Pages Full of Noise: Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas

Cassie Duggan

Lungs Full of Noise Cover

The first story of Tessa Mellas's collection Lungs Full of Noise, “Mariposa Girls,” a story seemingly about ordinary ice skaters, flips all expectations of what a story can be: “Last year, the girls wore dance skirts on the ice, sheer fabric tied at the waist…This year, they wear nothing. No skirts. No leotards. No tights. They skate naked, wind nipping their nipples, ice burn searing their thighs" (1). So soon, the innocent are exposed and we must abandon all preconceived notions of normal ice dancers. The narrator then goes on to painfully describe the blades fastened through the girls’ feet, instead of traditional skates attached to boots. The twisted reality first shocks the reader, but then, as we sink deeper into Mellas’s world, we accept the weirdness and treasure her expert storytelling and charming way with language. She describes the skaters as, “stunning, icicles stuck in their lashes, scalps shimmering blue" (3) and we feel the chill of the skaters, cold to the bone, yet magical to all those who look on. Later, as she describes the tragic fall of one of the Mariposa Girls, the prose is perfect and silent in the same way a crowd would be: “They waited to hear her scream in pain. They waited to see the blood. But nothing spilled from her body. A wet shadow melted around her. Now she was nobody’s daughter. Bald and naked, they could hardly tell who she was" (4). This haunting view of humanity, is one you begin to expect from Tessa Mellas. Prepare to be awe-struck reading every story in this collection.

Winner of the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Tessa Mellas’s collection of short stories Lungs Full of Noise is indeed loud and brave. This is a first collection that displays fantastic skill and observation by a clever writer. Mellas explores magical realism and the strangeness of the human experience in each story. In addition to the refreshing and surreal content of each story, female characters take the lead, not as heroines, but as believable women characters in strange environments. We read about an older woman who has her first child, a plant baby. She takes us into the world of an ex-wife who cradles her dead ex-husband’s severed arm and an empty-nester hoarding caterpillars in her now-too-big house, which is also on the market and failing to sell. The main characters are confidently written to exude so many truly feminine qualities and flaws. In each story Mellas creates an extraordinary world for the reader, a world in which characters are beautifully unusual and their experiences are bewildering. This collection is starkly strange from start to finish; a book I simply didn’t want to put down.

In “Bibi from Jupiter”, the second story of the collection, Mellas presents a longer otherworldly narrative about Angela, a freshman in college who meets her odd roommate, an intergalaxy student, from Jupiter. Bibi is social and fascinating to freshman boys. Though this ostracizes Angela, she welcomes Bibi into her own family during the holidays. They do not have a normal tumultuous girl relationship, because Bibi doesn’t play by Earth rules. And (spoiler alert) if you were curious about sex on Jupiter, Mellas illustrates the ins and outs of interstellar lovemaking. This story isn’t your traditional coming of age college tale, but that’s what makes it so fantastic. Yes, Angela comes of age in this story, but she also has traumatic roommate stories she can share for the rest of her fictional life.

Mellas explores adolescence again in the more earthly story “Dye Job” in which high school girls obsess about eating fruit to win boys. As with all the stories, though, it is about more than girls pining after boys. This is a story that investigates friendship, specifically the teenage kind, because it is not always as simple as where you sit in the cafeteria. Loneliness is a strong tide in this collection, but not in a melodramatic way; instead characters must isolate themselves to learn about the self, which sometimes ends in moments of triumph and other times more complicated moments of anxiety, like the ending of “Dye Job” where the young friends find each other at a party being broken up by the police: “Lily in the doorway. Red lights flash behind her. She’s biting her lip. Ruth knows that look. It’s the look she gets on her face before she cries. Ruth holds her breath, closes her eyes, and lets the sirens fill her head" (109).

This collection of stories is dynamic because on one page Mellas will challenge our emotions, as we see at the end of "Dye Job," but several of the stories challenge our minds as well, and how we understand language's ability to tell us a story. These pieces confront reality. If I had to categorize this kind of writing style I'd call it lyrical prose: lines that evoke beauty and rich language, yet are not quickly parsed as a traditional narrative.

The story that interested me most in this light was “So Much Rain,” which begins, “Butternut says if houses wore dresses, ours would have to lift up its skirt so rain wouldn’t soak its ruffles. Cupcake says if our house’s joists were legs, the water would be past her knees…Tonight’s dinner is tulip wallpaper peeled off the master bedroom walls" (74). We are introduced to the characters through a series of similes that lead the reader to believe the house is flooding, then they are eating wallpaper. At the start of this story, I am confused, but interested. I picture mice at first, then liken the voices to those of The Borrowers. At times they are young, with childish names and silly words for things, but then they contemplate life and loss in very adult ways. Mellas writes this story with one foot in the explainable and the other in the inexplainable. Take this for example, “Butternut made up a game. Here’s how it goes. Everyone closes their eyes and counts to a hundred. But Butternut only uses numbers made of glass. Cupcake uses numbers made of ink. And Puddleduck only uses numbers made of snow.” Her prose is like poetry here, the beautiful sounds of the words propel the reader forward, yet the sentences don’t make logical sense, so the reader spends time half her time enjoying the language for language's sake and the other half sense-making. This story takes time, despite being relatively short. The time is well spent in my opinion, because I was able to get so much from this world Mellas conjured.

This is a smart collection of stories from a talented new writer. The emotions are sincere, and the prose will knock you off your feet. If you like short stories at all. If you are a little weird. If you are a little curious. If you believe in imagination. Read this collection, and don’t look back.


Lungs Full of Noise
Tessa Mellas
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 9781609382001

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