Tessa Mellas’s debut collection is full of noise—and absurdity, charm, otherworldliness, and beauty. The twelve stories in Lungs Full of Noise brandish the bizarre and stroke the pages with strange and unsettling stories that hover on the border of reality. Mellas ushers us into the uniqueness of her world, reminding me of the inventive and alluring worlds created by such writers as Kevin Brockmeier and Joyelle McSweeney. It is no wonder that she was the deserving winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award.
The collection opens with a piercing image of girls ice skating, naked, their skate blades screwed into the bottom of their feet. “Mariposa Girls,” the opening story, signals to Mellas’s background as a synchronized figure skater, but it also challenges us to consider what we will do for beauty and success. What I found so poignant about Mellas’s writing was not merely the extraordinary and fantastical elements that forge the stories, but how at the heart of each story there is a timely message. Her stories are spun from other realms, yet they are all deeply familiar. She scouts the familiar terrains of motherhood, beauty, loss, and myth-making, all from a fantastical vehicle.
“Bibi from Jupiter” tackles xenophobia, and uses a startling and offbeat concept to address very real and relevant societal issues. Bibi is from Jupiter and attends college, where her roommate dislikes her at first. Then she sees a shift in Bibi—perhaps how American college culture can change foreign students.
“White Wings of Moth” displays Mellas’s exactitude with details, which are alarmingly spot-on. Bea is a middle-aged woman who fills up the emptiness in her life by collecting caterpillars, and eventually settling into her daughter’s old tree house. “Bea had never been disliked by anyone before becoming a mother.” Motherhood is one of the pervasive themes throughout the collection, as Mellas excavates the relationship between creator and created.
The story “Beanstalk” also addresses motherhood. This whimsical story narrates the story of the young mother Lucy, who gives birth to a green baby she names Jack. Jack has buds and vines growing on his body. In some writers’ hands these storylines would feel forced or extraneous, but Mellas so clearly owns her world that I am enchanted.
Mellas not only draws from the whimsy of fairy tales, but from the life lessons and narrative shaping of mythology. There is the story “Blue Sky White,” in which the blueness of the sky is replaced by whiteness. And the simultaneously disturbing and playful story “Quiet Camp,” which tells the story of girls who chatter too much and get sent away to a special camp. As the story beautifully begins:
We arrive in a westerly wind, our lungs inflated with speech. Our mothers said that this would happen if we didn’t learn to quiet our tongues. Our tongues couldn’t be stopped, so up we went. Up and up. Until we knocked the chandeliers with our heads and scraped the ceilings with our feet.
Lungs Full of Noise is not only a study in genre and world-building, but a deep exploration into the roles of women, and the shifting and conflicting gender roles that pervade our social landscape.
If there is anywhere that the collection falls short, it is in its length—I wanted more! Lungs Full of Noise is undeniably one of the best collections of short stories that I have read—not just this year, but perhaps ever. Mellas is a weaver of fairytales and an inventor of folklore. Her stories dazzle and intrigue, choreographing a dance between absurdity and reality, and they champion her right to be considered a great new literary voice.