“Hum” Author: Michelle Richmond
Publisher: University of Alabama Press, FC2
Price: $16.95 (Paper)
A native of Mobile, Michelle Richmond began her career with a volume of stories, “The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress,” which won the Associated Writing Programs prize for short fiction in 2000.
Now, after three novels, “Dream of the Blue Room,” set in Alabama and China, “The Year of Fog,” set in San Francisco and Costa Rica, and “No One You Know,” a murder mystery of sorts set in San Francisco and Nicaragua, she is back with another book of stories.
The UA Press imprint FC2 is a series featuring “artistically adventurous, non-traditional” fiction, and the eleven stories in “Hum” are just that. Each story seems, at first, realistic in tone and subject, and then surprises the reader by moving off-center a little, revealing a startling bit not known at first, or just going askew.
Combined with this quasi–science fiction element is, as often in Richmond’s fiction, a strong erotic streak. The stories usually feature a couple, often married, in some stage of lust, love or dissolution, and her heroines have powerful urges and the courage to see them through.
There are transformations and revelations; conditions/people are not what you thought.
The title story, “Hum,” is set in what seems to be the near future. Patrons go to the Cinaromaplex—a theatre where appropriate scents are put in the air: gunpowder during gunfights, smoke in bar scenes.
A couple whose marriage has gone stale—she says: “we had become quietly lost to each other”—take a job that comes with a free house. The only catch is they must not enter the spare bedroom where computers hum constantly, our government observing the Uradian Embassy next door.
Well, we know curiosity is more powerful than ANY prohibition and soon the wife becomes obsessed with the Uradian Ambassador, first watching him on the secret closed-circuit cameras, then encountering him in public, asking him for coffee, and so on.
A wonderfully bizarre story is “Scales,” in which a young woman meets a stranger on the Fairhope pier on a moonlit night. They talk and walk to his home on the Bay where she discovers he is covered on every, that is EVERY, inch of his body with sharp, cutting scales. He IS what many people claim they seek: unique. By morning she is bloody, “covered with lacerations.” Totally entranced, she stays and they marry. It won’t be easy. Love shouldn’t hurt; but this one does.
More familiar, but with twisty, unforeseen consequences, is the story actually titled “Love,” narrated by a husband. His wife has lost all her unwanted weight and gotten herself organized; now she runs the household “like a corporation.” He thinks “she’s so lean that her body looks stingy,” “like a stop sign.” Once a warm, easygoing mate, she has changed: “He wonders if she is capable of love at all.”
Another husband story, a very modern one, is “Hospitality.” The narrator is Dean of Administrative Affairs at a San Francisco university that he admits is “lesser academia.” At a cocktail party his wife, a high-powered criminal defense attorney with a high profile case, is badgered by an English adjunct, a guidance counselor, and a theology professor who “used to be the pastor of a Southern Baptist church that was in the papers some years ago over a scandal involving a group of teenaged evangelicals.”
The guidance counselor asks, “how can you defend that monster?” The English adjunct says: “Isn’t it open and shut?” The theology professor just stands there silently, staring at the wife’s earlobes.
When husband and wife leave the party, she drives, wanting him “to be certain I harbored no illusions about my own potency or free will.” They are off to see the wife of her jailed client, the husband agreeing to go because “marriage, I have found, is a kind of lifelong hospitality, a polite observance of protocol executed daily and with a good measure of deceit.”
After the meeting with Joline, the client’s wife and alibi, the attorney wife, so certain of most everything, is a lot less certain about her role in defending this client. Several of the women in these stories are strong-willed and perhaps over-confident.
In “Travel,” Mary and Jim are on vacation at a Mexican beach resort, and meet the Thompsons, Steve and Rebecca, who are “swingers.” The Thompsons immediately assume they are, too. Mary, assuming Jim would have no interest in such an adventure, thinks “Did we give off some subtle, deceptive signal that erroneously marked us as swingers?” Erroneously? Jim thinks differently. Richmond’s stories are surprising, erotic in nature and exotic in locale, which is often Latin America, but sometimes America in a future which has not quite, but almost, arrived.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”