Lungs Full of Noise

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Lungs Full of Noise
Tessa Mellas
University of Iowa Press, October 2013
128 pages

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In one of Tessa Mellas’s stories, a woman gives birth to a plant-baby. While everyone else is a little perplexed, the mother looks at the newborn—his green skin, leaves and buds—and thinks that “he is beautiful … like no one has ever thought to be beautiful before.” That phrasing is also a fitting description for Mellas’s debut short story collection, Lungs Full of Noise.

The book is filled with delightful and refreshing oddities that are captivating in their sheer unexpectedness, such as a roommate from Jupiter, a sky which has permanently turned to white, or a group of girls dyeing their skin purple. These elements are met with some resistance in their story worlds—a desire to explain and understand them—but ultimately they are always accepted by the surrounding characters. 

But what is even more memorable about the collection than these touches of magical realism is Mellas’s control of language. Her words are rich and satisfying, the way that chocolate cake is rich. She places intense attention on visual detail, yet manages to paint her bizarre worlds in ways that engage all the senses. When the mariposa girl drilled ice skating blades into her own feet, I cringed and curled my toes. When she “came off the ice flushed, her skin glistening wet from falling” I felt chilled.

Mellas further draws readers in through the variety of her narrative voices. There is the funny first-person narrator that made me laugh aloud, the third person omniscient that helped me understand an entire village, the first person plural that made me feel as if I was one of the girls sent to quiet camp to learn how to stop talking, and many more. I found myself eagerly turning the pages, curious about the next voice I’d get to inhabit.

And while no two stories in this collection are alike, there is a signature tension at the core of each that I grew to recognize as distinctly Mellas. So many of her characters grapple with the chasm between what they think they want and the unexpected consequences of their desires. There is the pervasive theme of us giving birth to things that did not turn out the way we’d hoped, which constantly raises the question of “now what?” And perhaps the only thing more unrelenting than Mellas’s insistence on this question is her refusal to suggest any answers. Her stories often end suddenly with beautiful images and no neat ribbons.

At times Mellas is so experimental with her language that the story begins to feel less like a narrative and more like an artifact. Those few instances took getting used to, much like a green baby, but overall, Lungs Full of Noise showcases incredible imagination and keen intellect, rendering the world as we know it in a very thought-provoking, memorable light.