The Dangers, and Pleasures, of Smoking in Bed
A Review of Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
Stepping into a Mariana Enriquez story, everything at first appears normal: people, furniture, lighting; it’s all there; nothing’s amiss. Yet an undeniable disquiet pervades. You don’t know why exactly, but you are certain something is wrong. Eventually and invariably, you discover that you are right. Though she has been publishing fiction and journalism for nearly thirty years in her native Argentina, so far only two books have been translated from their original Spanish into English: Things We Lost in the Fire and now The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. They are both story collections in which the oxymoronic phrase “magic realism” manifests to an extreme. They feature ghosts, witches, curses and cannibals while being equally rife with sexual violence, juntas, self-harm, and all manner of vividly rendered trauma.
Short stories and magic realism are both the territory of the radical and revolutionary. A short story can function as a literary experiment, a place where a writer might develop new modes of narrative and shred rules with abandon. And fiction writers often employ magic realism in order to harness the surreal travesties of existence, often those caused by tyrannical institutions—think Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and, more recently, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Short stories are versatile, capable of telling any story in any style; magic realism, for all its fantastical features, tackles the most banal realities. When fused, form and genre can result in uncannily illuminating art. Recent magic realism story collections by Kelly Link, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Carmen Maria Machado, Amber Sparks, and Helen Oyeyemi attest to the literary power of this combination.
Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed joins these ranks with a group of off-kilter tales enlivened by captivating unease. Every facet of her writing unsettles, and Enriquez achieves this effect by cycling through many guises and eclectic tones, sometimes in the same paragraph. In “The Well,” it isn’t just that a decaying ghost baby haunts the narrator everywhere she goes; it’s that Enriquez succeeds in dispassionately describing the narrator’s initial reaction:
I didn’t hesitate. I put gloves on and grabbed her little neck and squeezed. It’s not exactly practical to try and strangle a dead person, but a girl can’t be desperate and reasonable at the same time. I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers, and her trachea was left in full view.
Here, Enriquez, superbly translated by Megan McDowell, masterfully darts from disturbing to funny to repulsive without jarring the reader’s momentum—or, rather, the disturbance is built into the momentum.
Beneath the grim surrealism pulse banalities that are equally harrowing. In “The Lookout,” the narrator returns to a beach where she was raped years earlier and with a razor “[starts] making precise cuts on her arm, one, two, three, until she [sees] the blood and [feels] the pain and something similar to an orgasm.” In “Our Lady of the Quarry,” a group of teenage girls’ sexual jealousy toward a slightly older girl and her boyfriend provokes intensely cruel violence. The narrator of “Where Are You, Dear Heart?” develops an obsessive fetish for the heartbeats of the ill, to which she masturbates incessantly: “until I hit bone, until my bone hurt, sometimes until I bled.” This mix of sex and violence is not glamorized or aestheticized, though, for it is something foisted upon these characters—by culture, by men, who in these stories perform the dual role they so often play in life: They enact trauma and refuse to acknowledge what they have done.
Magic realism is an ideal genre for exploring trauma. A witch’s spell, in Enriquez’s deft hand, is a dramatic narrative device as much as it approximates the degree to which PTSD can agonize and terrorize its sufferers. Hauntings and curses effectively characterize the experience of living with trauma. In that story, the spell is transferred from the victim’s mother and grandmother unto her, a kind of generational trauma. In another story, a woman becomes convinced that the ghosts of children who fell victim to sex trafficking populate her city, manifesting as a horrendous and nauseating stench. In magic realism, it isn’t our own suffering that is given form; it is everyone’s.
Our political realities can also be deftly explored with this approach. “The Cart” begins with an unhoused man shitting on a sidewalk. A local accosts and berates him, only letting him go after a well-respected elder intervenes. After this incident, the lives of this street’s residents start to fall apart: sudden deaths, job losses, inexplicable bad luck. In time, the residents blame the unhoused man for cursing them. The least powerful figure in their immediate experience gets credit for the whole of their plights. The irony here would be funny if it wasn’t so heartbreakingly accurate.
Magic realism can also address themes that might otherwise be nearly impossible to broach. The longest story of The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, “Kids Who Come Back,” depicts an event that should be a miracle: the missing children of Buenos Aires’s residents begin to return. There is one Faustian caveat, however: they reappear exactly as they were when they vanished—same age, same outfits, same everything. More unsettling still is the way they behave. They’re subdued, empty-eyed, mostly silent. The parents swear that these are not their children. This uncanny story suggests an uncomfortable truth: the effects of trauma are irrevocable. These parents can never get the children who disappeared back again, even if they get them back again. The real work of suffering trauma—the messy, challenging, complex work—begins anew after the ostensible cause of that trauma; it is not solved merely because its inception concludes.
A literary agent once told me that short story collections are the domain of MFA students. Translated literature is also viewed as niche. Fuck this attitude. We need more challenging short stories of political and ethical substance. We need translated work that presents new perspectives just as much as it highlights our similarities. “I had to definitively stop thinking in terms of what was possible and what wasn’t,” one of Enriquez’s characters decides. So do we—in how we make art, and how we treat each other.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.