‘Naked Ladies’ by Antonya Nelson

Naked Ladies by Antonya Nelson, 1992

The magic trick:

Creating a menagerie of hyper-sexualized tension and symbolism as the Easter party setting

We take on Kansas this week, with a first stop in the suburbs of Wichita.

This is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time, and certainly my favorite Antonya Nelson. Really amazing stuff.

It follows in a great tradition of short stories in which the child protagonist is learning lessons about adults through the narrative. It reminds me of Alice Munro’s “Turkey Season” in its use of a teenage heroine who is both naïve and incredibly observant. The balance here is perfectly executed.

My favorite aspect is Nelson’s all-in approach. She stacks symbols and motifs a mile high with no remorse. There is reference to nudity or sexual physicality around nearly every character throughout the story. It never feels obvious, redundant, or implausible – all distinct possibilities when you use so many literary devices. What is does do is create a mood of almost surreal sleaze around the Easter party. It’s Easter, for crying out loud! The host family’s surname is House. Everything is pushed one notch beyond the normal. It’s funny. It’s creepy. It’s all weird.

So it’s very interesting then that using such a bizarre setting for a girl’s “learning lessons about how adults act” drama never feels unrealistic. Perhaps this house of horrors is actually the perfect place for Laura to learn about adulthood. And that’s quite a trick on Nelson’s part.

The selection:

They were gathered awkwardly in what appeared to be a modern ballroom, done in uncompromising black and white and red. An ebony grand piano gleamed in the corner like an advertisement for furniture polish. Beside it stood a brilliant white statue, a life-size naked woman whose head was coyly ducked. A marble drape fell lazily from her fingertips to pool at her ankles. The expanse of bright-red tiled floor was broken only by white fur throw rugs, which floated on it like clouds. Mr. House seemed to recall that he, too, had a family, and turned his head to shout out their names.

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