Power and Vulnerability: A Review of Splendid Anatomies by Allison Wyss

There used to be a horror movie critic in the pink section of the San Francisco Chronicle, Joe Bob Briggs, who would end his reviews with a tally of boobs, bodies, and pints of blood spilled — more being better in all cases. Allison Wyss’s collection Splendid Anatomies is not horror, though it definitely dips a big toe into gory waters, but its proudly quirky short stories are littered with body parts. As I read them, a Joe Bob-ian list formed: a dick, a few boobs, a gallon or two of blood, plenty of entrails, an afternoon of disembodied veins, more than a handful of noses, and an untold universe of ball sacks.

What is Wyss doing with all these body parts? Inviting us to stare at them. Not in a Joe Bob way. Well, okay, in an objectifying way, but as if to say, my god, human bodies are absurdly gross and funny — even as she deftly explores their power and vulnerability.

Let’s start with those veins, the bulging blue ones on the tops of our hands and shins, the ones that don’t get enough fictional attention. In a trio of very short, tight stories, Wyss gives full play to their worm-like nature. In  “Garden,” a woman “shuffles” her legs in the “soft and pillowy” earth of her tomato bed, and her veins tunnel out. Here the repeating sounds of the words heightens the unlikely sensuality of the moment: “I moved my legs deeper and scooped handfuls of earth over the mountains of my knees, the slopes of my thighs, until I felt knives and needles through them.”

Wyss’ favors a first person narrator, and what I love about the voice in this story is how it combines the lyricism of the quote above with a slightly dismissive authority. As earthworms rise up out of the soil, the narrator says, “They twisted with the veins so that no one could have told which was which — I couldn’t, and certainly not you — and then hundreds of them nosed through the dirt until they found the holes in my legs, like mouths agape.” It’s startling to have the narrator turn her gaze on us, and yet the brief aside somehow lends a casual air to the sentence, as if she’s talking about something quite ordinary.

In “Fishing,” a girl plucks out her own vein with a hook to bait some “big fish, lucky fish, (old fish)” that have been grazing her worms, and it reads like a subverted parable — no lesson, only sweet revenge. Veins are also prey in the Hitchcock-y “Sleep Birds.” A woman naps on the top of a hill, curled protectively around her baby. “The weight on my chest of sleep descending was the weight of one bird, then another and another, landing, each so light.” This is deeply horrifying, more so when the birds pluck out and eat a vein, but with a quick (and ever more horrifying) shift at the end, Wyss circles back to the very real sleep deprivation and sacrifices of early motherhood. 

One of Wyss’ storytelling superpowers is that shift, that subversion, when the plot veers left to undermine either the reader’s gaze or their expectations. 

In “Snow White Alive,” Wyss gleefully undermines the eponymous fairytale, first by casting the dwarf as the first-person narrator. Where Disney portrayed the dwarves as inept and child-like, here the dwarf is an engineer at the mines. Snow White is their housekeeper. (Lover, wife? We don’t know.) The story opens with the dwarf wandering out of the home office to find Snow unconscious on the floor of the kitchen: “A comb was embedded in her scalp, hammered down so it pierced her skull ... the ooze that poured from the hole was not blood. At least not all of it was blood. It was brain juice.” 

This queen is not messing around, and rather than let the hapless Snow gracefully faint away under her progressively more potent poisons, Wyss serves up the princess’ blood and guts with a gusto. (While the cute little forest animals look on!) The story is kitschy and over the top, and yet it reveals a violence that was always a part of the fairytale and, ultimately, gives both its characters more agency as Snow roars awake at the end.

Since reading the book, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about “You’re Perfect as You Are,” the first story in the collection. It opens with the narrator, Ursula, telling us, “This is my natural nose.” She’s a receptionist in a plastic surgery clinic, where the alluring Dr. L has smoothed her crinkled bits and given her a “nice round c-cup” and lips with “punch.” 

