Format: 160 pp., paperback; Size: 5.2 x 7.4 in.; Price: $15.00; Publisher: FSG Originals; Representative passage: “He steps around the body and its shadow of blood. The head, where’s the head? He leans closer: some kind of mashed in. Pulverized. But it’s all here. Kneeling, he sniffs, pokes, prods, guesses, wonders, looks. A bit of brain like putty dried on the oven door. One of the cops whistles. The detective stands. Peeling off gloves, giving orders pages of notepads flickering. Making the usual jokes. He turns his back on the other guys, rubs his eyes. Somehow he is expected not to go crazy. Blood even on the flowered wallpaper.”
Central Question: Where is the line between fascination and disgust?
Maryse Meijer’s collection, Rag is a bloody assemblage of violent tales as entrancing as it is gory, as spellbinding as horrifying. As the world struggles to contend with toxic male rage in 2019, as manifestos and live-streamed acts of misogynist violence fill our feeds, Meijer’s work takes on unique import. She writes mostly about male violence from an unflappable distance that indicts not only her characters, but her readers. As we read, we become keenly aware of our own complicity in the societal structures that allow male obsession and the projection of female fecklessness to flourish.
Meijer—author of the 2016 collection, Heartbreaker, and 2018 novella, Northwood—critiques the male gaze by examining how its fetishistic relationship to female bodies subjects women to harassment, humiliation, and murder. In representing the male gaze, the author also turns her attention to the indistinct border between love—or what passes for it in our minsogynst society—and harmful fixation. Her characters are gluttonous consumers who wantonly indulge primal cravings: students fall for their teachers, a detective obsesses over a female killer, and pizza parlor workers become preoccupied with their customers, among other tales. In exploring these obsessions, Meijer’s tales of fixation are studies in destructive desire—especially the way that gender inequities allow men to consume women rather than to consider them as people. This imbalance of power undermines women’s agency over their own bodies and fates, and as we read these stories, our enjoyment of them implicates us in this violence.
Meijer’s characters act with lusty disregard; they allow their aberrant passions to consume others, and are consumed in turn by their own desires. Their urges become needs, and many characters confuse proximity, attention, and food for love. One story, “Alice,” examines a father’s lack of control in a marriage characterized by extreme bean-counting. His wife Wendy indulges his daughter Alice to excess even as she restricts what she allows herself and her husband. “I hadn’t seen unbudgeted money in years,” the husband says. He furtively satisfies his cravings:
I drove to a fast-food restaurant and ordered three hamburgers and ate them all during Alice’s class, sucking the grease from my fingers for a long time. The taste of fat, that’s what grease is. We all love to put it inside ourselves, even Wendy, Wendy loves it and that’s why she won’t eat it. Wendy has a hard time with love.
The husband spends money freely and binges on food as a form of power-seeking rebellion. His forbidden eating and spending are compulsive, lascivious attempts to gain something a semblance of power over his wife, to whom he assigns malicious intent. “Hate, I knew, was keeping her alive,” he says of her. This festers until he commits an act of violence upon himself.
The husband is typical of Meijer’s characters, whose predilections flourish in secrecy and creating the threat of harm. In “Pool,” a junior lifeguard named Jacob, saves his teacher, Bobby. Afterward, the two become linked. The inappropriateness of their relationship is as much of a draw as it is a potential danger. Jacob is struck by the physicality of the rescue, a scene he replays over and over:
Jacob saw the splash and the body going down. Slow motion. The girl’s screams, sun, the red cement, everyone crawling over the side of the pool. He swam like a motherfucker to the deep end, panting as he flipped the body over, a sheet of blood over the face, a man’s face, mouth open and reeking chlorine. A tooth missing. A tooth way down in the water.
Afterward, Jacob’s heroism is not lost on him; it enthralls him and makes his fantasies of a relationship with Bobby more alluring. They knowingly pass one another in the hall at school. They chat. The tension of temptation hangs over the story as Meijer alternates between their perspectives. True consummation—perfection of their relationship through sexual fulfillment, as Jacob imagines—is unattainable, but pursuit of it will ruin them both. Jacob keeps a piece of Bobby: a tooth, which the boy rolls between his fingers at night, fixating. Meijer writes of their need to see each other, to cross the rift of their ages. In the end, “[t]here’s just nothing they can do about it except tear each other’s nerves to shreds. It’s a dead end.” Fixation, in Jacob’s case, becomes an urge to possess and consume Bobby’s body. The mixture of desire and imminent destruction evokes the promise and horror of ruin.
