The warning signs pile up even on the first page of Barbara the Slut, Lauren Holmes’ collection of short stories. Holmes right away displays that busy, muddled and sadistic sense of humor which I, as a man, ascribe exclusively to women (it’s possible they’d be ok with that), panning a scene of lurid behavior and absurdist quips.
“How am I Supposed to Talk to You?,” the first installment in Barbara the Slut, is not a tale to unify people around the fire — it’s a jolt for those maddened my monotony, a straw of air for the cubicle-confined “nucleus” dying for a way out of the mental box. It caters to those who have asked for too much safety in their lives, and gotten it. In Holmes’ imaginary extrapolations, a daughter fetches Victoria’s Secret underwear for her mom to hawk on the black market in Mexico, and it’s a mom the collegiate (and secretly lesbian) daughter hasn’t seen in three years. Still, Holmes lures fully our consciousnesses, with avid description and detail (“The sun rose behind the bus… As we drove, there were more and more houses on the right side of the road and more hotels on the left side, where the beach was. Finally the houses were stuck together, and the hotels were almost stuck together. The hotels looked like motels to me…”). The role of this passage is strongly seductive, entrancing our right brains into the setting for absolute enjoyment of all the quirky left-brain gobbledygook, like a feeble but traceable reminder that this author actually has bearing in life on planet Earth — pesky maturity for the congenitally immature.
Short of actual queries into whether or not the author is indeed gay (I suspect the contrary), a reading of her work just obviates some abiding of differences. Holmes even employs a juvenile, “little girl” diction in the above description as a college-aged female, saying not that the houses were “conjoined” or “closely rendered,” but they were “stuck together,” a technique calling to mind a kid’s fingerpainting where the scene can be foraged or blotted out at the stroke of one whimsical twitch.
Identity, too, in this way, is dangerously malleable, and usually in obvious ways, like the second and third stories, in each of which the narrator is presented as a man. Surprisingly, none of the book’s blurbs of effusive shmoozing marked this as a CENTRAL CHARACTERISTIC of the book. They seemed to treat the sex-crossing (so not just “gender” crossing, in other words), as an immaterial afterthought, a byproduct of Holmes’ exploratory moxie, whereas I think that the very point she is making is that she can think, walk, and act like a man in life, and no one will even notice, until now.
In “Weekend with Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy,” the male main character (who narrates) has promiscuous sex with many different women, basically to the point of interchangeability there between, and what we have indeed is a womanly gluttony of imagery — the women’s body types, constant themes of food and general sensual voracity, and yes, more sick sense of humor in the form of public lewdness. Is Holmes’ carving out a new reality here for us, with this minute betrothal of personal aspects to individuals, or is she simply diluting the harsh fume of our current culture, and life in “the city” where “You can’t even walk down the sidewalk, there are so many people.” So many people, so few selves.