The Pink Jumpsuit: Short fictions, tall truths by Emma Neale (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021), 134pp, $35
The Pink Jumpsuit is the latest book by Emma Neale, one of the best-known writers working in Aotearoa today. Neale’s previous work includes six novels and six collections of poetry, and too many awards and honours to list here. Her flash and short fiction has also been widely published and acclaimed, but this is the first time these small pieces—short fictions and tall truths, as the subtitle describes them—have been gathered into a collection.
From the very beginning Neale layers on a relentless, pitter-patter scattering of description and detail that works because, not in spite of, its excessiveness. Even a little less would be far too much, but with the intensity turned up to eleven like this, it works, effectively sketching out an experience of the world that is that bit too overwhelming, that is slightly but inescapably too much. The viewing window jumps from place to place because there are simply so many things to observe.
This use of language is echoed in the descriptions of physical experience: hearts and breath and pulse judder and twitch; on the very first page the mind skips, the heart skitters against ribs; on the next, thoughts glitch and short-circuit. At the same time there are frequent moments of ‘unbidden sweetness’ folded in amongst the tensions and flickering pace. Neale documents with equal tenderness the gut sensations of panic, the sting of a sharp corner under a fingernail and the fidgeting of a nervous teenager. Such a writerly way to approach the world, this cataloguing, the turning over and over, the collecting of details to be laid out and juxtaposed later.
Certain images and plot patterns come up again and again, seen from different angles: the scientist father, motherhood, missing or dead family members, the chilling unknowability of other people. There is a sense that the writer is playing with crystallised elements of memory, looking carefully at them from different angles, trying on different explanations and symbols. The recurring beats don’t feel repetitive because they don’t seem to be presented with the primary goal of narrative. Rather, this is an exercise in pattern-seeking and sense-making.
Again and again, however, writer and reader together run into the reality that many things don’t make sense. The world holds many cruelties that are horrifying in their randomness and it is these that preoccupy Neale, as though there exists a combination of magic and analysis that can offer protection from being blindsided by tragedy.
The overarching—or perhaps foundational—theme of the collection is fear. There is the fear of the parent watching their child in the world, the fear for and of the child itself, fear of the surreal callousness of it all. Fear of the self, fear of others, fear of intimacy, fear of loneliness. As we move through the first part of the collection we brush up against its various edges and corners, unable to look at it square-on. The sensation is reminiscent of the work of Janet Frame, a sort of dreamlike melancholy with stabs of crisp detail.
The events and subjects described are distinctly unreal. Fears that are all the worse for their banality are transformed into fantastical images and creatures. One of the first characters we encounter is a fylgja, a creature of old Norse lore variously considered to be a guide, an omen, or an animal representation of one’s true inner self. The fylgjur of myth tended to appear as wolves, foxes or mighty warriors; Neale’s fylgja is a tiny, vaguely monkey-like creature that is as vulnerable as it is mysterious.
It’s unclear whether it would be more accurate to describe this collection as magical realism or as characterised by a profound disorientation, a dissociative dizziness. ‘Tenuous realism’, perhaps; I feel at times more like I’m skating along the edges of a hallucination than being presented with a deliberate work of storytelling fiction. In ‘Old, new, borrowed, blue’:
[t]here are the baby’s night-feeds, plus her own strange dreams of falling from crumbling cliffs of yellow mud, her mouth filling and filling with sand.
It’s not quite fiction nor quite real, yet it is ‘all too credible to us that the outrageous and the everyday might sidle up alongside one another, frightening in their cold yet casual entanglement’.
Those pieces set in the past are generally relayed by a narrator, the events overlaid with the haze of memory, the processes of storytelling both deliberate and unconscious, the ever-present drive to describe the world not so much as it is, but in a way that makes it make sense. There is the sense of a wary relationship between the writer and her own memory, as though she can’t be entirely confident it’s on her side. In the pieces set in the present, there is still a degree of dissociation—the writer examining and analysing experiences even as they happen. The cover painting (Wanderlust, 2019, Sharon Singer) of a small child standing on an empty plain in a spacesuit and sneakers is perfectly chosen: while the image is endearingly off-beat, the full-face helmet and eerily blank landscape hint at a dangerous reality from which the child may or may not be protected.
Flash fiction, prose poetry and the short short story are the perfect forms with which to explore these ideas. Freed from the structural requirements of more extended narrative, Neale is able to flit untethered between her ‘strange frights alternated with random warm bursts of affection, then patches of overcast calm’; nevertheless, the use of prose over poetic form provides the real-world anchor that the fantastical, abstract images need to balance them. Neale’s skills as both a novelist and a poet are clear in this liminal space—there’s a remarkable precision in the deployment of the conventions from piece to piece, sometimes contrasting, sometimes complementary.
As with any collection of short pieces, some are stronger than others. One or two take a step too far into the abstract; I am left feeling that there’s some connection or metaphor that is obvious to the writer but is going over my head. In a way this adds to the sense of meeting another person in all their inscrutability, but comes dangerously close to being frustratingly opaque. Other pieces, however, pack such vivid imagery and emotional complexity that it’s hard to believe they’re as short as they are.
Many of these pieces have been published previously as standalone works, and each could easily be read in isolation. That said, The Pink Jumpsuit is not a random aggregation of disparate parts. In fact, I was surprised by just how many of these pieces had been published independently, given how well they flow together. The differences in style and perspective from one to the next are just enough to add another layer to the pervasive sense of flickering anxiety, while the carefully chosen sequence provides a steadily building metanarrative.
As the book progresses, we begin to see hints of a kind of quiet violence, more fantasised than actualised, the after-the-fact daydreams of the shy and sensible. In the hilarious and surreal ‘Party games’, a party-full of rowdy children are left securely trussed to chairs; much later in the collection, ‘Trypanophobia’ presents the chilly and safely deniable vengeance of a laboratory technician making the blood draw of an unpleasant patient as painful as possible.
‘Trypanophobia’ is followed by ‘The pink jumpsuit’, ‘Braced’ and ‘Off-cast’, and it is in this sequence at the end of the collection that the book’s undercurrents of sexual violence and the terrifying violability of the body are finally pulled into direct focus. These threads are woven throughout, but on first reading it is possible to brush up against them without realising what you’ve touched, especially through the haze of unreality and symbolism. This sequence of pieces feels simultaneously like a reveal and an acknowledgement of what has been sitting in the corner of every page up to this point.
This increasingly direct gaze at trauma builds to a sudden rupture in reality with ‘Rack’, the final piece in the collection. This piece is at once grounded in the real world, which is rendered down to the number of jellybeans in the doctor’s office, and dizzyingly, sickeningly fantastical. After reading it several times I still can’t identify how it makes me feel, or what Neale might have wanted me to take away from it. It’s as though after the intimate journey we have taken together, all the deep-set truths revealed directly or obliquely, it has at last become too much—like a startled animal, the writer shakes herself and bounds away, leaving me on the final page, alone.
KERRY LANE is a poet, playwright and educator from Ōtepoti, now based in Glasgow.