Do not fall in love with a Jennifer Caloyeras character, for to fall in love with a Jennifer Caloyeras character will only bring you suffering, confusion, and an overwhelming sense of existential dread. In this collection of short stories, Caloyeras, who has previously published two young adult novels, has written a set of unrelated creatures that are evasive, duplicitous, and occasionally predatory. And may justify stealing from you. Whether it’s the handler at a center for privileged gorillas who finds herself seduced by her favorite female gorilla, or a young boy with an overzealous curiosity for taxidermy, the characters in Caloyeras’ new book steal the show.
Unruly Creatures opens with “The Sound of an Infinite Gesture”, the story about the aforementioned gorilla handler. She has begun spending so much time with the advanced primates and the children she educates that we see her unable to connect to adult humans. You may find yourself oddly titillated by this story as the gorilla shows capabilities of human intimacy, or you may recoil in horror.
You may be equally horrified by “A Real Live Baby”, following a student who lands an opportunity babysitting plastic dolls for an eccentric neighbor. Meanwhile, she’s also doing a Life Science project for school wherein the kids each have to take care of an egg, as if it’s going to hatch and become their child. The symbolism is not wasted when the student hooks up with a boy from her class, leaving the audience to wonder about its ultimate conclusion.
Caloyeras’ tendency to blend the macabre and surreal with the profane and the humorous is evocative of Gutshot author Amelia Gray, or filmmaker Todd Solondz, behind such works as Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. There’s also a kind of cartoony Daniel Clowes feel to her work. Her work plays like a bizarre sci-fi film in your head, and if these stories were to be adapted into some sort of serialized Netflix series (since almost everything is these days) I can imagine it being twisted, hilarious, disgusting, and upsetting. That is how effective she is as an author.
Like many writers, the majority of Caloyeras’ work has been published in smaller presses and literary journals. Her previous books, Strays and Urban Falcon, were published by Ashland Creek Press and Diversion Press respectively, her shorter fiction appearing in literary journals such as Monday Night Literary, Booth, and Storm Cellar. She teaches short fiction writing and writing for young adult novels at UCLA Writer’s Extension Program. In a recent interview she stated she had difficulty forcing her work into boxes like “young adult”. In Unruly Creatures, she’s worked out what was true to herself as an author and let the stories find their own voices.
She also states in the interview, as well as in the back of the book, that some of the stories, like “Unruly”, for example, are reworkings or reinterpretations of fairy tales. She challenges the reader to think about what the fairy tale that inspired some of the stories might have been, leaving the reader to form their own conclusions. “Unruly” is the story that closes out the collection. It’s about a young woman’s unruly pubic hair, leaving me to conclude it may be inspired by the story of Rapunzel, but I’ll leave that up to you.
Another recurring motif is humanity’s relationship with animals. Each story has some interaction between a human and a creature in a surprising way, whether it’s the sickly protagonist’s protective feeling of the last surviving cow in “Bloodletting” (a story that juxtaposes the radiation in cancer treatment with the radiation from a meteorite) or the taxidermied animals in “Stuffed”, Caloyeras challenges us to think beyond the two sides of the same coin of thinking that animals are so like us or so different. One begins to wonder if the unruly creatures she is referring to are actually the flawed human characters that make up her stories.
The two standout stories in this collection are “Plush” and “Roadkill”. The first is about a boy who finds work as a professional cuddler, who goes to group events where people can hug and snuggle people in a non-sexual and therapeutic way. The hired cuddlers dress up in different animal costumes and only know each other by their usual chosen animal. Caloyeras plays with the ways humans seek intimacy with animals, and the ways in which intimacy becomes a form of labor you can pay someone for when you can’t or won’t seek it from others in your life. The second story, “Roadkill”, examines gender identity in a prison, looking at a transwoman who is sent to a men’s prison, and is denied her hormone therapy. The treatment of the trans character by the narrator and the other main character in the story is refreshing and timely.
One of the unfortunate issues of publishing with tiny presses and smaller publishers (this one being published by Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University Press) is that the work suffers when the publisher can’t afford a ruthless editor. Within the first few pages or the first few stories, you can see Caloyeras off her chain, free to be as imaginative and unruly as she can be, but you also notice some grammatical issues that might have been caught at a bigger press. Another editor might have even attempted to reign her in or push her in a tighter direction. It either doesn’t seem to be a recurring problem after the first few stories, or your internal reader catches on with Caloyeras’ narrative voice and what she’s going for. And you go along with her.