Despite its Valentine’s Day publication date, Jarod Powell’s new eBook She Burned Me Alive is not romantic literature. In this short story collection, which its synopsis describes as “postmodern feminist,” Powell wisely chooses not to make his female characters martyrs – or for that matter, good people – women who are implausibly moral in the face of oppression and horror.
Instead, Powell writes from a decidedly male point of view, and though his powers of observation are stronger than ever – He’s come a long way from the ostentatious weirdness of his first novel, Boys In Gilded Cages – He also runs, throughout every story, a common thread of subtle self-awareness by these characters and their functions in the world as women: The narrator in the surrealist story Smoke Colored Light (a tie-in for Powell’s short film from 2014) declares, “In truth, she didn’t have a core identity. Just a bunch of scraps pasted together.”
In a sea of unreadable indie lit, Powell stands out and perhaps is fashioning himself as the Tom Waits of literature. His stories are filled with protagonists who are vagabonds, sex workers, and drug dealers; all rendered in a such a way that would make a 1970’s punker nod in respect.
Not many authors could get away with traipsing over such well-tread subject matter, and it’s a little surprising that Powell manages to do it so well. That’s not because he’s not a brilliant writer, but he’s never been known for his subtlety. Rather, he’s known for his poetic, word-drunk sentences that are packed with so much symbolism it would make any reader’s eyes tired. But Powell is a near-psychic observer, and his characters are so authentic, he makes it work with passages like this from the story “Asphyxiation”:
“Destruction can be beautiful, and it can also be of no consequence. Often, it was both. Nevertheless, beauty or plainness or ugliness – the end was always the same for everything you can see, feel, hear, and smell. It all disintegrates in the most unremarkable way, eventually.
And for the first time, She felt comfort.”
Occasionally, Powell rambles, which is clearly a stylistic choice that could be reined in a bit, particularly in the otherwise pitch-perfect opener “Marianne.” Marianne, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is a patient at a residential mental health clinic, and as such, goes on and on about her irrational fears. Overall, it works, but entire paragraphs could have been cut. Had they been, “Marianne” would have been one of the most impactful stories written by any author in some time.
Nonetheless, it’s a shockingly gritty collection, and Powell has a gift for making the disgusting sound beautiful. He is, in essence, a poet. Powell’s writing in She Burned Me Alive borders on nihilism, and that’s probably due to the current political climate. There’s something endearingly bratty about his thinly veiled Trump dystopia prose poem, “Melodia.” (You can probably guess who Melodia is modeled after.)
“Melodia longed for change in any manner possible, even if that meant leaving her blandly beautiful, un-branded body to rot down from its supple green youthfulness, its soul still hanging on by one silky, translucent strand,” Powell writes, expressing what can be best explained as sympathy for a character he clearly doesn’t hold in high regard.
Powell proves himself a master of provocation from the safe side of the street. Even though nothing good happens here, these women, in their own brutal way, find enlightenment. Powell leaves the door open for a happy ending – not that he seems all that interested in writing a happy ending. She Burned Me Alive may be horror, and it is indeed scary on an existential level. However, there’s hope to be found in this book, interwoven beautifully among the chaos.