[Northwestern University Press; 2024]

Getting under way, she cried, “Now, doesn’t it seem absurd to you? What is the good of the arts if they’re interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye? Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music. It’s very ingenious, and she says several pretty things in the process, but what’s gained, I’d like to know? Oh, it’s all rubbish, radically false.”

E.M. Forster, Howards End

It’s concerns like this that restrict most book reviews to comparisons with other books. “Radically false,” that’s pretty bad. Wouldn’t want that. But on the other hand, aren’t there some advantages to comparisons with music? If I compare Laura Reeve Chow’s debut short story collection A Small Apocalypse to some book you’ve never read, what are you going to do? Go out, find a copy of that book, and spend the next day or two reading it? But if I make a comparison to a band, you can listen to one of their songs in three minutes on your very own web-surfing device, and quite easily become a well-informed consumer. Not to mention, I’ve never in my life passed up an opportunity to say several pretty things, and I’m certainly not going to start now. It was with these considerations in mind that I set out to find the perfect musical analogue for A Small Apocalypse.

At first, I thought it might be the Magnetic Fields. Like their 1999 album 69 Love Songs, some of the stories in Reeve’s collection have a surreal, reflexive quality in their approach to genre and trope. Often, the basic story is ostentatiously familiar but with a clever, Twilight Zone-esque twist, a horror or sci-fi reframing. In “Milked Snakes,” Beth undergoes the epiphany that she must leave her boyfriend because, in a kind of “second puberty,” she is turning into a lizard. See that analogy to queer awakening? Only there’s another twist. The lizard-people, who are a sizeable minority in this world, are also queer in the literal sense: non-binary, or possessed of divergent sexual preferences, and deft in the creation of chosen families. Beth’s non-lizard boyfriend, preoccupied monomaniacally with sex, doesn’t understand her need for warmth. Which, now that she is cold-blooded, means physical as well as emotional warmth. Via this metaphor, the boyfriend’s refusal to fix a drafty hole in their Philadelphia home contrasts with the heat lamps and the free-flowing, generous affection of the lizards. In the end, Beth leaves for Florida to live among those like her.

The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt would, I think, appreciate that the metaphorical gay lizards are also actual gay lizards, in the same way he can appreciate a pair of lovers putting on bunny suits while they screw like rabbits. But, alas, the Magnetic Fields are simply not the right comparandum at all. They’re too ethereal, too escapist. The moral of their story has always been that if you don’t like this world, you can live in another, of your own imagination. The possibility of inward retreat limits their sense of grievance and deepens their sense of tragedy. Why get angry when you can get lonely? A Small Apocalypse is really nothing like that. Reeve’s imagined worlds are not habitable alternatives but critical comments on this one. Her idea of a refuge is not the infinite expanse of the interior self but the tight-knit, embattled queer family in a hostile world.

So I gave up on that idea and started thinking about the Postal Service, the side-project super-group of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, glitch wizard Dntel, and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. When I saw some rapid-fire references to Death Cab and Rilo Kiley in one of Reeve’s stories, I thought that I must really be onto something. The gooey, enveloping synths on “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” remind me of the Florida heat and humidity in Reeve’s “Rebecca.” In that story, a woman named Grace travels from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, the home of Max, a boy with whom she’s been having phone sex—probably in his twenties, but the kind of stalled-out, punk-ish hanger-on who stays a boy indefinitely. Of the two possible masculinities available in Reeve’s collection, this discouraging immaturity is in fact preferable to the other, which involves dangerous self-absorption and palpable threat. Maybe for this reason, Grace proves upon arrival to be less interested in Max than in his recently deceased girlfriend Rebecca, to whom she may or may not bear a close physical resemblance. The story ends with a visitation from Rebecca’s ghost, with whom Grace has strange, liminal conversations and sweaty Floridian sex. (NB: queer punk houses in Florida do not have AC—see Jackie Wang’s Alien Daughters Walk into the Sun.) Their two voices intertwining in a haunted, abandoned schoolhouse could remind you, if you squint, of the strange, liminal voices emerging from the buzzy clamor of synthesizers on “This is the Dream of Evan and Chan,” or the ghostly backing vocals on the choruses of the aforementioned “District.”

But, alack, the Postal Service won’t work either. Ben Gibbard is (at time of writing) simply too straight and too boy, good ally though he may be. Probably also too white, though if he were queerer, that could perhaps be negotiable. These distinctions matter in the world of A Small Apocalypse. It’s a battle cry of a book, and it certainly doesn’t make any concessions to arguments of the form “not all [insert privileged group here].” Reeve’s vision isn’t quite separatism, but it’s not conciliatory or integrationist either. “I only really hang out with queers,” says Danny, a recurring character who stands very near the collection’s heart. These are stories about communities of resistance, about those who can rely only on each other in a hostile world.

With that in mind, my best bet for A Small Apocalypse’s musical twin is Hard Femme, a Chicago-based five-piece whose Bandcamp page describes them as “soft queer pop with a hint of existential crisis.” Don’t let them fool you. Melodic and pulsing their songs may be, but there’s nothing soft about them. “The Car That Kills Me” hits as hard as the titular vehicle, as hard as anything the better-known Car Seat Headrest ever wrote about automotive despair.

