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hold your fire

28 january 2024

"The Leopard Next Door," just two pages long, sounds the keynote of Chloe Wilson's 2021 collection Hold Your Fire. The narrator bonds with an unseen leopard who is no happier to live in her apartment building than she is. We brace ourselves for other stories where people wish they could escape their situations.

Several of these pieces are short-short or flash-fiction length. Not my genre, really, but Wilson's keen sense of the incongruous is pitched well for ultra-short stories. I admire more the ones where she has the scope to follow a set of uncanny ideas wherever they may lead.

The title story "Hold Your Fire" is a great example. No matter now many previous short stories you've read, you are probably not prepared for exactly the way this one will go, with its sharply unsympathetic narrator, her feckless, dependent family, her aromatic boss (smell is a key dynamic in many of Wilson's stories), her abhorrent line of work, and the medical fads that are the ground bass of its 30 relentlessly inventive pages.

Smell is the main theme in "The Drydown," a story where the narrator, who works with perfumes for a living, becomes somewhat hyposmic as a side effect of antidepressants. Being very hyposmic myself, I experience such stories as someone who's very hard-of-hearing might read a story about natural noises or music. Even if it's only by analogy, though, I am struck by the power with which Wilson deploys a scent-map of her characters' world in words.

In "The One You've Been Waiting For," a suburban woman plays witness to a struggle of will between her would-be entrepreneur husband and a more successful version of himself – and the narrator gets drawn into the orbit of this neighbor's wife. Similar is "Tongue-Tied," where the narrator, bound to a husband who equally attracts and repels her, goes on a house-hunting tour led by one of her former gym students, a young woman who has always simply repelled her. Nothing goes right on the tour; perhaps, for this couple, nothing ever can. Not much has gone right for the narrator in "Powerful Owl," either. Fleeing a death that is never well-explained, she goes into a predictably distasteful situation (nanny drawn too close to her charge's father) which oddly seems to suit her because of its very disposability.

"Monstera" is a story with an amazing, headlong central idea that works brilliantly by keeping you off balance, as all Wilson's best stories do. In "Monstera," a young woman takes on the temporary and rather creepy role of companion and nurse to the rich father of a friend of hers. It could go in Gothic directions but it doesn't really; the narrator is no innocent and the situation is just contingently weird, not Ominous.

"Rip" is a sport story (the sport is diving), and it is actually fairly straightforward, among Wilson's stories. Though much in this story of jealousies at a suburban diving club remains below the surface – as the turbulence created by a perfect dive must, the narrator explains.

"Joyriding" seems to be headed in a Pardoner's-Tale direction (three companions discuss how to divide up a prospective treasure) but becomes much more contingent and prosaic. Not so another story set on the road, the closing "Animus," which develops unbearable suspense by mixing fine art, a hitchhiker, and a kangaroo.

I first read Chloe Wilson's fiction in ZYZZYVA, where her unsettling story "Eau de Nil" appeared in 2023. As in "Tongue-Tied," a central element of "Eau de Nil" is an encounter – under odd circumstances between the narrator and a medical professional – that turns into a fascination, and changes the narrator's life. Short fiction does not get better than this.

Wilson, Chloe. Hold Your Fire. Cammeray: Scribner, 2021.

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