:: Article

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

By Teddy Burnette.

Photo courtesy of AlMare via Wikimedia Commons.

In Ricardo Piglia’s short story, Homage to Roberto Arlt, he writes:

“…That’s how all writers in this country [Argentina] are, that’s how all the literature here is. All false, falsifications of falsifications…Does that seem bad to you? But it’s not, it’s very good; you write from what people can read.”

This is the crux of Mariana Enriquez’s second collection of short stories translated into English, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. Rife with traditional themes of horror and the supernatural, she blends the stories we are told as children, and the nightmares and fears of life, into an engaging portrait of how dire the clinging to stability can be for people. Interspersed in these battles, and surrounding each story, is a dense aura of paranoia and conspiracy, modeled on fellow Argentine writers like Piglia and Borges. Yet this comparison, and the assigned designation of “Gothic Horror” to most of Enriquez’s work, falls far short of accurately capturing what it is she accomplishes in this work.

Stories like “The Cart,” “The Well,” “The Lookout,” and “Kids Who Come Back,” are far more similar in tone and prose to the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and his style of magical realism. “The Well” for instance, deals with a standard trope of horror stories – the well that one looks into and either loses themselves in or fears what may come out. The narrator at six years old visits a neighbor with her family, and after peering into a white-painted brick well, is open to the darkness and fears of the world; terrors and nightmares, an inability to go outside barely at all, taxis taking her from destination to destination if needed. The anxiety of what she could have been had this paralyzing paranoia not taken hold injects this commonplace story with the nuance of inner struggle, of the human-made demons that might cause these sort of frights; it is a layering of unreality onto reality, rather than the other way around. The ending of this story, and the previously mentioned, align closely with a work of Marquez’s, Strange Pilgrims, also a short story collection. A highlight of Marquez’s work is “I Only Came to Use the Phone,” which mirrors the work of Enriquez in that the characters are thrust into positions and experiences that they are seemingly in control of, but quickly lose any hope of ascertaining or maintaining a level of stability and rationale, or even hoping for a return to a normal life.

Take “Kids Who Come Back,” a harrowing metaphor for the disappeared children in Argentina. Mechi, the main character, works at an organization archiving the lost children of Buenos Aires. She becomes fixated on one girl, Vanadis, the only one of the children she finds to be beautiful. Enriquez writes: “She found it strange that the photo the family chose, usually the same one used for posters and years in the search, was almost always terrible. The kids looked ugly…” Mechi and Pedro, her friend and a journalist, begin to track down children, but the obsession with Vanadis grows, and one day, she is found on the steps of a park, in the same clothes she disappeared in. What transpires mimics the themes of “Things We Lost in the Fire”, the title short story from Enriquez’s first short story collection translated into English in which women begin setting themselves on fire at communal bonfires after several instances of men lighting their partner’s on fire in fits of rage. This slowly devolves into a study on women’s place in society concerning their appearance, as well as a magnification of suspicion at all times. All women are eyed wearily on the streets, and as burn victims begin to re-enter society, the so-called plague reaches uncontrollable heights. In her translator’s note from this first collection, Megan McDowell writes about the border positions that Enriquez’s characters arrive at, in which they must decide to choose one of two distinct realities available to them. If this is the theme of the first set of short stories, then The Dangers of Smoking in Bed reconstructs this around a lack of choice, but the feigning of its existence to the characters. In “Kids Who Come Back,” after Vanadis is found, hundreds of lost children begin to appear in four parks around Buenos Aires. Though their parents take them home, many are sent back, said to not be the same children as before. “This person looks like her, has her voice, answers to the same name, she’s the same down to the last detail, but she isn’t our daughter. Do what you want with her. We don’t want to ever see her again,” says one character. Eventually, the children leave in one mass movement away from the parks, housing themselves in abandoned properties, hundreds of missing children packing in, their intentions entirely unknown. Enriquez writes:

“The kids began to leave the parks. They went in processions, in the middle of the night, through the fog; the exodus occurred in winter…The strange thing was where they went…Another three hundred went to the corner of Igualdad, in the Cafferata neighborhood of Chacabuco Park, into a house whose pink color was fading from neglect.”

Most of Enriquez’s short stories end with this sort of cliffhanger, or just barely an idea of an ending; enough of one that the reader can create their own darkly tinted future for the characters. This does not detract from the stories, rather it reinforces the influences at play on Enriquez’s work, and emphasizes the way in which she turns classic tales of horror on their heads, reconfiguring the endings we expect from these sorts of stories. The most evident distinction in the author’s style is how she presents each element of each story on the same level; nothing is giving undo significance or exclamation. In “Where Are You, Dear Heart?” in which the main character becomes obsessed with sickness and death, the traditional motifs of addiction stories are subverted, but presented in the same clear, precise tone that is evident in all of Enriquez’s work. It begins with a character on an online forum for those consumed with the need to listen to heartbeats, preferably irregular ones, or ones with defects. In this obsession, the main character loses all control after finding a man online willing to let her do anything; she makes him use cocaine, puts a bag over his head, and even pushes him so far as to send him to the hospital at one point. This macabre tale, though highly disturbing, is told straightforwardly, never deviating from the rhythm that imbues Enriquez’s work. Even as she describes the two characters taking their addiction a step further, one saying she needs to feel his heart in her hands and “that we were going to need a saw.” By turning the familiar stories we already know on their heads, Enriquez has achieved a notable accomplishment here, which is both massively uncomfortable at times, while being altogether compelling throughout.

Photo courtesy of Burnette.

Teddy Burnette is a writer and critic living in New York City.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 18th, 2021.