BY KIMBERLY KING PARSONS
Desire drives every story, in one way or another, but few writers capture white-hot want like Genevieve Hudson. Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books) features characters obsessed with obsessions: how we are always trailing them, struggling to give them names, justifying them as we go along. Each of the wide-ranging voices in these stories—vegan activists, teenage skateboarders, a patient recovering from a harrowing surgery—are seekers at heart, unified by their sticky, boundless compulsions. “Anything I’m not supposed to have I want,” confesses the lesbian narrator of “Adorno,” who has, for reasons murky even to herself, recently slept with her beloved sister’s much-older husband. Hudson’s characters can’t always explain their actions, and they rarely know what’s best for them. Perhaps this is why they feel so nuanced and relatable. The world they walk through—flooded with lust, saturated with longing—is familiar to anyone who has ever had an insatiable ache.
Articulating desire is tricky—we want who we want, mostly without knowing why. It’s elusive, a chemical dance between bodies. Still, the characters in Hudson’s collection make half-hearted attempts to justify their urges. In “Bad Dangerous” the narrator laments her astrological predisposition for fixation: “I’m a Cancer after all. I reach out my crab claw and snap someone in my pinchers…It’s compulsive. I just keep pinching the shit out of this new thing until one day I lose interest and let it go.” Though many of these characters are in deeply chaotic situations, they are off-kilter and frequently funny, sarcastic and self-deprecating. They study crystals; they visit psychics and have their feet rubbed with sage; they have their birth charts read. Each of them is looking, in their new-age-y way, for gentle answers, or at least for alternative methods of rumination.
Rather than directly interrogate her characters’ jagged impulses, Hudson shows longing at the sentence level, bakes it right into the syntax. The language is corporeal and completely unexpected: a dirty floor “sprout[s] a kind of hair” and monotonous tasks “jiggle” a janitor’s heart. A filthy van is described first as smelling like “muscles and open wounds” and later as having a “menstrual stench.” The prose itself seems full of blood, the syncopation like a pulse.
Hudson’s careful attention to detail also makes her a master of evocative setting. In “Cultural Relativism” a young professor leaves Amsterdam for a teaching job in Alabama. Hudson is as deft at describing ivy-covered buildings and Southern “monuments of horror” as she is the icy waterways of the Amstel, but she never strays far from the body—where desire lives:
Conjure something that looks Ivy League—colonial mansions, wide lawns shaved to the height of an army crew cut, phallic chimes…Now, bring in a vicious Southern sun and burn everything so it walks with a limp. There, perfect.
There’s another type of yearning that moves alongside the physical in these stories: the search for home. We’re introduced to these characters in moments of dislocation—they are running from bad decisions, making new lives in foreign places or else traveling, living in liminality. But you get the feeling that no matter where they are, no matter how moored or forgiven or how loved, these characters would still feel adrift. The title reminds us that these are characters pretending to belong. For them restlessness is constant, and desire itself—even if it is fleeting, risky, or unrequited—is the closest approximation to feeling at home.
But the stories in Pretend We Live Here are certainly not tragic. Following desire, Hudson reminds us, can be blissfully life-affirming—it makes you bold, even as it drags you through dangerous places. “The wanting was a shake that started in my toenails and moved up toward something that wasn’t my brain,” says the narrator of “Possum,” after “innocent” dirty dancing at a Halloween party leads to full-blown fascination. The narrator’s crush, known only as “the possum,” tells her that if they lived in the same city, they would get into a lot of trouble. “The way the possum said trouble made me want to have it,” she says. “It made me want to eat drugs from the palm of her hand and follow her down the interstate on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. I wanted to turn a dollar into a straw and suck the possum up my nose.” This is precisely what the stories in this collection do: they take you off guard with their certainty and their strangeness—they grab your hand and lead you to unexpected, beautifully dark places. They make you greedy for more.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage in 2019, and the novel The Boiling River, forthcoming from Knopf.