Luke Rolfes’s Impossible Naked Life
A Weird Carousel on a Spin-Off of Earth: A Review of Luke Rolfes’s Impossible Naked Life by Amy Dotson
Luke Rolfes’s Impossible Naked Life is a collection of strange, enigmatic short stories. As I read, I often had to look away from the page and stare at a blank wall to try to process the serious levels of imagination I was being confronted with. The stories, though only a handful are longer than a few pages, are all immediately vivd and captivating, and they stick around for just as long as they need to. I'll call the pieces stories for brevity’s sake, though I'll admit I’m hesitant to. Most fall into vignette territory, and I marked in the margins that one, “Spectacular Regular,” veers into prose poetry. In the end, though, these classifications matter little; the most remarkable thing about Impossible Naked Life is that I don’t think I’ll have to pick up the book much for reference while writing this review. This is one that’s permanently stuck in my head. Probably for good. Hopefully.
The book is separated into four parts that explore communication, athleticism, surrealism, and nostalgia—not quite respectively, since many of these things are generously spread throughout the book—through surrealism and an often folkloric style. If you sit very still, you can feel the mood shifting at the beginning of each section like a gentle breeze. Perhaps that breeze is real, or perhaps that feeling is manufactured by the giant blank space with the number stamped onto it.
See, Rolfes does not deal in traditional narratives with hard-hitting endings. This is a book that wants to frustrate you in metacognitive ways without ever being noticeably meta. The stories challenge the definition of “story” and prefer to exist in globular forms. This does not mean they aren’t tight. On the contrary—their distilled density is what makes them compelling. They are often tense, building up to climaxes and then ending right before the boom. “This story doesn’t have an ending,” Rolfes writes in “White Landscaping Rocks.” Most of the stories don’t. Last lines left me frustrated, but the longer I sat trying to tease out meaning, the more the frustration became the focal point.
One of my favorite examples of this is “Karate Witch Teacher Kickass,” the last story in section three. Our protagonist, Jalen, is a weird guy. But that’s nothing new at this point. We’re used to weird now. Our minds are already floating in Impossible Naked Soup, and we’re ready for whatever Rolfes is bringing this time; we want to know what’s going down. And it’s going down. Garrett—who is the worst person in the world—challenges Jalen, a high school math teacher, to a fight. A karate fight. Because they practice in a dojo together. Very real, very serious. And Jalen takes this very seriously. The fight approaches, Jalen trains. He is sort of in love with his sensei. He wears his training gloves at lunch in the faculty lounge, where he double-fists coffee and protein shake. He thinks in these lovely, childish three-word phrases: “Crazy sexy mysterious,” he thinks when he sees his sensei in street clothes for the first time. We think of The Karate Kid. A gauzy 80s film hangs over the whole thing. The tension is here. The climax is coming. The door with the enemy is opening. And then—
Nothing. So what was all that about? By writing like this, Rolfes implicitly argues that meaning doesn’t always come from climaxes and resolutions. This book is yanking you around like a roller-coaster—never forget that—it’s pointing to how we make meaning. But you'll forget because you’ll be so invested in the description of a punch so powerful that it turns you into evil slime that you’ll forget anything else is real: “One is no longer recognizably human. A slime monster, animated. One is The Blob, but un-freezable this time and trapped in a human husk. Guided by slime, the limbs spring forward in terrible ways and with the strength of ancient energy.” With tangents like these, the entertainment factor is unreal.
These stories like to have fun, definitely, but their scope goes beyond entertainment. They're keenly aware of and planted in the social issues and interesting hallmarks of modern society. “You’re the one who should worry about staying safe, boomer,” a young girl on a hoverboard says to an elderly couple while her friend smiles politely in contrast in “You are not Listening.” The phrase “essential staff member” is used to give the time away in “There, There,” showing how simple memetic phrases can do so much work in such a small space. “Palestine Boy” takes place in a midwestern American high school and juxtaposes a quiet, cerebral boy who runs cross-country and receives letters from his cousins in Palestine against a large, loud football player who hurts people. The story is gentle, smart, and dense with vivid metaphor. The strong left guard is his ability to push people. Palestine Boy, as he is called, faces walls in everything he looks at. Rolfes offers heartfelt insight into both students’ positions, providing moral fiber as pure as corn flakes.
As soon as you think you’re grounded, though, Rolfes launches you neck-deep into surrealism, pushing the coexistence of realness and unrealness to the limits. “My Neighbor, Ray” is Burroughsian in its paranoia and inventiveness, taking place during an unspecified Global Crisis. A character named Luke describes to another character named Luke a story he wrote called “Orange Blind,” in which a boy becomes lost swimming in a sea of orange. Paper fortunes rain from cargo planes. A man is made into a toilet paper maypole. The characters have conversations and interact with each other, but it is as if they are dealing with walls or aliens. None of it is quite right. This world is askew, maddening, frustrating. But thanks to Rolfes’s casual knack for complex characterization, it's also so captivating and so believable. Nobody thanks Luke when they eat the chicken tacos he makes too much. Nobody asks his permission when infringing on his personal space. He lets things happen. What kind of a man is he?
In this collection, you'll also find gripping, dreadful horror that you’d expect to find in the depths of 2010 Creepypasta forums. Deeply haunting scenes like “Ball Pit,” “Rubber Horsey Heads,” and “Puffy Man” made me want to sleep with a light on. “Rubber Horsey Heads,” in particular, evokes an ancient fear of being noticed by something awful and inhuman. The horror element is not isolated in these short vignettes, though. Many characters throughout the stories veer into cryptic Twin Peaks territory, and the tone floats naturally through light and darkness. Consequences often feel dire and mysterious, always just out of reach. Nothing meaningful is ever just handed to you.
Rolfes’s range is fantastic. He can conjure a cryptid just as easily as he can put you into common landscapes of middle America and somehow give you something new to look at within them. A folkloric tale of a killer crocodile in a small town contains a woman who dreams of the creature with a red balloon tied around its neck in “Killer Saltwater Crocodile Killer,” unexpectedly summoning the pathos of childhood fears in a retelling of Jaws. In “There, There,” another woman—alone, trying to avoid a storm, reeling from her partner’s shocking abusive behavior—gives a begging penguin a piece of Trident gum while she trespasses in an empty zoo—an act of both kindness and self-protection as she tries to get the penguin to be quiet before it gives her away. A couple move to a new neighborhood and starts to care too much about door paint while contemplating plastic surgery and swinging with their neighbors in “White Landscaping Rocks.” However familiar we are with the environments and problems, the way these stories move is always surprising, never predictable.
It's a wonder how Rolfes can cover so much ground in 161 pages. When I meditate on the whole collection, I hold onto the subtleties. Most of all, I think, this book is about communication—the violence we commit when we speak, the ways in which we don’t understand each other. The characters tend to speak in clipped, enigmatic phrases. They're attempting to speak to each other, but fears are often realized. And while real, honest, complete communication seems almost impossible, there is optimism in the subtle kindnesses and surprises found by simply trying.
Impossible Naked Life is available for $14.95 through Kallisto Gaia Press. Rolfes's first book, Flyover Country, won the Georgetown Review Press Short Story Collection Contest and was published in 2015 by Georgetown Review Press. It can be found through Small Press Distribution. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals. Read his pieces “Broken Cross on a Hillside (or Health Risk Assessment)” and “Showdown” in issue 12 of Miracle Monocle.