But the nose? “He can’t touch it. Won’t touch it.” This assertion is the driving tension of the story, in which Ursula has taken a day off from the clinic to move into her new 825-square-foot condo. As Ursula putters around, unpacking boxes, she explains how she got here. It’s telling that she’s so informed by her role as a receptionist-cum-manikin that she orders her free day around the clinic schedule: “10:00 – 11:30 Sell the nose! (Check for breakage — those movers...Monitor the Roomba, organize the kitchen.)” 

Affectionately named the “Ursula-500,” the nose is her nose, the one that got her the job, the one Dr. L puts on face after face — and the one he fills with blow after lunch.

“Or sometimes he says it when he presses my head down into his lap, oh-so-gently. When he runs my nose along the underside of his penis. “My million dollar nose,” he says then. Moans it really. And I’ll joke about the value of his dick and how it belongs to me. But really the nose is mine and the penis is his. It’s just a game we play.” 

In sentences like these, Wyss gives us much to unpack. Ursula slides between confidence and questioning, not letting Dr. L’s deceptively gentle dominance — he presses, he runs — and possessive “my” pass, but then telling the reader not to take it all too seriously in what feels like a reflexive “it’s just a game we play.” 

Ursula is defending her agency, but to whom? A judgy reader, for sure, but also a skeptical self. For much of the story, she works hard to convince us that Dr. L’s perception of his own power is “adorable” and that she started the game. But her monologue reveals that she’s pondering whether shrewd participation in sex with the boss or surgeries really equals winning — and what happens to her beloved nose if she loses. 

In a series of emails to her realtor, she writes existential questions like, “if I pull down wallpaper in the bathroom, do I gain property or lose it?” and later, in a moment both more and less existential, she asks: “Why do I listen to Dr. L? Because he is part of me. If this nose is me, this one I’ve never touched, then he is too. Him telling me to go home, to lose weight, to tighten — just barely — my grip on his penis, it’s the same as me deciding for myself.”

And when a pattern-forming number of wide noses appear on her television, Ursula sputters incredulously: “Lips shrink and swell, I know this. As do boobs. Butts. I don’t care. But noses? Noses? Noses.” We readers always expected an Ursula-700, of course, but watching Ursula get there is still great fun in a ha-ha, oh no kind of way. 

Not all of Wyss’ stories are fairy tales or farce, and not all of the bodies are acted on in violence. In “From the Multiverse Chronicles,” two researchers spend years submerged in yogurt. They have explored other worlds together: “An ocean world — we built a raft. A bureaucratic world — we shared lunch and gossip, rolled our eyes ... But there was peace in the yogurt, in waking to a world of pale nothing, to softness, to calm.”

In such a world, there’s not much to explore, but I admire the way Wyss builds a sense of place through her character’s tactile experience of it — words like ooze, cool, soft, slop, slide, smear. And there are also problems to solve, like how to delineate the yogurt you eat from the yogurt you poop (“Oh, for a compass!” the narrator laments) and to keep from drowning in your sleep:

“We took turns, one holding the other’s head aloft for a full eight hours. It was tender, but it couldn’t be sustained. Then we discovered a pattern to form with our bodies, of my head atop Marta’s thigh, and her body curled like the moon too, and her head on my thigh.”

I had to read that second sentence a couple of times, but I’m certain that is by design. By interjecting the awkward third clause, Wyss forces us to pause and picture the bodies curled sweetly together — and it is unexpectedly tender. 

There are so many fine stories in Splendid Anatomies, but I want to end the review here, in yogurt world, because for me it captures many of the gifts this strange little book has to offer. There’s Wyss’s oddball sense of humor and curiosity, which propels so many of the stories. There’s that sharp attention to detail at the sentence level that makes us feel like we’re in good hands (or we’re being deftly manipulated) no matter how bizarre things get. And most of all, there’s that tenderness, that ability to find humanity, and even resiliency, in the absurd and the goopy. 

Susan Pagani is a Minneapolis-based editor and writer. Her work has previously appeared in newspapers and magazines in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Berkeley. She is also the co-author of two books, Minnesota Lunch and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food. She holds an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from Bennington College.