Hard Femme remind me most of Reeve when they puncture the dark clouds of queer suffering and grievance, described acutely from a stance of protest, with the light of loving one’s friends. Rare is the Hard Femme song that doesn’t mention or name a friend, so that the world of the songs develops its own small prosopography. And here is Reeve’s:

Danny, Rebecca, Rachel, and Taylor had met in college, Lou and Danny as coworkers at a coffee shop they both quit a few months in. Rebecca and Ashley became friends as volunteers for a summer camp for girls and trans youth, and Melissa moved to Jacksonville after meeting Ashley at the height of lesbian Tumblr. Some of their friendships were almost eight years strong, and others were newer, but they’d all spent the past two years with their teeth sunk into each other like burrs—nights out at the bar, movies at the theater and on each other’s couches, hurricane hunker-downs, and year-round barbecues. There was something about them as a group, sweet on each other in all the ways that were possible. And Danny looked for them, called to them, chose them on birthdays and holidays and celebrations and heartbreaks, like when their dad had died, and they each took turns sharing Danny’s double bed with them because it was the only way they could sleep.

A Small Apocalypse follows this group from their vagabond twenties into vague presentiments of stability as their thirties approach and overtake them. Reeve is at her best when she sticks close to this crew. Whether it’s because the absence of supernatural, metaphorical elements frees up space for a less schematic approach, or because we have more context for the recurring characters, something about Danny’s friends liberates Reeve to shade despair and outrage with absurdity and humor. That’s important, because, in my experience, no despair is so deep that an inappropriate laugh isn’t hiding in there somewhere. My favorite sentence in the book comes from “Beloved Flamingo Stoned to Death,” in which Lou from the crew, now working at the zoo, steals the titular bird’s corpse to give him his funereal due. Lou sees themself in George the flamingo, who was stoned to death by three boy delinquents in an act of wanton masculinity. In a nightmare, they also see themself in the boys, and they need to head off that possibility through immediate action. Clearly, the only thing to do is to lay George to rest with dignity.

Thus the theft, and thus this beautiful sentence: “It wasn’t until they were halfway to Tampa with a dead flamingo in the backseat of their car that they started to doubt their plan.” I know this shouldn’t be my favorite sentence in the book. There are other sentences that are clearly more intentional displays of writerly bravura. “How could they ever again feel this big and gorgeous in their collective love for each other and the impossibility of being young and queer in the wildness?” for example, in the realistic mode. Or, in the staccato horror mode: “‘I am half ghost,’ he repeated. ‘I am the murdered and the murderer.’” But come on, isn’t the flamingo sentence special? Doesn’t it just give you everything at once, without telling you any more than it has to?

The stories that stray further from the crew are more difficult for me. Reeve’s sci-fi/horror experimentations are wonderfully well designed, but they can be a bit narrow in terms of the emotional spectrum: all fear, or all outrage, or all despair. They’re often designed to make points or produce effects, and sometimes characterization falls to the wayside. Several stories center on protagonists who seem like different versions of the same character, or perhaps characters at different points in the same journey: a young, queer, half-Chinese woman who knows that she desires other women but is too paralyzed to act on it until she comes to terms with her own body, with its racial in-betweenness and unbelonging, and the violence that men have perpetrated on it. Beth in “Milked Snakes,” Grace in “Rebecca,” Ms. [redacted] in “Real Bodies,” and Lily in “Paper Wasps” all fit this description pretty closely, and there are even more characters in other stories who fit it loosely. Because the stories are short, and their point of interest is the central problem of sex, body, and identity, we don’t get much else of each character’s life, interests, or preferences. I would have liked to learn more about each of them, to differentiate them from each other. Likewise, the men and women whom the protagonists sleep with or love—Beth’s boyfriend, Max, Carol, Jenna, Rebecca’s ghost—are barely even sketched beyond their role in the protagonists’ progress. They serve more as mirrors than as autonomous individuals.

Reeve may well know this. In “Hunted,” the unnamed, mirror-obsessed protagonist finally finds peace with her body by dumping her (under-characterized) girlfriend and having sex with her own reflection instead. The process is not described in graphic detail, but it involves putting mirrors on every available surface of the house. I took this story as the author’s acknowledgement, perhaps even her questioning, of the solipsistic tendency in the others. As a friend of mine used to say, unprompted and repeatedly, “Masturbation is sex with someone I love.”

The characterization problem bothered me most, though, when it came to Rebecca. Her death is the black hole swallowing her friends’ lives. But we learn very little about her. Even in stories where she is alive, her dialogue is minimal, and the narrator never inhabits her perspective. In “Suwannee,” when the friends are swapping ghost stories, the scene ends just before Rebecca’s turn, and it feels like a missed opportunity. I don’t mean to detract from the power with which Reeve portrays the impact of a death on this kind of community. Anyone who’s been through it knows that it really is the end of the world. But it may be precisely in such cases that the necromantic power of literature to bring the dead before our eyes is most important.

Nonetheless, Reeve is, above all else, a remarkably sound architect of the short story. Seldom is anything pointless or out of place. Her prose is lucid; it forestalls confusion even as she describes things that are hard to imagine, or hard to talk about. It’s always nice to know there’s somebody trustworthy at the wheel. I think I shall start lending this book to my friends and lovers, dead and living, and let it make the rounds.

Nathan Katkin is a graduate student and plays in a band.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.