- Trafficking in Pain
Gina Frangello writes character with all the brutality of genuine compassion. Her collection Slut Lullabies is interested less in morality and judgment than in identity and change: where characters come from, who they've been, how they reckon with both. The bulk of these stories find their protagonists in liminal states between the stagnant perpetuation of unkind presents and the uneasy promise of unknowable futures; the conflict is not what brought them here, but whether they'll break free, leaving the quicksand of their nows, leaving behind the people on whom they're dependent or who are dependent on them, entitling themselves to change and want.
As in her deeply psychological first novel, My Sister's Continent (2006), Frangello's writing here is thick with context. Indeed, implicit in her narratives is the argument that character cannot be separated from context: from place, class, or family, from gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or any other kind of cultural marker. Even in the story "What You See," which uses types (e.g., the Intelligent Woman, the Beautiful Woman, the Aggressive Woman) as identifiers, the characters are richly drawn, tied always to their past and present contexts.
In a collection that flirts tentatively with formal experimentation, "What You See" is easily the most experimental piece. In a sense, Frangello undoes her own typecasting in this story, the tension revolving around the alternating affirmation and rejection, by an unusually arch narrator, of the imposed types. As the story negotiates this tension, it argues with metafictive flourishes that character is formed in relation. That is, the Intelligent Woman is only the Intelligent Woman because she is in the room with the Beautiful Woman: "If this were the Fat Counselor's story, the Intelligent Woman would be called the Beautiful Woman." The relationship between any two characters here is comprised of a rubric of sameness and difference that is tallied up and oversimplified into a too-easy stereotype; that too-easy stereotype is then complicated repeatedly as the story proceeds, culminating in a study of character that both admits to and undermines the efficacy of overdetermined characterization.
It's appropriate that the story's metafictive strategies are aimed at revealing the underpinnings of character development, as character is at the heart of Frangello's fiction. Her cast is diverse, ranging from a gay Latino to an Italian American mistress to a paraplegic Svengali to a white American teenager living in Amsterdam with his lesbian mom—with the great majority tied in some way to Chicago, where Frangello lives and works.
At the same time that Frangello's characters are marked by their social conditions, her narratives reject determinism; these characters may be stuck, but they don't necessarily have to be. "The Marie Antoinette School of Economics" follows Victoria, a headmistress, mother, and wife, as she deals with misfortunes she did not expect from life—in particular, her husband's worsening Huntington's Disease. As he increasingly becomes a burden to her both emotionally and economically, she must decide how to escape him within the bounds of an unavoidably selfish ethics. This is a common arc in Slut Lullabies: protagonists nearly flattened by hefty burdens in the form of loved ones, and deciding, in some cases quite starkly, between selflessness and selfishness. Frangello is an apologist of the selfish.
These are weighty decisions, and the collection traffics in pain, both psychological and physical. Nearly all of these stories explore violence in some way: the violence of intimacy, the violence of sex. The title story opens the collection with a turn from a celebratory night full of sexual possibility to a night marked by betrayal and sexual assault. Similarly, "Attila the There" explores the psychological aftermath of a ménage-a-trois from the point of view of a teenaged boy who coerced his girlfriend into participating, not exactly against her will, but certainly in the gray area outside of clearly articulated consent.
Sex is never simple in Frangello; she is too interested in the workings of power. The book sustains a clear male-female binary: not...