A Study in Metamorphoses: A Review of Katie Farris’s ‘boysgirls’

The first line of Katie Farris’s boysgirls (Tupelo Press) proclaims, “There are ways of telling a story, they say, so that it comes alive.” But wait—who is this they? They, as in, the well-read? The writing craftspeople? Or maybe Farris’s they refers to a world that does things as it’s always done things. Peoplethings choosing comfort over innovation. It is not clear. But what is?

Farris speaks directly to the holders of her palimpsest, suggests they be prepared to worry. “What is it you hope to accomplish by reading this book?” she asks. “You were hoping to escape unscathed?” She dares the reader to continue, gently tugs on a length of yarn, luring bodies around a corner and into her “new literature” where she takes them by the neck. And what does the neck do, energetically? It speaks or remains silent, stands tall or slouches. It’s a path for bodily nourishment. Farris assures, “What this does not mean is that my hand, my madwoman’s hand, neatly manicured with a certain fragile glowing in my too-white skin, will reach out to take you, dear reader, by the throat.” But what it does mean, dear reader, is that you will imagine the choking anyhow—which will kick-in the swallow reflex. This swallow, this taking in, is growth. And growth doesn’t happen without change. And change doesn’t happen without loss. Farris’s boysgirls moves forward by moving backwards. A study in metamorphoses.

boysgirls fits in back pockets. Like a quick-glance reference manual. Call it metafiction or flash or prose poetry or diminutive hybrid literary fluidity. Actually, don’t call it anything. Because it defies. It’s main focus—change. Another—self love.

Each of the two sections, “girls” and “boys,” begins with the sensational artwork of Lavinia Hanachiuc, whose bio in the book’s final pages deems her, “a jar of plum jam, a born ceramic, and a snow shovel, which is Romanian.” Each section tells stories of identity and hardheadedness, and each story reveals characters playing out their birthstories— a kind of myth-making. Remember tohuwabohu? The name for the condition of the earth before the creation of light? Farris reinvents that.

Meet a girl in “mise en abyme.” Writes Farris, “People are forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face.” The narcissist in them can’t help it, obviously. And the girl with a mirror for a face is happy to oblige. But the girl wants a mouth “so as to be less empty.” But knowing a mouth is, at best, a wish, she takes comfort in nil. In nothing. Quite literally in zero. “The number zero was invented to act as a placeholder in calculations, indicating the degree of loss or gain. And so I am not only empty, the girl thinks—I also contain multitudes.”

Another girl in “cyclops,” wherein, “The maker kept making her, long after she was finished.” Notice the metaphor. Could not the same sentence read, one said stop while the other ignores? The cyclops girl is overdone, and thus, disappearing. Still, scientists come from all over to study her. “She loves to hear them say her name, loves the circular sound of cyclops, psyclops, eyeclops, like a horse galloping over their tongues.” She does what she’s asked. Holds out her hands, “and between them there is air, and this is the shape of loss.” The space between with no beginning or end. Which is precisely where potential lies. The makings for newness. Where making physical contact is the precursor to being fully seen.

Now presenting the girl who has been learning to satisfy the sexual fetishes of the devil. A devil who is bored of all the usual fantasies and longs for the girl to defecate on his face. Demons watch from the sidelines, a woman stares at her reflection while boils rise to the surface of her face. A man removes his intestines like rope. So of course, “The girl finds it hard to move her bowels properly under the circumstances.” She changes position and bears down, trying to ignore the disgust on the faces of the Boschian onlookers while “The devil looks at her with the familiar face of a man about to come, who needs just one more, one more thing.” Men! Farris’s imagery: The woman makes eye contact with an old, masturbating man. Notices his massive right arm. His puny left. He “turns away, ashamed by her frank stare.” Which is precisely when her tubes let loose. Connection capitulated by mutual shame.

Then, “boys.” And “the boy with one wing.” It opens with, “He stands on a beach and tries to resist the wind in his feathers. Painful now, wrenching.” An agonizing soft touch of a breeze on a body, a boy’s body. As if to yield is reprehensible. A sign of weakness. But Farris gives the boy permission to transform. “The Boy stands at the water knowing he’s no longer a boy, knowing; he hasn’t been a boy for a long time. Knowing he will always be a boy.” His multiple attempts at flying cause aguish. Wrecking his knees. He is, and he is not at the same time. Farris’s meditation on what it is to just be.

The same boy in “doldrums” makes an appointment with the Inventor of Invented Things. Why? To give up flight for love. Which suggests the can fly. Which suggests he has something to give up. But he can’t, and he doesn’t. Which means the boy seeks only love. Or maybe he seeks only flight? Yes, that’s it. He seeks flight. Which will, in turn, help him find love. Farris’s craft of language is a journey towards humility.

The Inventor of Invented Things tells the one-winged boy he’s the Inventor of Invented Things, not wings. “Surely someone must have invented a wing for a man,” the boy says. “But never for a Boy with One Wing,” says the Inventor. “You are singular.” The boy leaves, struggles to forget flight—what he thinks he is. Until the Inventor of Invented Things invents a feather. One that will make the boy’s arms useless. “But how can men love one another without arms?” the Inventor asks himself. Gives the feather to the boy, who soars.

Take this. And, this is my body. And, it has been given up for you, dear reader. Farris ends her neoteric cosmology with two questions. One, “Did your soul move like the peristalsis inside your gut?” Which is to say, did it leave you empty and lighter and refreshed? And two, “Would you perhaps have a razor I could borrow?” Which is to say, let’s keep things moving, shall we? As for Farris’s boysgirls body, it is hers. It is ours. “The story has been changed,” because it is changing. And if we eat from it we live.



Tom Griffen

Tom Griffen is a writer and artist in Carrboro, NC. He has an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. He’s now writing a book about it. Follow him at www.tomswalkinglife.com.

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