Tell Me What You See
by Terena Elizabeth Bell
Whiskey Tit, 2022
reviewed by Jordan McQueen
When I first read this collection, I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble cafe and the sun was blazing the left side of my body. I sat there because the rest of the establishment’s patrons had crowded away from the sun into the darker seats, like how a plant will lean toward sunlight but in reverse. This sort of in between area, halfway in the sunlight and halfway out of society, turned out to be the perfect surrealist liminal space in which to enjoy a highly experimental collection of semi-realist, semi-surrealist pieces.
When I read #Coronalife for the first time, it struck me as deeply serious. By that I don’t mean it takes itself too seriously, or even that it takes itself seriously in that way. I mean it takes its job, the job of capturing the spirit of its times, seriously. Reading the collection in its entirety, I can see that Terena herself has set the question of whether or not it’s “taking itself too seriously” to the side entirely. She’s interested in having different conversations, she would rather strike out at capturing emotions and fail than stay in her comfort zone. That being said, I think it looks better in its online form at Boudin than in print form, where the use of images doesn’t really hit the same way, but I still enjoyed rereading it in its anthologized form.
There are places where this tendency to experiment at all costs results in some undesired effects. “Esther” is, in particular, a Biblical retelling I don’t know what to do with. On one hand, I like the place it fits in the collection. It’s a kind of negative space, a retelling of an old tale almost everyone has heard, and also my favorite story in its original collection. On the other hand, its only addition to this tale is a folksy repertoire, which didn’t really keep me reading through the whole thing. It ends up coming off as more of a gimmick with a moral that makes me feel a bit too much like I’m back in Sunday school for my tastes.
The places where the gimmicks transcend to become genuinely innovative tools, however, make the collection well worth the cost of admission in my view. When I read “The Fifth Fear” for the first time, I found my mind repelled by its unique form of experimentation. The story makes itself harder to read on purpose by lightening the color of its font, resulting in a difficulty that goes beyond the cerebral and is instead physical, straining your eyes and making you hold the page closer to your face and squint to read it.
No doubt this will put some people off of the collection entirely. I’m fine with that, I think the collection is fine with that too, but for those of you ready to feel the same strange and visceral feeling I felt, I have to say that since I read it, “The Fifth Fear” has been living in my head rent free. I need to sit with it more; I’m still digesting it, but I think it might be one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever read. Typically, when a story’s content is meant to elicit fear, it does so through the content itself; it makes you think of scenarios or situations you would find repulsive or terrifying, and makes characters you care about live through them. The edifice of “The Fifth Fear” is in and of itself anxiety inducing, and it does this because there are no monsters to fear inside of it. It is a story about the raw anxiety of being human in the modern world, a place where fears are often formless, where if someone asks “what’s wrong” the only thing you can do is gesture around you and say “everything.” It feels like being a teenager, only you have to go to a therapist’s office and fork over a deductible to see a surrogate parent.
It’s so unapologetically weird. The whole collection is. Not weird in that cute way we mean when we say weird, it’s weird weird. Its presentation is weird. It gives it pitfalls I’ve never seen before, but triumphs that are generally fresh and new and exciting. It made me want to write more, to adopt some techniques and see how I could use them. I feel like I learned something, like I got new tools in a toolbox. Maybe the difficulty in reading it comes from the fact that it’s been a long time since I popped that thing open to add anything new in there. The lock was rusted shut.
Terena is my friend, of course, and that makes me biased, but I don’t think I have any illusions about the collection’s flaws. If I didn’t like all of them, I’m guessing you wont either. But the hits knocked on my head and cracked it like an eggshell. I have my own yolk all over myself, and I’m looking at the screen, sticky, and already excited to see what she does next.
Like a stampede of wild horses, it’s powerful. it’s uncontrolled. It doesn’t care about your attempts to tame it. It breaks things it shouldn’t. But in the end, when it has gone past you, and you are watching it and hearing the sound of it galloping away into the sunset, you think to yourself, I should start running too. Maybe it would make me feel better.
Thanks for reading. I hope you check it out.