NUDES. Elle Nash. Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2020. 242 pages.
The very first impression of Elle Nash’s collection of short stories Nudes is that it is a very slick, small paperback book of a higher quality than a lot of paperback books I’ve purchased lately from indie lit outfits. The authors photo in the back shows a young woman in front of a teddy bear holding an AK-type assault rifle without a magazine. I don’t know enough about guns to pretend like I know the exact make.
Nash knows about violence, though. A thick oppressive layer of tension pervades the collection, filling up the spaces between the short punchy sentences without let-up. From what I can tell, the protagonist of the stories is always a woman in the pathway of considerable psychological or physical violence, and we watch helplessly as she sometimes steps further into peril.
The 24 stories on offer here are bleak, and I kind of knew that going in, with some trepidation. We were in Bret Easton Ellis territory for the first bit of the book and I sighed as the characters lined up to do their shallow, damaged thing. However, as I got about 60 pages in and encountered the long title story “Nudes,” something else came into the picture alongside the bleakness, framing it differently somehow if not giving any respite: the realization that Elle Nash really knows how to write short stories. The quality and polish of the writing, the unclouded precision of the prose, the exquisite unfolding of the suspense, all reveal a writer who has gone a long way to master the craft of writing. I have not read her previously published novel Animals Eat Each Other, so I don’t know how much of the Elle Nash game you see in Nudes was already in place from the get go, how much was just innate.
It took until the longer story “Nudes” for me to sink into the aquarium of the book and get used to its chilly temperature. An unnamed narrator and her fiancée are staying in a condo and drifting in their relationship when the narrator has an encounter with Thomas, an alluring neighbor. Things develop; I don’t want to give away too much because as much as the characters appear to have a deliberate and robotic shallowness, Nash pushes situations to show the plot running away with them, life taking them to dangerous destinations dripping with significance. Maybe it’s a sign that a story has substance not apparent on the surface when you hesitate to spoil it. Another good sign is that you can see the mind-movie unrolling.
Soon after “Nudes” came the story “Dead To Me” which drove the screw to the sticking place that this was a good collection and a great writer. “Dead To Me” was a skin-crawling, yellow-sore-days-later bruiser. Again, can’t give away too much; suffice it to say that Nash often has a type of character—young married mother living in an Updike story with the sexes reversed, now drain the life out of it and turn it into a nightmare. That story will stay with me.
Other stories hit on graphic psychological portraits of women with very tortured, frightening eating disorders (“Thank You, Lauren Greenfield”) or addictive love attachments that compel them like a zombie to first smash a cellphone in an attempt to escape, then contemplate rushing to AT&T before closing to buy a new one just to send a crucial good night text to the one they obsess over (“Survivalist”—another bonafide chiller).
By the time I was done with the book I had seen a variegated gallery of disturbing and disturbed women very carefully painted. I was deep in the heads of a cast of female characters I had worried would be shallow at first, but by the end, I was clawing for the edges of the pool, for a ladder to grasp onto for dear life. Have you ever felt such fear and claustrophobia while reading a book of short stories? How could a short story do that, exactly?