitual promiscuity of their ecosystem. We meet a sort of Swamp Thing-as-Freudian-analysand, saddled with a stern father who is also a lover, friend, and infant. We meet a woman with a tomato for a heart, a girl with a talent for producing various effluvia in bulk, and even Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield of Sweet Valley, CA, who merge into each other in various ways depending on which forking path the reader sends them down.
There’s something classical about these often-incestuous metamorphoses; certainly, there was something queer about that Greco-Roman world of myth in which the boundaries between god and human and animal and plant were so slippery. So it’s hardly surprising when the Greek gods themselves drop into several stories. In one short piece, Hephaestus attacks a bickering father and daughter with his sword; naturally, the two get stitched up and head home to dinner, before realizing that the god has impregnated both of them. All this highlights a family dynamic that may seem quite close to queer readers’ own experience: “My father has always been a homophobe. The knowledge that his immortal child was born with the sword of another man, and the ugliest of gods to boot, is simply too humiliating. This is what we had been arguing about in the first place: why I was so unfeminine, and couldn’t I be normal. I had said I don’t like being penetrated. He had claimed to dislike it as well.”
After all the carefully wrought grotesquerie, it’s almost a surprise how well Milks works in a more traditionally naturalistic mode, analyzing relationships between mortals. The allure of the title character in “Dionysus” is clear even if you just take her as the hard-partying bike kid the more straitlaced narrator falls for: “Around bars and in streets, in alleys, Dionysus swirls, administering the night. She blurs the edges of people, her own borders smeared. I tend to maintain myself. So we were in love.”
It’s also surprising, given the vast range of modes on display, how very well Kill Marguerite maintains itself as a unified work; tracing the veins that run from piece to piece is part of the fun. The consistently disciplined prose does nearly as much to this end as the shared themes, sometimes calling to mind the similarly wry and precise Lydia Davis. This collection establishes Milks as a writer who can do just about anything but who will, one expects, keep doing the bidding of her macabre but humane imagination.
Kill Marguerite and Other Stories
By Megan Milks
Paperback, 9781770863026, 240 pp.