by Liz Axelrod
To Assume A Pleasing Shape
(BOA Editions, 2011)
An innate sense of sadness and joy runs through Joseph Salvatore’s To Assume A Pleasing Shape. Salvatore, an experimental fiction writer and creative writing professor at the New School (where, full disclosure, I met him through his teaching), plays with form and language to create a mix of strong, sensual, and satisfying journeys. The stories are brushed with just enough intellectual insight and humor to conjure visions of our own self-worth and the lengths we go to create the relationships that sustain us. Told by multiple narrators—a gay man, a goth girl, an anthropology professor, a husband, a young student living abroad—the tales are filled with a warm mix of tension and desire, and at times a coldness, as if the author wants us to step back and analyze the origins of those chilling moments.
“Reduction,” the second story in the collection, showcases Salvatore’s experimental process. Set in the academic world and told from the point of view of both main characters, “Reduction” is a complex story built upon the universal theme of partnership. A woman with overlarge breasts and the man in her life struggle with the consequences of breast reduction surgery, and weigh the human and anthropological conclusions gained from those struggles. By voicing both the male and female aspects of those decisions, the reader is given access to their intellect, their desires, their choices, and more importantly, the masks they wear to keep each other satisfied, and also at bay. The language is sharp and tight and biting:
Sometimes she’d look up after reading aloud from the Butler or the Halberstam and encounter her female students’ eyes rapt, cast up from their desks at her torso, pens poised before parted lips. And the men she slept with—always most interested in the moment the bra came off, helpful as could be with the unfastening, the lowering of straps, the swift pulling-off of that tight harness, anything to get them out for viewing. That rapturous moment when the bra would finally be off—you could see it in their faces: revelation, wonder, awe. But everything post-bra: quotidian. The man in her life was a bit of an exception. She’d seen that look in his eyes early on, but he soon figured it out, remembered the woman attached.
“Late Thaw” takes the reader on a journey of anguish and loss. Seeking solace and freedom, readers will run through a winter night, only to be gravely disappointed. In “Practice Problem,” which starts with “Circles, overlapping circles, circles intersecting with other circles,” Salvatore gives us a frenetic tour of Salem, following “Jennifer Hampton, small-boned, green-eyed, pale faced, Goth-girl.” In “Man on Couch,” the party will flow around you, while you sit in a chair, trying to make sense of your attractions while pondering “desire like a fun house in which we all lose perspective and thus must, in order to escape, grope terrifyingly distorted bodies only to discover that those terrifying bodies are in fact our very own.”
Set mainly in Boston and New York, using his hometown and his present-day locale as backdrops for his character’s human wanderings, Salvatore shows a keen sense of the socioeconomic class of outsiders that thrive in the city and live more brightly at night. His characters are never too posh, never too lacking. They are students exploring the landscape of adulthood and sexuality, middle-class couples struggling with desire and boredom, and those just verging on middle age and facing the pressures of living up to an impossible image placed upon them by society.
Throughout the collection there is an awareness of the outsider’s unfilled void, a deep understanding of the insecurities that come with growing up, and the need to find a place to fit, while knowing that no matter how much polish we put on, or how hard we hide, we are just not made that way. In “The Subjunctive Mood,” Salvatore succinctly puts this into words: “And don’t you like me more than the me whom I don’t let you see? Can I be forgiven for trying to stave off the inevitable?”