Ruth Joffre is an emerging voice in American fiction. Her debut collection of short stories, Night Beast, features ill-fated romances, provocations of reality, and heart-wrenching depictions of survival. Her stories are predominantly told from the perspective of women who confidently educe sexual fluidity. In whole, Night Beast focuses on the unsettling flaws in relationships that compose identities. Whereas the collection’s concept is intriguing, the execution is uneven. Joffre has a talent for making the macabre playful but ultimately Night Beast is disenchanting.
Night Beast centralizes queer and women characters with fluid sexualities. “Nitrate Nocturnes” and “Ithaca Moment” feature female characters who are in physical relationships with men but long for relationships with other women. The horrifying sexual abuse in “I’m Unarmed” is made marginally more palpable by the sweet and charming relationship between the protagonist teenage girl and her crush, Andi. “The Twilight Hotel” examines the irreversible anguish caused by a miscarriage as experienced by a same-sex couple.
Finally, the collection’s eponymous story deconstructs the nuances of consent and betrayal when Sydney, a somnambulist, has sex with her male fiancé’s sister, Gemma. While awake, Sydney easily portrays privilege heteronormativity. But when asleep she relentlessly sexually pursues Gemma. There are hints throughout that Sydney is closeting herself as her haughty friends say of her fiancé, he’s “ruining Sydney’s life”. “Night Beast” is a provoking piece, as Joffre explores the subconscious’ role in sexuality and the social gradations of sleep-sexing. Night Beast‘s characters never define their sexuality in prescriptive labels and this is Joffre’s rejuvenating outlook.
Several of the stories in Night Beast, however, lack both character and plot development. “Softening” is about two pages long and romanticizes a deeply problematic relationship between a teacher and her student. Abuses of power or manipulation of vulnerability are never interrogated. Likewise, in “General, Minister, Horse, Cannon” the characters’ histories are glossed over. For instance, we learn the background of Theta’s family history while his friend’s identity is inchoate. When the characters’ psyche begin to unwind in “Ithaca Moment”, Joffre abruptly completes the story. All questions are unanswered and the characters’ mysteries remain. Yet the mystique feels manufactured since Joffre ends the story before a connection between reader and character is created. She is too focused on establishing the characters’ mysteries instead of expanding their spirits.
The opening “Nitrate Nocturnes”, is a compelling science fiction piece. In this story all people are born with timers in their wrists that countdown to the moment before meeting one’s soulmate. Fiona’s timer is seemingly on the fritz: it glitches by speeding up the countdown then inexplicably adds time. Upon meeting, the soulmate’s timer is still counting down while Fiona’s has zeroed. Despite years of premonitions, heartfelt knowing, and the timer’s display, Fiona’s soulmate isn’t ready. At no point does Fiona probe why she blindly pledges allegiance to the technology in her wrist nor does she try to complicate the idea of a soulmate. Instead, Fiona piteously assumes she’s in error instead of subverting the controlling technology. Fiona believes that “no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake the thought that she had taken a wrong turn, lost sight of what was most important in life” (7). She has lost sight of what’s important: critiquing social norms. Fiona is so consumed by the timer that she fails to see the soulmate as an indefinite concept. Here Joffre proves the futility of labels and excels at illustrating how accepted social norms constrain human relationships.
Fiona’s inability to push against dominant culture epitomizes the frustration rendered by Night Beast. Throughout, the characters accept their emptiness without question or critique. Besides Fiona, a similar apathy is exhibited in “Safekeeping”. The main character peacefully resides in a military grade bunker where her lover placed her to wait out a war. She is a gifted and productive eco-scientist who at no point challenges her partner’s motivation or consider her confinement a type of abuse. However, her admission is more complicated and part of the author’s strategy.
In “The Weekend”, one of the characters reveals their next project is “a gripping character study of a woman locked in a futuristic safe house while the rest of the world destroys itself (the lead actress had been left in an old bomb shelter for three weeks to prepare for the part)” (159). Joffre leaves it up to the reader to question why her confinement is an acceptable form of entertainment instead of an exploitive show.
Joffre also connects “The Twilight Hotel” to “The Weekend”. The latter’s main plot line focuses on a reality show’s depiction of a couple during their weekends while the actors struggle to compartmentalize their fictions from their realities. The director’s point is to document the quotidian, an idea reaffirmed in “The Twilight Hotel” when a character asks if the filmmaker “falls into the European trap of getting lost in the quotidian” (137)? The interconnection between these stories is engaging but also causes the collection’s remaining stories to seem like outliers. With nascent characters, it’s too easy to piece these stories together to fill in the gaps when in actuality there’s no connection.
There are moments when characters demonstrate sparks of strength and agency. After surviving her cousin’s chronic sexual abuse, the main character in “I’m Unarmed” finally fights back. She acknowledges “he was so accustomed to complacency that my attack caught him off guard” (106). Despite the abuse, the main character and her mother decide to leave rather than stay and fight. Her cousin is left with a patina of power when “instead of pressing charges, my uncle, the police, and the school tried to cover it up, pretend nothing happened” (107). Once the character’s rage manifests, people feign shock as if survivors are deceptive. Here Joffre accurately portrays the problematic tendency to avoid and dismiss survivors’ testimonies while allowing the abusers to rewrite the narratives in which they are victims and victors.
Joffre pens nefarious worlds that embrace the lurid and fantastical. Yet the characters are insipid and several of the short stories’ plots verge on jejune. Throughout, the characters’ identities are often muddy rather than crystalline. Joffre shines in her ability to spotlight women and queer characters, however, Night Beast is a fitful debut.