A commitment to bloodiness unifies the stories in this collection. They’re full of grim, hematic scenes that bring to mind the scent of spilt blood. Meijer’s women are often weak or victimized characters, but their vulnerability might be an advantage. Women don’t have the luxury of looking away when they bleed. Meijer suggests that men are horrified by and drawn to their suffering. She establishes this in “Her Blood,” the tale of a young woman nameless who miscarries her baby in a pizza parlor and inspires a nameless male employee’s obsession. He cleans up the mess:
She’d used up the toilet paper, stuffed long red ropes of it into the trash. There were meat-colored streaks all over the floor where she’d walked in her own blood. And the graffiti on the walls… that’s what she had to look at while it happened, things like Wesley King eats dick and Fuck off and die. The overhead light was dim and the dark blue walls were almost black and I knew I wasn’t seeing it all, getting it all, the mess she’d made, but I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left.
After his hands are steeped in the girl’s blood, the employee is simultaneously horrified and mesmerized by the violence of the girl’s lost pregnancy. He sees her with her boyfriend and imagines them having sex. She appears unperturbed by violent loss within her own body, and continues to return to the pizza parlor; she even calls him late at night. Nothing comes of their relationship, but that’s not the point. “Her Blood” shows a woman nonchalant in the face of her body’s gruesomeness, while it is her gore that initiates male attention. Through their mutual fascination, Meijer explores how fixation results from male fascination with, the moment of violence in the female body, and how that fascination can become the basis of a depraved intimacy. She investigates the way two people can lose track of their own lives as they obsess over one another.
The men in Meijer’s stories view women as beautiful tragedies. Their ignorance about the effects they have on men makes them complicit in their own fates. In “Jury,” a male juror observes a trial, and gradually sops up the negativity surrounding the trial of an accused murderer. “There was something in the courtroom, something like slime, coming from that man, filling the place up. There was no getting away from it; soon it would cover them all.” He gets to know a woman from the jury, and becomes entranced when he learns that she self-harms. “They were so helpless,” he says of women. “They cut themselves, starved themselves, got themselves killed. He was doing his best. He was sorry about all of it. It made him sick.” The trial becomes the impetus for his bad behavior—he goes down drunken, gruesome internet rabbit holes, watching sexualized videos of young women cutting themselves. He is drawn to that which he professes to hate. Eventually he’s responsible for his own undoing when his daughter discovers his prurience interests. By highlighting how male vexation over female vulnerability perpetuates that very vulnerability, Meijer critiques its extremism.
When female characters defy the expectation to be helpless, they perplex and excite their male counterparts. “Evidence” examines a male detective captivated by a female serial killer. Her murders haunt him, and he begins to covet her capacity to inflict violence against other women. He remarks about what it’s like to find a corpse:
A beautiful woman being dead never surprises him. Murder looks less cheap on a pretty woman: it can look like a million bucks. She could be flung across the bed, hair aflame on the sheets. Curled somewhere, dainty, maybe in the back of a car, blood drawn by the pinch of a knife, or a necklace of bruises high and dark on a slender throat. It never looks like an accident. The eyes are never closed. If she’s beautiful, she sees it coming.
The detective gently strokes a picture of the killer’s victims and imagines her harm being carried out on his body. Ultimately, the woman so dominates the detective’s thoughts that he fancies that being murdered by her—consumed by her power—as a perfect kind of death. By calling to mind dark societal obsessions with murdered beauties, Meijer reminds us of the many pretty girls who’ve been the victims of murders and abuse, girls whose stories have become media spectacles. These viral cases infect our minds; the detective is a stand-in for us, our willingness to shower attention upon gruesome misogynist violence. Our obsession with female bodies—mangled and otherwise—makes us complicit in that violence.
Appropriately, Rag’s cruelest story is one of its last. In “Viral,” a girl conspires with her boyfriend to ruin a former friend by recording and posting a video of the girl masturbating. “She’ll go to her computer and type in the URL we’ve given her,” she says.
There’s nothing she can do. Everyone, including her, will know that she is trash because we will have made her trash. There is no one in the house to stop her from doing what she’s going to do next. Blake thinks that it’s just a joke, that Veronica will freak out for about a week and then get over it. But I know the pride inside her, what a virgin she is to any real pain. I know she’ll do it. We were friends, after all.
Meijer writes of how a single secret, once exposed, can decimate a person. The girl who films her former friend knows that discovery of the video will probably lead to the girl’s suicide. But she pushes on into the darkness of her revenge, unrelenting. “Viral” is one of Meijer’s only examples of female brutality, and it’s her darkest.
Meijer critiques a bleak world that’s arresting in its familiarity. Her characters are subject to the destructive power of obsession, surrendering to the basest draw of domination over one another. Meijer never editorializes, but she doesn’t have to. Rag rides the edge of disgust and fascination, capturing our attention only to make us feel shame.