The stories in Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine take your hand, tell you a secret, and then burp in your face, giggling. They are honest, playful, and cagey, and the very title of the collection suggests these tonal complexities: while Inside Madeleine refers literally to the various objects one character inserts into her vagina (bars of soap, a rubber ducky, penises), it also suggests something unfiltered, like when a reporter promises to take viewers “inside” an important issue or place. But here, Bomer’s mischief arises again, because programs like Inside Edition (or anything that offers the “inside scoop” on the life of a celebrity) are lurid and full of shit. And so the characters in Inside Madeleine are all these things too: playful, unfiltered, lurid, full of shit. At the beginning of the book, a narrator says that women are “supposed to be nice, well behaved things,” but, thankfully, nothing is nice and well behaved about Bomer’s fiction.
The protagonists of Bomer’s stories are young women in high school or college who struggle with their physical attributes: one character “has the sort of breasts that define a woman”; another character is victimized at school for weighing “well over two hundred pounds by the end of the sixth grade”; a couple others feel self-conscious about their lumpy, padded bras. Some characters find pleasure and power in sexuality, but that turns into a liability when their peers start throwing around labels like “slut” and “whore,” exposing a shameful double standard. The feminine landscape of this book is psychologically brutal, and I’m reminded of Louis C.K.’s routine about the difference between boys and girls: “Boys just do damage to your house that you can measure in dollars, like a hurricane; girls leave scars in your psyche that you find later, like genocide or an atrocity.”
These stories capture the scope of horrors (because nothing much “good” happens anywhere here) of being a young person in the world, sex/gender aside. (Race is this book’s hidden concern, suggested only when Ruthie, one of Bomer’s protagonists, encounters a black girl at an all white school, “the saddest person Ruthie had ever met.”) All of Bomer’s protagonists are outsiders in one way or another, whether it’s because their physical appearances don’t meet “norms,” or because they’re economically disadvantaged. These characters feel displaced: they’ve moved to Boston from South Bend, Indiana, or they’re visiting New York from Boston—always finding themselves somewhere that makes them feel “uncool,” shamed for things like not knowing who Thurston Moore is. They attach themselves to older—or at least more outwardly “mature”—idols, and sometimes those idols become friends, but the resulting friendships are, at best, merely unequal (“shopping was something she did sort of like I waitressed. It was serious work to her”), and, at worst, emotionally abusive. In a couple of Bomer’s stories, her protagonists manage to maneuver themselves into positions of power by finding people even lower down the “social ladder” than themselves—one character reads to a blind girl (in a story that seems the inverse of Carver’s “Cathedral”), while another works at a home for the mentally ill—but these situations engender their own special kind of desperation.
Here might be the best place to pause and promise that Inside Madeleine is—despite its gloomy disposition—a funny, irreverent book. Bomer’s prose is crisp and breezy, often deceptively plain, her narrative voice veering from wise remove (“She was in the East Village, but she didn’t know that yet”) to a closeness that seems to jut an elbow outward, nudging the reader into complicity (“Her shirt was ill-fitting; in fact, it may have been put on wrongly”). Sometimes the lurches in narrative distance make it difficult to pin down exactly what Bomer thinks about her characters, but this is part of her playfulness, as the characters tend not to know what to think about themselves either.
Another appealing quality is the frankness that pervades this collection—a kind of frankness that borders on luridness, especially in the collection’s treatment of sexuality. In those moments—particularly, a story called “Two Years”—Bomer presents sex without reverence or reserve, instead finding a refreshing kind of crudeness in the fumbling of bodies. (Mary Miller performed a similar feat in her excellent The Last Days of California, although the sex in that book was less sustained, and way less graphic.) When Bomer opens a story with a sentence like, “He was the one to give her head when she was on the rag,” the reader can sense the author giggling at her own forwardness, like a high-schooler in a sex education class, learning for the first time the bizarre things that bodies can do, while secretly covetous of those things. In Bomer’s world, sex—in all its squirm-inducing absurdity—is serious business.
Everything leads to Bomer’s remarkable novella “Inside Madeleine,” which caps off the collection, pulling together all of the writer’s strengths—depression, dark humor, crudeness—and weaving them into ninety pressurized pages. In this story, Madeleine begins as a teenager undergoing many changes—gaining and then losing weight, becoming sexually rapacious—and, from there, grows (if “grows” is the right word) into a young woman who finds initial pleasure in shirking off the cruelties of high school, only to find that the cruelties of adulthood leave far deeper wounds. Eventually, the novella points backward toward the collection’s first story, with Madeleine ending up in the same place as an earlier narrator. It’s a neat trick, not only reinforcing Inside Madeleine’s coherence, but also doubling down on the notion that the end always lurks in the beginning—that no matter how much Bomer’s characters swear they can change, their futures are etched at birth into their bones.