Writing that Twists the Knife

In this invigorating debut collection, Chanelle Benz proves to be a writer to watch for years to come

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead is an invigorating debut story collection. Chanelle Benz writes with beauty and formal invention about an ever-expanding set of time periods and subjects, taking innumerable risks along the way. What makes it stand out, however, is the way Benz always keeps one eye looking towards whatever hurts the most.

The collection opens with “West of the Known,” which is set sometime between 1850 and 1912, back when New Mexico was a territory of the United States. It follows Lavenia, an orphan who is living with her Aunt, Uncle, and their abusive son. Her brother, Jackson, comes to take her with him, and she joins his group of bank robbers. Benz is acutely focused on how Lavenia’s gender changes the manner in which people treat her. The big stakes in the story play well, highlighting the treachery of navigating a sexist paradigm.

Benz hits her stride with the next story, “Adela, Primarily Known as The Black Voyage, Later Reprinted as Red Casket of the Heart.” The piece is written from a collective first-person perspective and footnoted as though it were an edited text in need of clarification. Adela is, more or less, trying to find love and the narrators are trying to exert control over when and with whom. Information about the characters comes slowly but steadily, and Benz knows how to use each drop to twist the dynamics. It works marvelously.

“All good story collections coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts.”

Perhaps the most remarkable story in the collection is “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of Orrinda Thomas, An American Slave, Written by Herself.” Thomas is a talented writer and poet who goes to Louisiana from Massachusetts, where she lives, with Crawford, the man who is enslaving her but has told her she is free. It’s written as a series of personal letters, which Benz uses well. Thomas is always concerned with the safety and treatment of those who are enslaved on the plantation where she has been hired to perform, but the way her relationship to their subjugation and dehumanization changes when she learns of her own enslavement is powerful.

All good story collections coalesce into something greater than the sum of their parts, but The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead does so more than most. Benz has a deep understanding of the way people are marginalized by their gender, race, class, and other identities, and she finds a way to evoke that in every story. This creates a great deal of tension throughout the entire length of the book. The character’s never seem far from encountering what they — and by extension, the reader — fear most. This is felt deeply in James III, a story about a boy who has run away from home. The safety of the characters is never guaranteed and Benz makes sure the reader has no chance to escape.

The high-reaching success of most of these pieces makes the one — and there really is only one — story that doesn’t work hurt worse. “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptisssiumum,” the book’s closing story, is ambitious and formally impressive, but the prose-style feels forced and, ultimately, it just doesn’t land.

Still, as a book, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead is exhilarating in a visceral way. Benz has an innate sense of what formal choices work best for a story, and that is clearest in “The Diplomat’s Daughter.”

After an opening heading, which reads, “The Kalahari Desert, Beirut, 2001–2011,” the story begins:

Natalia used to be a wife. His name was Erik. His name was Viggo. His name was Christien. His name was Lucas. His name was Nils.

He hit her. They had no children. He drove a motorcycle. Ran a company. Was a pastor, a surfer, an accountant. He taught her how to shoot, to drink, to bleed. Her husband. Her boss. Her man.

The story is told out of chronological order, but the headings are there to make it easy to follow. One character, Natalia’s husband, is referred to by many different names, interchangeably, because he is a mercenary and Natalia must call him different names at different times for their work. Benz manifests the confusion in the text so that the reader can feel it too, so that the reader can have all the necessary pieces of information to read a paragraph, or sentence, or word correctly and still be off-balance. Benz, more than most writers, has a sense of how to twist her words and style and structure to make what the characters are feeling levitate off the page.

This may be the most exciting debut story collection to come out since I Am an Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran came out in 2012. Each story has its own surprising element, that, in the hands of Benz, feels wholly new and unique. The Man Who Shout Out My Eye is Dead is a wonderful achievement of a book. To speak of her potential — which seems limitless — seems to do a disservice to the great work she has already done. She is going to be a writer to watch for years. The stories in this collection are vital, and it’s only the beginning.

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