Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman
By Aimee Parkison
Reviewed by Forrest Roth
Television crime drama addicts dependent on their regular cathartic fix of legal vengeance visited upon the puerile and wicked (or anything that emulates classic Law and Order in its heyday) can always count on being subjected to predominant themes of assorted reclamation. Even if the guilty somehow escape the legal code's punitive system, telling the story of the scattered, often disparate evidence left behind by the most damaging of human desires has perhaps greater merit for the future. Any success in apprehending and convicting the true perpetrator of the crime at hand, these shows keep reminding us, is contingent upon the full immersion with the irrefutable, provided those who investigate reincarnate the victim—albeit only briefly for the purposes of seeking justice and finishing the paperwork. It is the investigators themselves, however, who must find recovery in a world usurped by callous disregard if they are to continue living with this knowledge at hand.
Most of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, Aimee Parkison's latest, FC2-award-winning collection of spare, piercing stories, works a much different payback than bodily retrieval and heated courtroom accusation. Unable to rely upon the presence of hardboiled cops and buttoned-down lawyers, readers should note a recurring "howling woman" who takes the lead instead, a seeking persona alluded to first in "To See the Hummingbirds . . ." and then indirectly throughout Refrigerated Music, which merges investigator with victim in the line of questioning by various narrators. In particular, one of these howlers late into "On Flooded Roads"—a backwoods, forensic-scene jaunt in pathology reconstruction in tandem with a centerpiece gravitas of standing in solidarity with the victim that readers of Parkison's Woman with Dark Horses and The Innocent Party will recognize immediately—gifts the subject of her formal inquiry an extralegal riposte to those who downplay the harm done by abusive, dangerous men preying upon women, the latter forever ready to be cruelly harvested by the broken verdict of society's thinking after the fact: "Don't be afraid of me. I want to help you. Don't be ashamed of what he has done to you and to the others. It's not your fault, and I won't judge you, even if you went with him willingly, at first."
And yet demise itself, in whatever incarnation it takes, seems all relative here until "On Flooded Roads," as the sum of Refrigerated Music defies expectation in hindsight, as well as in the best possible way throughout its mysterious inspections. This collection likely will surprise readers before they reach this culminating story, not only because of its prominent inclusion of flash fiction (including several single-paragraph flashes done in Parkison's honed style of coaxing out a story with a sense of hidden grace as opposed to expounding or taxonomy, for instance, with each flash almost arriving at the point where any story slips away in the narrator's interior melodic tumult) and other heavily fragmented narratives, but setting the table with some humorous pieces in the first half: the knocking of a famous hamburger franchise with vacuous Yelp-like testimonials in "Fast Foodie" or the skewed public service announcement mode of instructing how to properly dispose spent prophylactics in "Theft Prevention 101." Even a veiled social critique found in denying school cafeteria lunches to poor students ("Hot Lunch Petition") nudges itself into place amongst the vivid grotesques of Parkison's emotional landscapes. While initially these stories may disguise themselves as incongruous gestures by Parkison when the more somber pieces are uncovered, it becomes apparent Refrigerated Music as a whole is waxing conversant with the quickly changing conventions of today's American story collection beyond the cyclical or linked-story set, re-evaluating its own techniques and procedures as it continues and searches for solutions despite the dubious efforts of the system's intercessions ("My lawyer speaks for me because I'm losing control of my own affairs," ruefully quips the narrator of "The Self and Others" who finds closure an impossibility).
From the wry flash opener "Code Violations," which explores domestic interruption with minor taboos as a rearrangement of the private sphere ("You were more committed to our relationship because of the shower near our stove," et al.), the form that truncated physical space takes between those who are wary of intimacy sets the pace for a catalogue of violence remarkable in its scope, given the relative shortness of this collection. Served up first as a sort of "meat etiquette"—to refer back to "Fast Foodie"—where one devours without guilty hesitation or questioning, the shards of impression cut away more fiercely later (most notably in "Responsibility," "The Candle," "Lover with Gun in Mouth . . ." and "Abortion"), showing how those unrestrained appetites, if you will, play themselves out to the furthest degree that Parkison allows in testimonial. What emerges is this fractured picaresque of "glittering," "sparkling" bodies of women drawing unfortunate attention made to come to a stand-still through metamorphosis, and its lure provides Parkison frequent opportunities for role reversal between investigator and victim, observed and observer, and the constant skewing of the exhaustive bonds between women in that flux, such as in "The Nomad" and "The Listener" ("Watching the dogs at the window, she often became confused and used her mouth for the wrong reasons. Her teeth were like her hands, another way to grasp and carry necessary items from the rooms to the windows and back"), and this fine confession which opens "To See the Hummingbirds . . .":
Perpetual outsiders like me love to eavesdrop. That's how I heard her . . . You never learned how to see her, to really see her, as you see me, while gazing into that antique mirror where I was a disappointment of skin like the rest of my family.
Much like the narrator here, the collection invites and even requires at times both careful examination and introspection back to its earlier stories as their ideas reach fruition and fall into place with Parkison's full vision, leaving the previous courting of incompleteness in the more chopped stories to eventually find their larger significance as Refrigerated Music darkens in its second half. To be sure, the unsettling (and, again, unexpected) allegory of the finale, "Scrutinize," with its vague sci-fi undertones, provides one last disturbing weave through the predatory nature of humanity through a woman's acquisition of another woman's eyes in what may be the ultimate act of conspicuous consumption, and includes the collection's most appropriate, powerful coda in the final sentence as its closing argument to the jury: "Women's bodies, along with the bodies of children, handsome men, boys and girls, were bought and sold, piece by piece, and had been ever since the dawn of time."