How Aliens Think
Judith Grossman
Johns Hopkins, $22.50 (cloth)

The aliens populating Judith Grossman’s first collection of short stories are not the kind of creatures who kidnap humans while we sleep, but rather people who inhabit strange lands. Foreignness, for them, is a matter of crossing borders. And the borders they cross are not simply geographical. These aliens are women posing as fathers, men posing as women, or Britons trying to de-code American English and sexual partialities. Grossman explored some of this territory earlier in her novel, Her Own Terms. Here, in sophisticated, original, literary fictions, often eschewing the formal structures of conventional narrative, she observes how aliens regard the foreign context they find themselves in.

Grossman, who approaches the question from several angles, beautifully depicts the nature of being an alien, displaced and foreign, chafing at imposed identities, as her characters endure varying degrees of discomfort, acceptance, and sometimes conversion. Subtly observant, her comic undertone creeps up slowly, whether in the form of the jokes told about violists who are regarded as the dodos of the orchestra, or a young Englishwoman in America figuring out what Americans mean by the term "blow jobs."

In "The Two of You" an academic, Clara Diamant, immersed in sexual theory from Freud and Lacan to Irigaray, finds academic edifices crumble in the face of her son’s adolescent eroticism. During a concert in the Berkshires, she senses "the intense aura of so much unguarded feeling, such hotly whispered sexuality." But what is so brilliant about this story is its construction. The narrator actually talks to, engages, Clara and tells the reader something about herself as well: what the two of them have in common, how they each rebelled against difficult fathers. The back and forth between the two women is as much a part of the story as Clara’s moment of epiphany watching her son’s concert at the end of the story.

Similarly, "The Death of the Mother," an exquisite and painful tale, is framed by the narration of its editors, who paw over the story, ostensibly submitted to them by Grossman herself. They dismiss it as yet another mother/daughter tear jerker, and toss the manuscript into the reject pile as a clichéd and overworked subject. Then the camera backs off from the snide editors and the story of the mother’s death unfolds with none of the sentimentality or mawkishness they have snickered about. Without being smug about it Grossman leads the reader to believe the laugh must surely be on the squirrely nay sayers who would dismiss her story of a death by ovarian cancer, "a greedy faux fetus," as just another one of those "mom bites the dust" tales.

For people who are not what they appear, appearances count for a great deal. In "Rovera," a sick boy named David Hockney passes on a fatal strain of TB to his neighbor. The story is told from the point of view of the neighbor’s wife, and she strongly, though unconsciously, hints that her husband was in the closet, in love with young Dave, whom she wishes dead for the disease he passed on to her family. There are harbingers of another disease yet to make its appearance for several decades, but "Rovera" is a kind of poetic dress rehearsal for it. David Hockney is a satellite figure who effects the lives of his anonymous neighbors in ways they may not be entirely conscious of. Vera may never fully comprehend the extent of her husband’s attraction to "young Dave," but she does know he wanted little or nothing to do with her sexually. She also knows that because of young Dave, her husband, who might only have been playing at his role, is dead.

"A Wave of the Hand" is the most subtle and hilarious story in the collection, and the most emblematic of Grossman’s skill. Dad, Oliver, is really Olive, another instance of people not being what they advertise themselves to be. But those around Oliver take the subterfuge in stride. If anything, it’s the spectator’s problem: Oliver’s family and neighbors unquestioningly accept him as he presents himself to them. The voice is chatty, everyday. The heavy corsets drying on the line, the number of sanitary napkins in Oliver’s house–all are regarded by his wife and daughter as mundane details, so much washing to be done or things to buy at the grocery. And so men who dress as women and women who dress as men are shown to be not some phenomenon, but the sum of the quotidian details of the life they’ve carefully constructed, a life carried on in rooms described as "typical, post war semi-detached." On the surface there is nothing unusual about this family, and they take great pains to present themselves as "lower middles" just like their neighbors. All of this is so natural to the narrator, Oliver’s daughter, that she wouldn’t be surprised to find an Erica in her boyfriend, Eric. And she wonders whose daughter she is: there have been other cross dressers in her family, aunts Doris and Lillian, who as music hall performers wore top hat and tails. So Olive has a number of antecedents who might not have been all their clothing said they were. And she’s left with the question: shall she dole out the whole picture to her boyfriend and to the world? or just a fraction of the tale, as did her parents, Oliver and Joyce?

But the really big question hovers in the margins. What does anything mean, if appearances are so mutable and slippery? The cumulative effect of these stories is to call upon the reader to question his or her received ideas about male and female, good guys and bad. The "straight" and the "bent," Grossman seems to say, can be interchanged more easily than you might have imagined possible.

It is no surprise that these stories–some of which act as meta-fiction, commenting on the process of how fiction is written, and some of which are challenging in their breadth of reference–were published by a university press. For comforting reading, check in elsewhere. How Aliens Think is a remarkable collection that challenges the overlooked corners of questions of identity and displacement, and does so with great intelligence and acuity.