A Review of Mouth

Dave Madden
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“I thought we were happy, until the wolves came.” This line from one of the stories in Puloma Ghosh’s debut collection reads almost as a logline for the rest. These unsettling fictions are often set after minor apocalypses, the protagonists standing in the aftermath and facing the mismatch of who they once were and who they are now. In this way, Mouth is a welcome book for our post-COVID era, though what gives the collection its power is the dissemblance of Ghosh’s worlds to our own.

In “Leaving Things,” a onetime veterinarian scours the emptying shelves of her local bodega, ignoring the owner’s advice to leave town. Wolves have taken over; women are disappearing in the night. In an alleyway, she finds one wolf panting, near death, her belly swollen in pregnancy. She brings the wolf home to try to heal her, and when the wolf dies, she tries to save the pups—but it’s not pups she’s been carrying: “I watched small limbs kick and tear out of the wolf’s womb, teeth gnashing through her skin. At last, a human infant with open eyes reached for me through the carnage.” Now she’s a kind of mother, but as he grows rapidly in a few days, she becomes something even more intimate, with more potential for damage. 

“Natalya” takes the form of an autopsy report, performed by a pathologist on the corpse of a woman she loved decades prior. As she slices open Natalya’s body, she recalls their years together, when the pathologist was a teen girl with a cutting problem. Natalya was the only one she could share this with. Now, as she writes in her notes, “no matter how I touch you, you remain still, peeled apart like a pithy citrus.”

These are stories concerned not so much with recovery after loss as with preservation, how the woman at each story’s center can stay whole when so much of her has been stripped away. This drive for wholeness gives Ghosh her collection’s title and central metaphor: the mouth as an organ for consumption. Pritha, an ice­-skating rival of the protagonist in “Desiccation,” is discovered “crouched against [a] gray wall, her teeth deep in a crumpled rodent”; later, she sucks lightly on the protagonist’s wounds. In “Supergiant,” an international pop star sits calmly as her makeup artist digs deep into her mouth, unhooking the seams of the “celebrity skin” that forms her public self. Many of Ghosh’s characters at one point get their necks and shoulders bitten, some of them benignly, but one to the extent that she’s left bleeding everywhere, “and I leaned into it, longing to let all of my writhing insides spill forth at last.”

Consumption, in its way of transforming the body from a container of the self to food for someone else, is in Ghosh’s fiction an erotic act. That shattering of the ego. So many of these characters long to be eaten, swallowed whole, and transformed into something else. The tone Ghosh favors in these stories—cool, almost clinical—serves her well when writing about sex, bringing readers close to sex’s effect on the psyche as much as on the body. “It was a strange way to come,” she writes in “In the Winter” as a man (who may also be a wolf) works his fingers into the protagonist, “treated a bit like a fleshy little vegetable that had to be held down and scraped clean of seeds.”

It’s that tension between becoming an object and a subject that sets these characters on their journeys. In “Anomaly,” time agents from the future have created rips in the fabric of space-time, one of which our protagonist visits while on a first date. Couples can pay to step through the anomaly, dissolve molecularly into one another, and fall out somewhere in Indiana. In a field, the anomaly gleams and shimmers. It is another mouth, another hole to fall into. Ghosh deftly delivers each of her protagonists to these kinds of precipices. The pleasure throughout Mouth lies in watching each of them jump.

Publisher: Astra House Page count: 224 Price: $26.00 Key quote: “I wait for her teeth, but they never come.” Shelve next to: J. G. Ballard, K-Ming Chang, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado Unscientifically calculated reading time: Twenty-two games of Hide-and-Go-Seek

Dave Madden
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