Review: The Brutal Language of Love by Alicia Erian

The nine stories in this collection all deal with different aspects of love, often but not always with a sexual element. And yes, some of them are indeed brutal — or at least somewhat. Not usually in a physical sense but emotionally.

The Brutal Language of Love contains stories about relationships. They highlight the dreadful everyday things that people do to each other. More depressingly they show what we do to ourselves. The fact that all the protagonists are women doesn’t make the stories any less universal.

The first lines of the first story, Standing Up to the Superpowers, give a good flavor of the book as a whole:

Beatrice told Shipley she would sleep with him, and then she passed out. When she awoke the next morning, he said he’d gone ahead without her.

It’s both funny and pathetic at the same time.

That sums up most of the characters in the book: funny and pathetic.

Left to their own devices the women (or girls) of Alicia Erian’s first collection of short stories often willfully set down the wrong path as a way to feel more alive, even if the consequences are dire. Her characters are self-absorbed masochists but somehow I felt reluctantly compelled to stick with them through the ugliness that is all too familiar. Erian delves into the shameful moments that all of us share without moral proselytizing. She engages us through her acerbic wit and an assured hand. One after the other, each of her stories is a tart treat. Damged goods never were so prized.

Erian’s characters are usually the downtrodden — losers — often immature and self-destructive. Each is wondering extremely hard about something, and this is intensely interesting to witness.  But at the same time you get the feeling that each is also convinced of something about herself. You hear it when they speak. Even, inexplicably, if they are at an apparent loss for words. Each edgy heroine is so much better at scratching around in the middle of life than I ever have been. Or perhaps it is Erian that is so. She mixes comedy and pathos so well that I really can’t decide whether the book cheered me up or brought me down. The writing is mostly bland and unsophisticated throughout — without ever losing its heart – but the characters are completely believable. One area where Erian does seem to lack strength is endings. Don’t worry, these aren’t pointless slice-of-life snippets, they really are stories. It’s just that the endings could do with being a little better defined. Fortunately there is enough narrative drive — breathtaking in its quirky alertness — to carry you through in most cases.

What I see to be Erian’s real strength is in painting a whole canvass with a few carefully chosen brush strokes. This, unfortunately, is also her downfall. Why is it that so many short story writers don’t seem to know when to stop? A short story is by definition short, it doesn’t need to be padded out as if it were striving to be a novella. But that’s just me.

I am not a great fan of most contemporary short stories outside of my radar, which tend to be pop-literary to a fault or edgy and cynical to the point of tedium, but I picked up this collection because I loved the title and it gave me something to harrumph about from beginning to end. Yes, I often wanted to hit the characters over the head, but I always had to find out what happened next, and it always satisfied.

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