Friday, September 19, 2014

Melanie Review: Crocodile Smiles

Pages: 114 
Publisher: Black Scat Books
Released: 2014

Guest review by Melanie Page

“Are crocodiles capable of smiling,” we are asked, “if they can’t cry?” Yuriy Tarnawsky’s newest collection contains six short, absurdist stories--confessional in nature, of course--that that suggest the author borrowed from playwriting and well-known tales.

Each story is process-oriented. First a character does something, and then the next step, and then the next. Skipping one part of the process is unthinkable, which gives some of the stories their length. “Agamemnon (post mortem),” described to readers as taking place on a stage in front of an audience, begins with sounds: hacking, sawing, screaming, moaning, crushing. We are tuned into the audio portion of the event.

Next, characters bring out a large thing as part of a procession, including a dwarf man and woman whom we are told to guess are Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the murderers of Agamemnon. When all proceed off stage, they return again with another large piece of something. As the audience watches--and readers “watch” too--the pieces are stacked and come together as the body of the murdered. The description of leaving and returning are described again and again. Once the deed is done, everyone retreats. But the story/play doesn’t end there. Offstage we hear the couple talk, the squeaky springs of post-murder fornication, and some arguing.

What could be the problem? Why something as small as who left the light on after they stacked the dead man’s body. Aegisthus must come from offstage to cross in front of the audience in near dark, squishing through the bloody puddles to get to the light. With everything necessary completed, the story ends. Skipping one step wouldn’t make sense to the story. So, the procession in and out seems agonizingly long, but makes it easier to imagine the act truly happening.

Why this style of writing wasn’t my favorite of Tarnawsky’s, I appreciated the exploratory toying with form and content. I much prefer his collection Short Tales (Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, 2011), which takes on absurdist and cerebral narratives that stick closer to traditional storytelling. You’re asked to go deep into your mind, but you’re told to go there in a way that you recognize.

Crocodile Smiles was somewhat like you imagine to be descriptive services for the blind, but as the stories progress, the language takes on a rhythm, much like learning to dance to a new song with foreign steps. But, when you get the moves, you enjoy that it is a unique experience.

Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (

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