In this collection, a woman builds a city of desert sand, another grows a tail, a third destroys her home over the course of many days, and a couple in the near future is quarantined in the midst of a plague. In this promising, but inconsistent, collection, Rollins takes us to numerous worlds.
The question is: what do we gain from all this travel? Rollins’ narrators do offer some lovely metaphors. In “The New Plague,” “A fat tender welt like a beetle wedged under his skin” and “In the hospital, we were as docile as doll babies.”
But, too often, Rollins’ female narrators are intellectually thin, their reflections banal. In “The Tail,” the narrator grows, as promised, a long and lovely tail. The premise recalls “The Nose” and “The Metamorphosis.” Rollins has given herself the opportunity for all kinds of play, weirdness, and insight. Instead, the narrator wonders “did that [ownership of a tail] mean I was beautiful, that I was somehow special?” The adjectives “beautiful” and “special” are plain and unsurprising. The metaphoric potential has been squandered on a worn depiction of anonymous, mediocre womanhood.
Another disappointment occurs in “The Ruins.” In this allegory, that desert sand premise is put into motion. The narrator and her lover find themselves in the desert. Although this lover claims to care, he goes immediately inert, “a solitary figure on a bed of stone.” The narrator, compelled to get him moving again, builds her city: basins for water, shelter for guests, shrubs, gazebos, the works. But this massive effort fails to move him, and sandstorms wreck her work. Rollins’ idea is fine, but once the reader connects the narrator’s effort to any one-sided relationship, there is not much left to carry him on. Like a number of Rollins’ first person female narrators, she is a believable woman put in an interesting spot. She has great potential. Unfortunately, she has nothing new to say about one-sided relationships, or anything.
Rollins’ best stories come when the point of view is either male or distanced, as in the title story, “The Appeal of Chaos,” or “The Girlfriend.”
In that last piece, the girlfriend’s thoughts and behaviors at boyfriends’ barbecues are recorded almost scientifically. This scientist’s perspective allows Rollins an interesting perspective on this character. She is able both to relate the girlfriend’s lengthy love history and to reveal the girlfriend’s minor and harmless (to everyone but herself) psychosis:
“Driving to the barbecues, she is pleased. She thinks, every time, it is going to be fun. That she will have good conversations, good food. That she will be a sort of star among them, the girlfriend, coveted. Still mysterious, still desirable. She dresses carefully, making sure she looks just the right combination of sweet and sexy. She is never dressing for the boyfriend, but for the family, trying to make the family fall in love.”
Her calculated behavior leads, in part, to regularly frustrated desire. By the end, driving the more-than-familiar route home, the hollowness of that desire is revealed: “It is the road that makes her sick.”
If Rollins is at her best when her authorial position is farthest removed from her characters, then she has ended well with “This Boy in History.” This piece takes us to an unnamed land that sounds a lot like either the West Bank or Gaza Strip. In it, a neglected boy deals with an uncertain paternity and violent politics that he cannot understand.
Some of her best passages are found in this story, as when the desert “looked to the boy as if someone like him, only thousands of times larger, had dragged his fingers through, mounded, with thumb and palm, the heaps and valleys under the light which shone down, and used a huge finger to draw out the very road they drove on.” Elsewhere, she intervenes playfully, interestingly, with questions about where the story truly begins, which suggest the boy’s difficulty and the difficulty of the wider political conflict. It also suggests Rollins’ best potential.