Families Among Us by Blake Kimzey (Black Lawrence Press, 2014)
One need only look at the back cover of Blake Kimzey’s Families Among Us—the newly-released winner of the 2014 Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition—to know that its stories demand immediate attention. Anyone familiar with the work and taste of Ramona Ausubel, Roxanne Gay, Matt Bell, or Kyle Minor, will know to expect stories that are not only ethereal and psychologically revelatory, but also provocative. And their praise is well-earned. Though these tales takes place in what seems to be our world, there’s always an unsettling, magical difference, a singular but significant alteration to the landscape which yields striking, sometimes frightful, consequences for all the characters involved.
The opening story, "A Family Among Us," sets the emotional tone for the rest of the collection by aggressively defamiliarizing our understanding of home. Here we encounter a pair of siblings aching to return to the bottom of the ocean where for decades they had lived with their parents, naked, without human speech, breathing through rapidly-grown gills, amid the wreckage of a crashed passenger jet:
The boy and girl held on to each other so they could sink lower, where the water was dark, and still they would have to scramble to the surface in a panic for air. In time the girl could stay under water for eight minutes, the boy for five, and together they thought eventually they would be able to hold their breath forever.
Whatever the reason the family had come back to land, now the siblings clung to one another in a childlike tangle of arms, trying to stay underwater longer with each dive. It was the nameless siblings’ best attempt at finding home—a home worlds away from the “normal” one their parents had attempted to reclaim. It’s a strange and disturbing moment, a moment where the reader can’t help but ask terrible questions about family, love, and belonging.
Families Among Us is a daring book. At fewer than 40 pages, one can finish its six stories over a couple of beers. But I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not just that Kimzey writes about kids (and adults) turning into animals or magical creatures, taking off their clothes and scurrying or flying into the wild. No, it's that each of these disquieting stories force the reader to experience familiar emotional realities with the wonder and surprise of a child. Kimzey's world is new and dangerous, even sobering, precisely because its strangeness drives us into the heart of the familiar, into childhood's loneliness and consuming anxiety.
This, I suspect, is just what Kimzey wants. Each story, even those told from the perspective of adults, affects a dream-like quality, though not necessarily one of nightmare. This mood is achieved though natural, unobtrusive, even quietly beautiful prose. Take, for example, this moment from "The Skylight," when a young man has followed his mysterious neighbor to a rooftop in Paris:
She faced him and stepped out of her burqa; his instinct was to turn away, but he didn’t. Her arms, legs, and torso were covered in a light down of brindle feathers, a beautiful plumage that camouflaged her breasts and everything underneath.
The understated prose allows us to engage the fantastic without distraction. And it’s these surprises themselves which meet us again and again in Families Among Us and become the collection’s most immediate source of delight.
As with Kafka’s work, after living in these stories for a couple days, they get even stranger, and new layers emerge. As one moves through the collection, each subsequent story is set a little further back in time than the one before it; each story features children or young people who undergo frightening transformations; in each story it’s the oddities or mutations of the child which disorient and break apart their family.
Even if we are left to speculate about many things in his stories, Kimzey leaves the reader in no doubt that those children who decided to leave their homes in Families Among Us left because they could do nothing else. In some of the stories, the child leaves of his or her own accord; the world they live in is not one where they can be themselves, let alone flourish. But in others it’s the kid’s family or the wider community that can’t countenance such a monstrous other among them. Every reader (even those lucky enough to have escaped childhood without turning into a bug or wild animal) will feel the alienation, the disorientation and rejection these characters experience and, perhaps, glimpse again the shadow of their own childhood fears as well.
The closing story, “And Finally the Tragedy,” strikes a different note. Narrated by a protestant minister in what one imagines as a late 19th century rural town, this very short piece turns the tables on the community: the misfit, the son of the community who has been cast out, has a word, perhaps even a word of judgment for them. As the minister says, “It wasn’t that the boy had been lost and then found dead—that would have been okay. The tragedy was that the boy was found, that he came to…” It’s a surprising ending to a beautiful and weird book, one which provokes the same questions about alienation and the status of the other, but in a different register. It will leave the reader asking what else Kimzey has up his sleeve.