Reviewed by Rebecca Turnbull
In her first novel, Skin, Kellie Wells tackles theological questions of eschatological proportions within the complicated web of What Cheer, a small town in Kansas. God peeks through the clouds with ominous and alarming force, knocking men to their knees and demanding nourishment with insatiable hunger. What Cheer's residents live in a violent, premillennial reality where the only spiritual peace is inside your skin, below the veins and obscured by body tissue.Wells eschews chronological narrative form, jumping through her characters' lives with a different kind of arc. Their futures mix with their pasts, creating a chaotic present without a clear protagonist. Instead, a cast of interconnected sinners trapped in various physical, philosophical, and emotional purgatories trades leads. Degrees of pain flirt with pleasure in a way that is just barely tolerable yet undeniably compelling. The prologue sets the tenor for the body of the novel. Wells begins by describing the intoxicating scent of gardenia hanging in the air. The smell is so powerful it makes her characters forget what the body is reasonably capable of and the language so crisp it makes readers forget to question rationally impossible plot twists. Within the first two pages Rachel wills herself to shrink, her daughter Ruby dreams of the day she will let her mother relax in the safety of a pocket, and Zero floats into the sky until his body becomes merely a "matter of faith." Miracles are commonplace, theophany is never ruled out, and penitence is relished. Wells closes the prologue with guilty people ready to be consumed by their creator--"Thin clouds prowl across the sky like cats stalking sparrows, and all the residents of What Cheer who stand in their greening yards, hands reaching toward a trickle of sun, look above to see the sky eddy with the ylem of imminent consequences, kneel beneath the heft of sins they've yet to commit." Throughout the novel, Wells uses Christian imagery to flirt with existential questions. God feeds us himself in the form of the Eucharist, but who feeds God? What is life? "Who's to say we are not floaters in God's eyes, making him a little less lonely behind his dimming vision?" What is heaven? Is it real? Could it be a place where "blood means the same as milk or rain or wine?" In What Cheer, God's name is Harold and he consumes whatever he chooses, answering these questions with swift blows. Abuse is divinely sanctioned and even envied. Masochism is the path to happiness and divinity. "It's a balled-up fist you hit yourself with, but you like it that way 'cause the beauty of contusions is that they disappear." The world Wells creates is complex. At times the pain is so beautiful it invokes guilt. Wells succeeds in getting the reader to acquiesce to abuse, describing it with language so romantic that only later does reality catch up. She plows through issues that don't bring joy--domestic abuse, death, and self-mutilation--yet somehow leaves the reader with a smile. The book is not funny, but the prose so pleasurable it lulls the reader into seeing God in every bit of pain and loving him anyway. Wells manages to weave layers of storyline into each other from generations past and present without faltering, and she makes miracles rational, vigilantly retaining her audience in that heady, intoxicating cloud of What Cheer gardenias.
Reviewed by Andy Mozina
In Kellie Wells Flannery OConnor Award-winning collection, Compression Scars, the body is a problem. The bodies in these stories are blind, deaf, pierced, headless, scarred, ridden by tumors and shingles and leukemia, plagued with heart palpitations, ugly, and, more often than youd expect, dead. They suffer from what the fatherless narrator of Star-dogged Moon calls the corporeal rap. Characters occasionally approach sex, that most body-affirming of acts, but it remains out of reach. After one failed seduction, a woman, apparently by way of good-bye to her uninterested partner, raises one side of her shirt, exposing a breast as small and fragile as a teacup. Strange, sad and beautiful, a chord this book plays many times.
It's no surprise, then, that these characters often want spiritual relief. The stories use mystical means--seances, ghosts, imaginary and rhetorical flights--to escape, transcend, ascend; or to use Wells' own consistently brilliant language: each story is "a fast burning centrifuge spinning spirit from flesh." At the magical conclusion of the title story "Compression Scars," bats descend to brush bugs from the protagonist's bare belly, a spectral touch that contrasts with the earthier sex she can't accept from a young man with devastating compression scars spreading throughout his body. But Wells occasionally balances this spiritualizing impulse with a character willing to give the flesh a go. Even the pre-adolescent Hallie, in "Hallie Out of This World," when confronting a knife-bearing sexual predator who "just" wants to look at her, exhorts him to "Touch me." Whether that touch would be worse than what the man has already subjected her to is hard to say. In any case, the story withholds that touch, as these stories generally do, as if, in Hallie's words, "a plate of glass separated us."
Plotwise, these stories also tend to be a bit disembodied. A typical narrative puts a character suffering from the loss of a loved one through a seemingly meandering series of memories and encounters, set to the music of Wells' inventive, finely detailed, funny, and sometimes bracingly intellectual sentences. When the music is about to stop, we find that the story has deftly managed to locate itself directly above a trapdoor leading into feeling or insight--and out of the story. Without the unfolding of dramatic action to bring on their resolutions, something which depends on purposeful bodies moving through time, the stories often require imagined rather than enacted endings: a dead father returns for a conversation in "Star-dogged Moon"; Hallie imagines leaving this world with her friend Oedipus and an experimental cow named Gretel. But, in most of these cases, the power of Wells' language leaves me feeling that definitive plot action is for squares.
Interestingly, the story most grounded in familiar emotions and motivations is the amazing "Secession, XX," a story which also has the most body-crazed premise: conjoined twins, brother and sister, survive long enough to attend high school and fall in love with the same person. It's as if having paid off a massive debt to strangeness, Wells feels comfortable getting down to jealousy and desire. Here the climactic rhetoric (climactic maybe for the collection as well), spoken by the brother who has begun to thrive as his sister declines, gives the body its due: "I sense that it is, after all, in the body that one knows whatever one can claim to know about God; redemption occurs, courageously, at this site of pain and decay." but in the last story, the will to escape the flesh is re-ascendant. Yet as the characters at the end of "Hallie Out of This World" rise into the sky, ready to "burn ourselves out of this world," I'm tempted to say, "Not so fast. Down here, in our bodies, is the only place we can live." Then again, Wells knows this, deeply, and that's why she's written these beautiful, pain-streaked stories.
Interview by Teddy Wayne
"Ten Questions for Kellie Wells"
Litblog Co-Op Interview
"Swallowing Dreams Whole"
in The Montanan