Review: “Back Tuck”
// Leila Emery
Back Tuck, Jen Gann
Magic Helicopter Press, January 2011, $6
As a fan of Magic Helicopter Press, I was thrilled to read and review one of their recent gems: Jen Gann’s short story collection, Back Tuck. This diminutive, 35-page book includes 33 stories, most of which could be considered flash fiction due to their extreme brevity. Fable is another genre term that comes to mind when considering Back Tuck, since many of Gann’s stories center around animals — bees, horses, tigers, gorillas — and tend to illustrate a moral lesson of some kind.
The stories I enjoyed the most from Gann’s collection, however, are not ostensibly about animals — at least not in the traditional sense. Told in the first person, “Momma’s Girls” is about a mother and two young daughters, who, according to the narrator, seem to be “missing something, something essential.” Throughout the story, the mother continues to make similarly alarming observations about her children (“they dangled, weighty necklaces, burdened jewelry”), even going so far as to ask strangers “if they were normal.” Gann’s adroitness here is her bravery – not just in dealing with a provocative subject, but also in using a narrator who is wholly unlikable. We find ourselves almost loathing this mother, and yet, just as we’re about to give up on her, we are given a glimmer of redemption: the mother says, “We must take responsibility.This is the result of what we’ve done.” Ultimately, this admission does not expunge the mother’s disparagements of her daughters, but it gives the reader an important, albeit brief, moment of clarity with regard to why she is the way she is, and it challenges our notions of how a “good” mother is supposed to behave.
Another excellent story, “Underbiters,” is about a group of people with severe underbites who have been exiled from their communities and have since started new lives for themselves on a mountainside. Theirs is a world where traditional notions of beauty have been turned upside down: “There [are] contests to see whose jaw [can] jut the farthest. Daily, children are first taught to love themselves.” In their mutual exile, these unnamed characters have created a utopia of sorts, where “it feels like [they] are one million strong.” The power of Gann’s story is not just that it evokes a great deal of compassion for these rejected characters, but also that it confronts, yet again, the notion of what is “normal.” I defy anyone reading “Underbiters” not to identify with its theme of isolation, since who among us has never felt “alone, without definite allies”?
Perhaps we are meant to regard every one of the stories in Back Tuck as being about animals after all. Gann’s characters might not always be the kind with four legs, but all of them, in the end, are capable of both savagery and kindness.