If you happen to notice the number of pages in this book before reading the review, don’t think you’ve seen a typo. Nicole Cuffy’s Atlas of the Body is indeed 17 pages long, and she fills out those pages with small scenes that open a larger story.
Cuffy, who calls herself “a proud Brooklyn emigrant,” earned her bachelor’s degree in writing from Columbia University and has an MFA in fiction from the New School, though one might figure she also took some pre-med courses because she titles her chapters in Atlas of the Body using the proper names of body parts, such as cephalic vein, metatarsus, and parietal bone. She also merges medical lingo into her narrations throughout.
Her main characters, Maya and Zaire, are introduced in the chapter called “Metatarsus.” They’re childhood buddies in what appears to be a hardscrabble neighborhood in North Carolina. Their closeness and delight in each other show as they’re playing around and dancing:
Zaire stumbles and falls, disturbs a mound of fire ants. They cover his bare feet, his bare legs, him rolling around and hollering, making Maya laugh as she screams, and him laughing and hollering, and the ants stinging.
As teenagers, though, their relationship moves in a different direction when they “pore over the medical textbooks they find in the library,” trying to identify an injury Zaire received at basketball practice. “She presses her fingertips to the back of his jeans-clad thigh, probing, checking the neat diagrams of muscle.” Zaire holds the ladder so Maya can replace a book onto a high shelf. “His hand wraps around her thigh. Adductor magnus. It used to mean nothing, this kind of touch. [ . . . ] Him touching her used to be beside the point. But now it is everything, them touching.”
However, each of them has different ideas about what the future should hold. Zaire twice predicts that Maya will become a doctor one day, while he has his mind set on a basketball career with the Charlotte Hornets. She, on the other hand, envisions a future based on her love for Zaire. From Maya’s point of view, “She tries to imagine how they will fit together, once all their dreams come true.”
When the future may not turn out as Maya hopes, Cuffy illustrates this possibility with one of the most stunning and highly original descriptions of heartbreak I’ve ever read. In the “Umbilicus” chapter, she writes:
Where is this pain? Myocardium, endocardium, epicardium; left ventricle and atrium, right ventricle and atrium; epiglottis, esophagus, trachea; tunica intima, media, and adventitia, platelets, plasma, blood cells, red and white. A cancer of hurt. [ . . . ] She hurtles forward, everything ripping away from her, [ . . . ]. She is moving still, a reflexive twitching after decapitation.
It turns out that Zaire’s prediction for Maya to be a doctor comes true. On her last day of residency, she celebrates by having lunch with a man named Troy. “She tries to focus on Troy, his voice a deep-throated buzz. His hand is large and warm and soft. She knows what he is going to say.”
But her thoughts are elsewhere:
She sometimes senses that three versions of her exist simultaneously. There is the version that is home with Zaire, [ . . . ]. There is a version that is stringently alone, closed and efficient as a sugarcane stalk, […] And there is this version here at this table of meat with Troy.”
She wonders, “Which is the whole one?”
Another pivotal character in Atlas of the Body is Zaire’s older brother who is unnamed in the story. He’s a bit of a maverick, and that seldom bodes well for him, especially when Maya catches something on the TV news about him: “She has a strange feeling, like being told something would hurt and then being surprised at the pain.”
Nicole Cuffy is to be praised for her economical storytelling. Anyone who gets hold of Atlas of the Body will want to see what stories will be created next by this talented woman.