The thing about a well-developed setting is that in many ways it’s invisible: it’s hidden in a sentence that reveals a character’s flaw, it sits quietly beside an emotional truth, it’s the catalyst for a surprising behavior. Setting grounds us in a specific context so that we can believe and understand the narrative, but the writer doesn’t want us to stop and notice, to have to think: look, here we are.
You could argue that most successful elements of craft—not just setting—are also invisible, but stories set in the future, like Gina Frangello’s story “My Parasite,” published on The Rumpus on January 6 , run the risk of working too hard to show us how the time and place of the story is so different and removed from our present. When it comes to giving the reader a context when a story is set in a dystopian future, less is more. And Frangello? She nails it.
“My Parasite” opens by introducing us to conjoined twins, Rita and Lila, and immediately we’re immersed in the difficulties of dating, having sex, and relating to another person when privacy is impossible and everything is a compromise. After dating another set of conjoined twins, Rita and Lila meet Clyde, a creep Rita is interested in but Lila understandably dislikes, and the sisters’ relationship becomes strained. The bolder of the two sisters, Rita worries that her lack of shame—“the crucial ingredient in humanity”—might give Lila a reason to go to court to have her euthanized the way Maisy B., another conjoined twin, had her healthy sister declared parasitic and removed. When Rita and Clyde want to have sex, they drug Lila, and they eventually decide to get pregnant without Lila’s knowledge. The sisters eventually reconcile and Clyde is locked up for rape, but before the baby can be born, Lila dies in her sleep, leaving Rita alone to “keep [her] ugly thoughts a secret, which was a horrible chore, tiring and hard to acclimate to.”
In the first paragraph Frangello tips us off that maybe this world isn’t quite exactly our world with a quick reference to an old law that could’ve forced the Cole twins to be separated, but “since the two child-policies had gone into effect, conjoining provided a potential loophole.” But this sentence does work a lot of work: it lets us know that these people have not always been in control of their bodies, and that they live in an over-populated world. The history of this place is different from our history, but still things change and people find a way to get around the rules.
Frangello eases us into this surreal futuristic place by focusing on the body—the messy, limited, surprising, embarrassing human body. As a culture we have an image of the future as a less organic, more robotic and mechanical place; time progresses and we move further from nature. But of course that isn’t true—we’re still human and Frangello is sure to remind us. By the second paragraph of the story, she describes the logistics of two sets of conjoined twins having sex, the blurred lines of consent, and the shame that accompanies a complete emotional breakdown. By introducing us to this dystopian future but then following it up with a description of bodies, Frangello’s setting becomes easier to believe. Yes, we’re in the future, but look, the people who occupy this space are recognizable.
The references to the future are all brief yet efficient. Frangello introduces us to slang that is unfamiliar but not impossible to understand; she mentions that the characters use texting symbols that “aren’t real words”; she describes Rita “shaving her pubic hair retro,” which in this case means bald; she references other laws; she gives the twins a Conjoinment Coach, a cross between a life coach and a therapist; she tells us that Clyde is eventually set to a “Rape Farm,” a cringe-inducing term that feels true to this reality. In doing so, Frangello creates a place where normal communication is altered but still effective, where therapy has been watered-down and given a less-threatening name, and heteronormative concepts of beauty have shifted yet again (but maybe not all that much). It’s in this place that these characters live, and Frangello devotes just enough attention to the details so that we can understand these people without becoming distracted or overwhelmed by the noise around them.
Perhaps what is most important is that Frangello’s characters are larger than the futuristic space they occupy, and I’m not sure that many narratives in such a setting can boast this. Clyde has some great one-liners that reveal him to be a very specific kind of ignorant; he’s funny, but the humor of his interaction with the other characters only makes him more horrifying. Lila tries to assert her individuality, but also wants to be good and fair. Rita is selfish, insecure, and afraid, but we can understand why, and still we can see that she loves her sister. By the end we can feel her loss, we can feel her shrinking in on herself in her loneliness.
The story closes with a short, heartbreaking paragraph that illustrates the depth of Rita’s grief, a universal and painfully static emotion, one that will continue to exist no matter how far we progress into the future: “Rita waited. Alone with her own perilously strong heart, she waited night after night for the voice in her head to summon her home.”
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a new series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.subscribe to Ploughshares?