A Review of Carleigh Baker's Bad Endings
Review by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
I haven’t seen my chosen aunt, who suffers from dementia, in a few years, but when I visit her nursing home, the first thing she says is, “Well, I haven’t got any honey for you.” She recalls only my most essential aspect, that I’m Winnie the Pooh, deep in my heart. To give you an idea of how much I like honey, I’ve been in Newcastle Upon Tyne a scant week, and already I’ve got three pots of it. All this to say, Carleigh Baker’s Bad Endings, thrumming with the collective energy of a productive honeybee hive, is just the book that ought to have landed in my hands.
Not every story features bees, but the through line of working on a honey farm dances through many of the fifteen stories that comprise this collection. Of these fifteen, several stories have been previously published, with the immaculate story “Chins and Elbows” listed for the Journey Prize in 2015. Baker can be commended for her precision with language, the seamless way she compresses action and thought such that one embodies the other. This is not easy to do, as interior thought can appear pasted onto a scene or worse it can colonize to the point it overwrites what is actually happening. Here’s a bit when the narrator, Carmen, who has recently quit meth, works for Nature’s Little Helpers on the salmon egg take:
“How do you do this?” I call to Lara, but she’s too far away and the river drowns me out. Shouldn’t have had that coffee; my heart is pounding. Tweaked. A feeling I’ve been trying to avoid. My legs stiffen and the force of the river increases, so I bend my knees. This can’t be as bad as handling a hive full of bees for the first time, when they seem terrifying, before you realize that you’re Godzilla. I look down. The water is full of fish and all I have to do is reach in and grab one. Inhale, plunge a hand into the river and connect five fingers with a solid body.
The thought seeps through the action in a way that feels, for the reader, immersive. We are privileged to witness the deepest recesses of the narrator here not so that we might empathize with her, but rather so that we might be disrupted by her alienation (Note: I am getting pretty tired of the way the word “empathy” seems to foreclose on what literature does best, which is wake us up to the fact that language, if done right, fractures and dissolves us. That might lead to empathy, sure, but it leads to other things, as well — like self witnessing, or the arduous sloughing of old habits, or love, or even, say, madness).
Baker can also be lauded for the weirdness of her stories, which might seem like a back-handed compliment, but it isn’t. We don’t see enough weird, in my opinion. The best of these stories avoids a kind of creeping obviousness and just keeps at the task of telling, as if form was the last thing Baker thought to work through, except clearly she has, and the thinking through seems to have brought her to the astute realization that story, like nature, is entropic. “Grey Water,” a story told about a drought by a love sick narrator who is holed up on an island retreat trying to make art is less about the dangers of losing your mind in such a situation, than about the insidious and gorgeous way that madness might be our most natural state. This story is possibly the best of the collection, so let me give you a taste:
I saved all the grey water — that’s what you call it after you’ve soaked in it, in case you didn’t know — and I used it to do things like water the dahlias in the garden, which Amanda has actually insisted I do, even though I’m supposed to be limiting myself to three-minute showers. Doesn’t that seem kind of weird to you? Don’t worry about yourself, but make sure a bunch of decorative plants in the front yard look their best. Make sure they get enough water. The dahlias are more important than you. That’s kind of what she’s saying, right?
The online magazine Joyland — who have published two of Baker’s stories if you want a preview — say they are “pretty sure she’s the new master of relationship tragicomedy,” but I would argue that she may be master of endings, too. The ending to “Grey Water” is sublime. It twists you up in the best possible way, and shows you just how captured you are by the web Baker’s narrator has spun, how “of a piece” in the ecosystem of her story. Then, there is the noxious ending to “The Honey House,” in which we see the full, delicious fury of Ember, hanging by her arms from the rafters of the waxworks, while she fucks the poor, dumb hired hand, Joe. If “the bees are getting in” only to die from the heat, and if their carcasses now litter the romance, it’s the hum of their attempt, their primal attraction to the heat of things, that signifies.
As they seek a way out of their own very human impasses, and into the drama of life, Baker’s characters might fail, but failure never looked so sweet.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent novel is All the Broken Things. She is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Toronto.