Review of Betty Superman by Tiff Holland
by Tiff Holland
Rose Metal Press, 2011
Reviewed by Sara Baume
“She sits in front of him with a plate and the candy bar. She cuts it carefully into bites as if it were a steak. She brings the fork to her mouth slowly before gobbling each bite like Godzilla consuming the populace of Tokyo. Then she wipes, daintily, and takes another bite.”
A chapbook, so Wikipedia tells me, is a pocket-sized booklet not exceeding a length of forty pages. Chapbooks originated from printed reproductions of popular ballads that were first peddled in the towns and villages of sixteenth century Britain. As the literacy rate of the general populace rose steadily over time, so did demand for cheap and entertaining reading matter. The chapbook broadened its range of contents to include poems, stories, woodcuts and religious tracts, which in turn allowed it the scope to inspire everything from titillation to moral instruction.
The ten interconnected stories which make up this collection err definitely on the side of a strange sort of moral instruction. Betty Superman by Tiff Holland, winner of the Fifth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest 2011, is thirty-four pages long and does not fit in any of my regular pockets, although it might have slipped neatly inside the hood of my cape had I lived in the sixteenth century. If I were to class it as a ballad, then it would be a love song between the narrator and her mother, Betty – in which they are both bawling from the wings of their best years, lamenting a past distinguished by divorces, transvestites and suicide attempts – occasionally clouting one another with their lutes out of mutual frustration.
In appearance, Betty Superman is an object of deceptive sweetness. It has a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” style cover with the lettering embossed against a cautionary shade of crimson. Perhaps the colour is meant to equip me for the character contained within – from the opening line of the opening story, I can feel the full force of Betty. She comes armed with a fistful of pebbles, a bottle of hairspray and an impressive lexicon of verbal abuse. She is prone to melodramatics, blasé with the accepted rules of tact, erratic and “unmotherly”, yet not entirely uncaring. Despite the collection‘s title, Betty’s role is no more important than that of the narrator herself. If the book were a painted portrait from the chapbook’s heyday it would be La Meninas – the author as Velzquez depicting herself right there in the foreground yet slightly offside, thoroughly present yet appropriately overshadowed. It is neither mother nor daughter which takes centre stage but the gap between them, a gap which has recently narrowed due to respective illness and a shared resistance to infirmity.
The setting is somewhere in Texas – I have no idea what Texas looks like as I begin to read and even less by the end, except for the somewhat charming detail that the deer are “small but plentiful.” Where the stories actually take place is at the kitchen table and beneath the decorative lampshade in the hallway, in the supermarket aisles and the queue at McDonalds, in the car and at the petrol station. Such is the unfussy fashion in which Holland creates dull domestic routines and everyday spaces that I don’t need the Texan landscape to feel at home. It’s in the details that I find the familiar, and it’s in the details that the writing’s greatest power resides. By pointing out the smallest of gestures and silliest of memories, Holland makes the characters whole and the stories live. From The Red Snapper,
She looked. I knew the look. She wanted an ashtray. Even though she’d stopped smoking, had to, she still looked for an ashtray at times like this. She sipped her coffee. There was only a smudge of lipstick left. Most of it was left smeared on the oxygen mask.
From Betty Superman,
Whatever was playing that morning and every other morning for that matter, Betty sang along. “Porgy I’se your woman…” she’d sing from Porgy and Bess or dirty stuff by Barry White. She sang all day long and it wouldn’t have been so bad if she could have kept the lyrics straight. But each song was a sort of mosaic of every song she knew with Porgy sneaking into Superman and Elvis intruding on “Stayin’ Alive.”
Were this the sixteenth century and had I happened to squirrel my chapbook into the hood of my cape, it would not have been necessary to carry it around for very long. Betty Superman is a startlingly quick read – just about long enough to succeed, just about short enough to stop before letting itself down. Holland is without doubt a smart writer. She has a keen sense of pacing – in a number of places I found myself stopping to admire the position of a comma, and she does not waste words adorning her sentences with superfluous adjectives – each full-stop packs just the right blunt punch. Her dialogue is always fluid – it nicely captures the maddening way in which Betty hops subject right in the middle of a conversation, then takes several intervening subjects to come back around again. With each story Holland shows a distinct knack for shaping this particular type of ‘short-short’ in which nothing really happens – for beginning with allure, ending with some sly revelation and moulding the bit in-between to a certain smoothness and circularity.
So far, I have managed to steer clear of the old “autobiography versus fiction” chestnut. Considering the marked similarities between the unnamed narrator and Holland herself, it seems safe to suspect that Betty Superman is largely drawn from truth. This being the case, I might revise my earlier comparison to a love ballad, for something more akin to a swan song sung by the author but for her own mother, Polly, to whom the chapbook is dedicated. Yet whatever its origin, the finished object – all cut and stapled and covered in crimson – strikes just the right note of blunt humour and apposite sadness. And wherever the kitchen table at which, or passenger seat in which, or decorative lampshade beneath which Polly has read it, she ought to be very proud.
Read a story from this collection on Fictionaut
About the reviewer: Sara Baume is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from Circa art magazine to The Stinging Fly literary magazine.