Caustic and biting, Kimberly King Parsons’ debut collection Black Light takes an unflinching look at the manifold ways girls and young women adroitly navigate a culture determined to demean them.

Across twelve succinct stories the collection fully renders the sardonic voices of teens and twenty-somethings fed up with stultifying suburbs and patronizing men. The heroines frenetically veer between bravado and insecurity; they brazenly rebel against authority, privately worry about their weight, and seek solace in liquor, pills, and sex. Teasing out the differences between youth and experience, Parsons brings to life the thrills and hardships of coming of age and adjusting to adulthood in America.

“When I start dating Tim, an almost-doctor, all the sick broken people in the world begin to glow,” begins Sheila, the acerbic narrator of the opening tale, “Guts.” “People I once found gross or contagious are radiant, gleaming with need.” Sheila sympathizes with “beautiful, shattered people everywhere,” as Tim criticizes everything about her, from her weight to her posture. Away from his critical gaze, she sneaks snacks, smokes a one-hitter, frequents dives, and kills time riding buses until they can meet again. A vivid snapshot of self-loathing, dependence, and unfulfilling romance, the story’s one of the collection’s best.

Preoccupation with thinness recurs across tales. In “We Don’t Come Natural to It,” the narrator and her coworker Suki brainstorm ways to stay fit while working at a call center. “Wear a headset when you take the angry calls,” she advises. “Pace during each complaint.” “Into the Fold,” by contrast, centers on a group of young girls at an elite boarding school who torment their “trembly, rubber chinned” peer Eloise Sheen, who is “half French and never lets you forget.” Throughout the collection Parsons maps out the contours of how, in a culture obsessed with female thinness, concerns about weight can uneasily facilitate or thwart friendships between girls and women.

Parsons’s especially talented at capturing the nuances of intense bonds formed by teens on the cusp of adulthood. “Bo’s more brightly lit than the rest of us,” muses the narrator of “Glow Hunter” about a new acquaintance, who morphs into a best friend and love interest after an unexpected turn of events prompt the girls to spend the summer together, speeding around highways while tripping. “She drives like she talks—fast and distracted, veering off to weird places.” In the title story, “Black Light,” a high schooler rhapsodizes about the ups and downs of her brief but exhilarating affair with an athletic peer. The two girls share every moment together, until they don’t; the story brilliantly portrays the narrator’s ensuing heartbreak.

A few pieces focus on children, but most alternate between dramatizing the loss of innocence and depicting women caught in arrested development. Boys and men are gross across tales, fetishizing the narrators’ bodies and remaining happily ignorant of their emotional lives. There’s a stark contrast between Parsons’ rebellious teenaged girls whose futures are full of possibility and promise, however, and her jaded, sarcastic women who have settled into disappointing, if tolerable, routines. The tension is palpable and compelling.

The author’s strange, sharp style is mesmerizing. Her terse language recalls the minimalism of Amy Hempel, while her penchant for bizarre imagery, so often involving glowing light, brings to mind the fantastical tales of Carmen Maria Machado. The pairing of precise prose and ethereal images makes for a reading experience that’s sometimes disorienting but consistently captivating.

Taken together the stories of Black Light sketch a searing portrait of suburban life in America; the debut surely signals the start of a promising career as a fiction writer for Parsons.

 

BLACK LIGHT
By Kimberly King Parsons
Vintage
Hardcover, 9780525563501, 221 pp.
August 2019


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