Julia Slavin’s The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club is a collection of short stories that touch on everyday life through incredible and fantastic events. “Babyproofing,” and “Covered” are two excellent examples of this; “Babyproofing” examines a man losing control of his own life (which reminded me of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”), and “Covered” is both a witty and deep tale of addiction. In contrast to some surreal short stories that I’ve mentioned earlier, “Babyproofing” and “Covered” both begin realistically then devolve into fantastic worlds.
I must admit that I have a preference for stories with a surreal tint, but that element of the strange is a missed opportunity if the writer doesn’t connect it to a greater, more universal aspect of the human condition. In The Girl in the Flammable Skirt the stories I found to be most compelling were the ones that I could understand within the context of my own life. “Babyproofing” and “Covered” are both very strange, which can be interesting, but it is how Slavin connects this strangeness to daily life that makes the stories memorable. In “Babyproofing”, Walt Peel signs his life over to the baby proofing company, but he doesn’t know that he’ll lose control of everything related to his child. He is gradually forced out of the decision making process, and every time he gives up a little bit of power Mitzy Baker takes it. By the climax of the story he doesn’t even recognize his own house-the changes have been so dramatic. Part of the way Slavin makes this a believable transition is by making Mitzy Baker gradually take over Walt’s life. If he were to come home from work one day to find everything had changed overnight he would be shocked by the change and fight against it. But more importantly the other characters would notice it. In “Babyproofing” Walt signs over his house to Mitzy Baker, but it’s not until a few days after they’ve started the process that things really start getting out of hand, and it’s a slow change at that (relatively slow, this is only a twenty page short story). The gradual nature of the descent into the absurd makes it palatable for both the character and the reader. And even though not many can claim to have their houses taken over by Mitzy Baker, everyone can relate to losing control.
In “Covered”, Steven finds his old baby blanket in the attic after his mother passes away, and once he touches it he can’t get it out of his life. This story gets at the topic of addiction through the baby blanket. Initially, the blanket puts Steven at ease, but it comes to dominate his life. No matter what he tries, he can’t rid himself of the blanket. The control it has over his life ranges from the realistic, “…When I woke after a feverish dream, I saw that the blanket had found its way into the bed next to me. I yielded,” (66) to the comically absurd, “The blanket was on the bed, under Victoria’s waist. I jolted back, but a strand of yarn caught me at the base of my penis.” (72) In this story the source of the addiction is the blanket, but in another story it might be wealth, or a specific person, or (if we wanted to be predictable) drugs or alcohol. By focusing the addiction on the blanket Slavin is able to make the tale funny and odd. It’s a fresh twist on a story which has been told Ad nauseam, but it still retains its poignancy.
In both “Covered” and “Babyproofing” Slavin uses the impossibly strange to access the truth. By gradually revealing the absurdity in her tales, Slavin is able to use of the transition from normal to strange to affect both the characters and the reader.
Slavin, Julia. The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1999.