New review of The Bride Stripped Bare

by Derek John at Goodreads:

 Remember that terrifying scene from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? The one where Alex is strapped into a dentist’s chair: head clamped, eyes pinioned wide open, unable to flinch or look away from the horrors paraded front of him? You’d be well-advised to get hold one of those gizmos to prepare yourself for reading The Bride Stripped Bare: a work of fiction so harrowing and extreme it will probably burn your eyeballs out of your skull.

The title of Rachel Kendall’s collection of twenty-three stories, vignettes and epiphanies is derived from a disturbing painting by the original art-rebel Marcel Duchamp: a strange cobwebbed confusion of mechanism and organism; an uninterpretable morass of complicated desires that outlines the seeming impossibility of any true communication between the sexes.

Kendall’s characters seek release from the straitjackets of twenty-first century life and relationships in a variety of ways: in Bacchanalian orgies of sadism (51 Weeks), stripping in a circus freakshow (Penny Whistle), or in fantasies of rape and humiliation (Will Travel) – all set in a seedy underworld of crack dens and fetid motels and permeated with the banal horrors that lurk behind the greasy net curtains of dystopian suburban front rooms.

This is a collection that centres itself around the feminine Other. The female characters in Kendall’s world are rebels and fallen angels of one sort or another who have come up against an insurmountable gap between their raw being and their symbolic roles as defined by the consensus reality of an over-sexed society. They chafe against the narrow confines of a world which forces them to choose their identities as virgin, mother or whore.

Kendall pursues each of these categories to the limits of decency and beyond, much like Dylan Thomas’s plan for his unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade where the characters’ masks are gradually stripped away scene by scene until there is nothing left but raw flesh and quivering nerve and the most devoted love can flip to murderous hate in an instant.

The collection showcases Kendall’s virtuoso command of language and style. Most of the stories are short (four pages or less) and owe less to the current vogue for flash fiction and more to the decadent prose poems of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Kendall mixes astonishing lyricism with the most horrifying tortures; the most tender moments with the cut-up speaking-in-tongues of the psychotic. The stylistic influences range from Naked Lunch–era Burroughs, Angela Carter-esque fabulations, through to the cold clinicism of J.G. Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Themes of pregnancy and childbirth run through the collection, not as something to be cherished and cooed-over as in your average pastel-hued chick-lit novel, but as a disturbing reminder of raw nature – the biological ground-zero of womanhood.

Films like von Trier’s Antichrist, Cronenberg’s The Brood or Pasolini’s Medea have explored this vision of the body-horror of pregnancy and motherhood as something unwished-for and terrifying in its blood-soaked physicality. Kendall gives us infanticide (Axis), monstrous births (the eponymous The Bride Stripped Bare), and a whorehouse where the girls are impregnated and aborted in strict rotation for fetishistic punters (This is not Kansas). In Blood Money even ordinary folks’ bodies are no longer their own property (the story is set in a dystopian future where the poor pawn their organs for cash, leading to unpleasant scenes when the bailiff calls).

The collection’s title The Bride Stripped Bare calls to mind its antithesis: another unsettling painting of the same era – The Robing of the Bride by Max Ernst (incidentally, one of J.G. Ballard’s favourite paintings). Ernst’s strange and magnificent Bride, part-woman, part-bird and utterly uncanny also seems to inform the small number of optimistic tales where the terror is recast in the weak light of redemption and new beginnings (one of the characters is married to a guy called Adam). In the final story, Reduction, two exhausted lovers confront each other like punch-drunk boxers and at the end of it all instead of a declaration of love is simply an implied question: ‘where do we go from here’? No easy answers are provided.

The Bride Stripped Bare is experimental, difficult, and most definitely not for the faint-hearted, but for those brave enough to venture past page one, you will find an original and provoking piece of work, quite unlike anything you have ever experienced before.

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