In boysgirls (Marick Press, 2011), author Katie Farris’ debut collection of stories, she explores our modern world in a tried-and-true method of self-examination and societal critiquing, through myth and fairy tale. Farris’ style is biting satire that occasionally leaves a bloody mark of recognition on the reader. This quality in her writing alternates between playful kidding and shocking disclosure.
As the title suggests, the book is split into gender specific sections. “Girls” is Farris’ intelligent and pointed treatment of what it means to be a girl based on her own modern mythical creatures. “Mise en Abyme,” depicts a girl with a mirror for a face. The author brilliantly utilizes the metaphor of reflection to express the role of narcissism in relationships. In many ways we are looking for ourselves in others, and the inevitability of dissatisfaction within intimate bonds is always evident and often destructive.
Farris’ vibrant use of prose is quirky, striking and strident in conveying messages. In “Cyclops,” she explores the objectification of women through the creation of a modern monster, constructed by what can clearly be interpreted as a fashion industry gone mad. Our reliance on a singular plastic image as well as our growing need for acceptance based on impossible standards is expressed to perfection with Farris’ tongue planted firmly in her cheek. This only underscores the sour message of our modern era that as women we are pawns of economics as much as we are the targets of sexism.
Over the course of my reading life, I have encountered several descriptive passages by a variety of writers detailing the sexual dance between male and female, but this is the first time I was surprised by the outcome. In “How to Tame a Lion,” Farris takes the reader on a short trip through the mind of a woman pursued, her emotional participation exposed in this ancient mating game. However, just as you advance to the precipice with the characters, the entire scenario ends with a scolding finale. What remains is perhaps one of the bluntest yet graceful endings to what could have been nothing more than a predictable summation of events.
The last story in “Girls” is really not a story at all, but rather a cryptic, yet prudent passage. “A Riddle” speaks clearly about men, women and God as a triad to wholeness. The division between men and women results in a spiritual isolation based on mutual clinging to polarities that no longer work. It is a sage warning against being devoured by our apathy, and a suggestion to instead work toward a change that unites, succinctly ending part one.
In the second half, “Boys,” we encounter the male characters. “The Boy With One Wing” is clearly a reference to the emotional neutering of boys by a patriarchal society. Any creature that flies cannot do so with one wing and is therefore lacking freedom to be complete. In many ways, it is the girl’s complicit behavior that keeps the engine running on this out-of-control machine, exemplified by her acquiescence to traditional coupling and role modeling in “A Brief Interlude for Seduction.” In this story, the character’s willing subservience and dutiful sexual expression combined with the Boy’s own reluctant participation based on social expectation display lack of deliberate choice-making, each responsible for planting seeds of misunderstanding.
Another fascinating character that expands fully on the plight of the Boy is “The Inventor.” He is at first a sinister character, a thinly veiled stand-in for industry and technology as pseudo gods of our time. However, as the Boy approaches the Inventor for help in getting another wing—clearly a reference to gaining his freedom through external means—the Inventor loses his threatening and sterile personage. Instead he is seen as a slumping and sad failure defined by his own inability to find the ultimate answer, not only for the Boy but also for himself. When the idea of love enters the equation, the Inventor faces his own inadequacy and is mystified by it. He does, however, redeem himself at the end of the book. His acceptance of the possibilities love presents to a society imprisoned by inflexible, soulless gender constraints leaves the reader to ponder a hopeful future rather than a jaded reality.
In addition to the stories, several medieval drawings of the characters punctuate the text, imbuing it with a Brothers Grimm sensibility. However, it would be unfair to extend the comparison beyond this, because Katie Farris is an original in her own right, adding an enchanting new voice to literature. I eagerly look forward to witnessing her growth as both a writer and a storyteller of very human truths.