Review: The Body Keeps Score in A Small Apocalypse by Laura Chow Reeve 

Laura Chow Reeve’s debut short story collection A Small Apocalypse is, like any good collection these days, thematically rich. It is mostly about young queer characters in the present day, and the characters struggle with their romances, their friends, their parents, their experiences (and inexperience), and the challenges and hostilities they face for being queer or biracial or both.

What I like about single-author story collections is that you can experience a range of worlds and characters while simultaneously discovering themes that connect them. There is a balance to this: if stories are too similar, they feel repetitive; if they’re too different, the book doesn’t feel cohesive and you wonder why the stories were collected in the first place. This balance in A Small Apocalypse was partly disrupted by the fact that 5 of the 14 stories follow individual members of the same group of friends in their 20s. Whenever it became clear that a character was part of the familiar group, I had to pause and recall the previous stories I had read. I prefer short stories in a collection to be discrete, but for people who don’t typically read short stories, the interconnectedness may be a helpful through line. Chow Reeve keeps these stories interesting by showing the friends in and at various times and places in their lives, and the ways in which the shared moments are interpreted differently.

Some stories in the collection, like most of the stories with the ubiquitous friend group, are set in the real world. Other stories have unique twists on familiar scifi/fantasy concepts: Not set in a fantasy world outright, but a world where something teases the natural laws of the universe. Some people slowly turn into lizards in one story; people navigate the zombie apocalypse in another story; et cetera. In one story, a character’s biological father is the ghost of the twin that died in her grandmother’s womb. In another story, characters preserve their memories in jars.

It’s not their fault they’re being so messy… We’re gay and in our 20s; it’s our goddamn right.

from “Suwannee”

A Small Apocalypse is messy—but that isn’t a bad thing. The opposite, actually. While the young queer characters are confident in some aspects of their lives, most of the time they are imbued with a refreshing uncertainty about themselves and the bodies they inhabit. It can be quirky and lighthearted in one moment but dark and lonely the next. And although there is plenty of questioning and self-doubt, at least one thing is constant: mental health and physical health affect each other. Chow Reeve shows that the mind-body connection is strong even when these characters’ connections to their bodies waver.

One character reflects on her dates with the government-mandated matches:

You don’t know what you look like… You want to ask them what they see when they look at you. You want them to describe how your eyes sit on your face and how brown your skin is. You want them to point to another woman in the restaurant and say, "Her. You look like her and she looks like you." You need a point of comparison, a second opinion.

from "Real Bodies"

The detail about the color of skin and ‘the way eyes sit on a face’ could suggest a racial difference. (In this specific story, it definitely does.) But there’s also a vagueness, like a hint to an impossible puzzle. "What they see when they look like you," "she looks like you," "what you look like"—these are open-ended and general ways of describing someone. The nameless character here is hinting at tangible qualities without saying what she hopes those qualities will be. It’s not about being more attractive or more conventional. Even though we linger deep in this character’s thoughts for much of the story, it still holds a mystery, an inscrutability, something that you can't pinpoint even though you hold the pointer in your hand.

Much of the contemporary American literature I’m reading these days explores our bodies’ surprises, wonders, and punishments: how bodies can be consumed and controlled. Fictional bodies are transforming—into dogs, slugs, forests, and a list of monsters that too long to list in this review. Prose and poetry catalogue physical pain and pleasure with anatomical precision. Bodies are trending. So is trauma. Neither are new concepts to literature, obviously, but there’s an unmistakable swell of interest in both. Movies, TikToks, and even video games are overtly calling attention to trauma, and the list of experiences that the general public counts as trauma is becoming more inclusive. Chow Reeve's stories are part of this conversation, but she doesn't sit you on the therapist's couch or spoon-feed you the trauma-to-personality formula. She describes the indescribable and the gut-wrenching emotions that trauma leaves behind.

"I feel like—" Wanda struggles for the words. "I feel like big pieces of me are missing. I can feel it—" she starts to grab parts of herself with her hands. "In my body, Mom. As if parts of my bones are hollow or muscle mass is gone and can never come back."
"Like you are part ghost," her mother says, clear like an echo.

from "Three Card Spread"

Wanda knows she feels different somehow. Parts of her are missing, and not just specific parts; parts of her bones are missing, not the full bones themselves. She “struggles for words” and, finding nothing sufficient, grabs parts of herself in an effort to make sense or identify what is happening within her. She knows that her body feels the aftershocks of trauma, but she can’t fully grasp what’s going on.

Author Laura Chow Reeve, Photo by Em White

In “Hunted,” another strong story in this book, a young woman covers the walls of her home with mirrors so as not to “lose herself.” A stranger calls her a racial slur; her girlfriend’s parents ask her which of her parents is white; and when she breaks up with her girlfriend, she says it’s because “the worst part of me aches when I’m with you.” She becomes transfixed by her mirror image, and she touches her reflection:

I touch the curve of my waist, give it a squeeze. I hear a moan and am not sure if it is coming out of my mouth or one of the infinite mouths—how would I tell the difference, anyway?

from "Hunted"

In the title story, “A Small Apocalypse,” one character suspects childhood trauma as the reason she feels like she’s in trouble all the time. In “Three-Card Spread,” characters explicitly mention their ACE scores, tallying their Adverse Childhood Experiences. And in “One-Thousand-Year-Old Ghosts," characters literally bottle up their traumas.

When she takes care of Katie, she does not put her down. Katie’s skin is soft underneath her fingertips and she wonders how much sadness this little body can take.

from "One-Thousand-Year-Old Ghosts"

How much sadness can a body take? Are micro-aggressions really ‘micro’? Can any apocalypse be small? Chow Reeve expertly asks these questions, but does so in a way that does not exclude other readings and interpretations. In a longer piece, I could write about how the characters create order from disorder through lists; the way the stories explore the contradictions of memory; its unique brand of xennial angst... A Small Apocalypse is not only a cultural artifact, reflecting growing public awareness of the connection between mental and physical health; it is also a sophisticated and polished collection.

A Small Apocalypse is available now through Northwestern University Press. Hear from the author at a signing with Laura Chow Reeve at Women and Children First on June 20.

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Allison Manley

Allison Manley writes book reviews, short stories, and poetry. In addition to writing for Third Coast Review, her reviews have been published in Independent Book Review and the Southern Review of Books. Her creative work has been published in The Chicago Reader, Points in Case, Not Deer Magazine, The Oyez Review, and The Gateway Review. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She likes beer, opera, and body horror. She is particularly interested in reviewing single-author short story collections. If you see her, please let her pet your dog.