Even from its opening sentence, Elle Nash’s new story collection, Nudes, shapes the reader’s expectations. “It began when she moved in below their apartment,” Nash writes, “or maybe it began a week after when the boyfriend came downstairs to ask for a cup of sugar for a cake, or maybe it began a week after that when the girlfriend knocked on the door…” Though the narrator of the opening story, “Ideation,” is a third-person outlier in a collection that leans heavily towards first, even this narrator is unreliable, reluctant to pin down when “it” all began, or to specify what “it” even is. When they later tell us, “This was how friendship worked as an adult: an exchange of goods or services for other goods or services,” we’re not sure whether it’s their thought, or the main character’s. We’re also unsure if it’s true.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are repeatedly used throughout Nash’s work, encouraging the reader to reflect rather than handing them clear answers. It’s an effective pairing with the content of Nudes, which is often dark, high stakes and built on conflicts of love, intimacy, sex, drugs, violence and self-worth. By working in the implicit and unsaid, Nash is able to maintain interest and write with nuance on topics that might otherwise become too heavy, or melodramatic. In the title story, a painter overhears her alcoholic fiancée, Michelle, confide in a friend over the phone: “‘No. No wedding. None of that… She’ll be fine. No, I don’t know when I’ll tell her.’” The words are clear enough to convey the stakes of the conflict but ambiguous enough to allow for misunderstanding, or indecision. There’s a similar uncertainty as the main character grows closer to their friend’s neighbor, Thomas. When she eventually tells Thomas, “‘Some people will do anything to be taken care of,’” the words feel true, but unverifiable. No resolution is given for the situation with Michelle, and “Nudes” ends with the main character examining photos of herself, telling us that she “looked regal.” But we are still left considering everything else she must be feeling, and what might become of her relationship.
Another great showcase of this effect is “Cat World,” a standout in the collection. The story is narrated by a fourteen year-old girl who is largely ignored by her distracted, divorcing parents. She eventually begins dating a girl in her class, Mikaela, while frequenting an AIM chat for catgirls, where the user ExxonMobil6 keeps asking her for pictures. Her relationships are complicated. On their first night together, before they start dating, Mikaela’s dad picks her up, alongside Mikaela and her older brother Mason, taking them to a motel room to drink liquor and smoke. The scene ends with the click of Mason’s camera as Mikaela kisses her. Little access is given to the main character’s interiority in this scene. We learn only that she realizes “[Mikaela]’s never mentioned her mother” and that she thinks of ExxonMobil6 after Mason asks about her first kiss. The story ends with a realization, a sudden understanding of a phrase that had come up in her earlier AIM chats. “I know what it means, now,” the main character thinks. But the reader still doesn’t understand entirely how she feels about the revelation; we’re left to go back over the story, to synthesize and reflect.
To some, this might sound frustrating, like too much work. But the resistance to easy interpretation doesn’t mean the stories in Nudes are difficult to consume. In fact, the large majority of them are compulsively readable. Part of this readability is achieved on the narrative level, where Nash creates stories that are filled with such immediate tension that the reader must continue. In “Unsolved Mysteries,” we learn in the opening sentence that a woman’s husband has “been contemplating alternate versions of his suicide.” Similarly, “A Deep Well,” comes out swinging with a strong hook: “I guess I should get to the incident with the gun.” Nash extends this knack for sudden drama even to her titles, from the intrigue of “Who’s Afraid of a Funeral Pyre?” to the brutally succinct “Glockjaw.”
This too is a clear talent on Nash’s part, the ability to be incredibly precise with her language. The poem-like “Joan Jumps into the Sea” is just under 150 words and yet evokes an overwhelming mood of loss with sentences like, “In the middle of the whale was a pulsing city with flesh that gave way like sand.” Another story, “Thank You, Lauren Greenfield,” is structured more like a personal essay, but similarly has sentences that punch far above their weight: “But being too thin is like being too drunk. Which is to say, it’s not that much of a problem.” The overall effect of Nash’s mastery of tension and efficiency is stories that compel you to read them, the way you might feel compelled to one more drink after you’ve had a few. It’s easy to be absorbed by Nudes, to be drawn in and then spit out six stories later, still going over everything that’s happened.
However, the collection’s structure makes binging a suboptimal mode of consumption. Nudes separates its stories into six titled sections: “Fluffers,” “Yuri,” “Pukkaki,” “Moneyshot,” “POV,” and “Snuff.” As with the title of the collection itself, the function here seems doubled, both a provocation as well as the questioning of why these concepts are so provocative, of the nature of desire and taboo. The stories are placed into their respective sections based loosely on their content and thematic material. Rushing through them then can cause the images and characters to lose their specificity, whereas spacing the stories out temporally might instead lend them increased resonance. Perhaps readers should treat the section headings more as an index rather than an ordering, or be sure to give each story space to breath before moving on to the next.
These are just suggestions of course. With writing this good, I understand the impulse to indulge.
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He’s written short fiction for Maudlin House, non-fiction for The Rumpus, and is a student at the Writer’s Studio. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.