In her new collection, “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” (out July 28), author Laura van den Berg offers a series of eerie, unsettling shorts that seem to be founded on an arresting premise: that the way women in contemporary society experience the world is best understood as a psychological horror story.
As a writer, van den Berg has established a strange narrative territory for herself, a forbidding space in which the real and surreal brush up against one another and often switch places without warning. Glimpses of this can be seen in her earlier work — like the mysterious desolation of her short story, “Antarctica,” or the desolate, plague-stricken world that serves as the backdrop for her debut novel, “Find Me.”
But in her 2018 novel, “The Third Hotel,” she perfected it. In that book, van den Berg tells the story of a woman trailing her supposedly dead husband through the streets of Havana, Cuba, never quite sure if what she is following is actually him, his ghost, or a figment of her imagination. It takes some time to recognize that the true nature of his appearance is immaterial. Whatever form her husband takes, he haunts her all the same.
And the same is true for the women of “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears.” They, too, are haunted. By menacing husbands, abusive boyfriends, or male strangers who feel entitled to their attention, their bodies, or their inner pain. Their stories are often fantastical, and at times, unbelievable. But every uncanny happening reveals a deeper, more mundane truth about what it’s like to live as a woman in this world, pointing to a subtle undercurrent of dread that so permeates every facet of our lives we hardly notice it’s there. Van den Berg’s stories amplify that feeling, forcing readers to confront it and recognize it for what it is. At first glance, her stories seem like funhouse mirrors; but upon further reflection, it’s clear that what they’re showing us is how warped everything really is.
At the heart of many of these stories is the idea that women are continually forced, either by economics or social expectations, to cater to the needs of men at the expense of their own desires. In “Slumberland,” an itinerant photographer discovers that her wailing neighbor has monetized anguish, working “for a fetish hotline that catered to people who were sexually aroused by the sound of another person weeping.” “Most people get off on trying to comfort me,” she explains. “Every now and then I talk to someone who likes the suffering, who wants me to beg for stuff… Like my life. People like it best when they know the pain is real.”
In “Your Second Wife,” an aspiring architect finds she has a talent for impersonating men’s deceased wives, turning it into a service for lonely widows who pay to hang out with a superficial simulacrum of their late partners. “Forget about skyscrapers,” her male friend tells her, “this right here is your calling.” In the end, she feels she has no choice but to give up her studies — the money is too good. The sheer gravity of men’s neediness, coupled with their economic power, pulls women out of orbit and forces them onto trajectories they never imagined for themselves. They end up commoditizing themselves; their time, their company, their appearance, and their pain become objects to be bought and sold.
When van den Berg’s women try to flip the script, the men in their lives react in disturbing ways. After the wife in “The Pitch” demands to know more about her husband’s inner life, he chooses instead to simply disappear into thin air rather than engage with her on an emotional level. In the book’s most fascinating and most troubling story, “Lizards,” a perfectly normal, seemingly well-meaning husband is slowly seduced by the prospect of pacifying his all-too-human wife with a drugged-up seltzer drink.
“Now each time his wife simply becomes too much he offers her a can of sparkling water.” No more nagging about the dishes, no more complaining about her job, just a sleepy, compliant woman who demands nothing from him. “He likes to think of himself as more evolved” than the crass misogynist who sells him the drink, van den Berg writes. But he doesn’t hesitate. He just convinces himself he’s doing it for her benefit.
With its incisive meditations on gender, power, and the fraught relationship between the two, “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” perfectly captures the spirit of the times. “What an unbelievably exhausting moment to be alive,” one character laments, in what could very well be the understatement of the century. But as enervating as these issues might be, van den Berg’s writing is electrifying in the truest sense of the word: shocking, searing and illuminating.