In the titular, opening story of Seattle author Corinne Manning’s debut short story collection, “We Had No Rules,” a teenager shows up at her older sister’s New York City apartment after running away from home. The sisters grew up under severe but unspoken rules in a conservative household. In the apartment, the rules are different, but no less strict, and they are violated in ways the narrator doesn’t expect.
It’s a strong opening in a book that, despite its brevity, is full of strong narratives. A Seattle-based teaching artist and writer, Manning deftly plays with the idea of rules, and the idea of queerness, weaving a neon cat’s cradle of complex characters whose questions and desires push on the constraints and freedoms of both.
Sometimes queerness, and whatever rules it demands, is about dressing up. Queer people don different costumes for different situations; this can be a form of code-switching, and/or a form of expression, of joyful performance. Sometimes it’s about dressing up in a Chewbacca Halloween costume, as in the story “Ninety Days,” or about forcing that costume on someone else. About experiencing one’s own body in a different way, or the body of another, to better understand or to hide it. Queer people need to make their own context for what that means in a world where corporeal norms often don’t include us.
The characters in Manning’s stories, some of which intertwine with each other, put on all kinds of private and public performances with their bodies. A principle ethos: rules were meant to be broken. And if you’re breaking “the rules,” aren’t you just making new ones?
In “Gay Tale,” a meta story punches through the weak plaster of the fourth wall, and Manning both pokes fun at and engages with the rules of genre and mainstream LGBTQ+ labels. “I’m writing lesbian fiction,” writes the narrator. “I know I’d do better to write gay fiction, or in some academic circles, queer fiction. How many people, I wonder, have stopped reading already? A lot of lesbians are scary, and weird. I don’t even like the word.”
In “Seeing in the Dark,” a middle-aged mother who comes out but can’t find the right label for herself wakes up at night, “staring into the long tunnel of the dark, afraid that the way I see myself is not how the world will ever see me.” In “The Wallaby,” the radical nature of queerness is simultaneously practiced and undermined. “All these systems are waiting right underneath you, and if you aren’t paying attention, you become complicit,” one character says. “Let it make you angry.”
Complicity is a tricky aspect of radical queer life, at once an evil and a temptation. Manning masterfully navigates this tension, one that is inextricably tied to the concept of “rules.” In “The Boy on the Periphery of the World,” the protagonist James’ uncle Jim dies of AIDS during the height of the crisis, with secrecy still shrouding him. In college, James and his boyfriend Brian accompany Brian’s own gay uncle, Rick, to an AIDS benefit dinner. “Uncle Jim was a failure — not a success, like Rick,” James thinks, feeling out of place. “Standing in this lobby with these men, I feel like a failure, too.” The idea that one can fail at a gay life implies there are rules that can be broken. Rules like “defy death.”
The “gay aunt” and “gay uncle” are fixtures in pop culture and family narratives. But these categories, like all categories, flatten people. Manning actively writes their characters into three dimensions. The queer characters here play different roles in different shapes of families. They are professors and artists and parents and sex workers and physical laborers. They live in tiny houses and in cities, cross paths at funerals or on sidewalks; they have ideals they can’t quite reach. Their relationships are as messy as their identities, as their lives. They have rules, and they are always writing new ones. And isn’t it beautiful?
“We Had No Rules” by Corinne Manning, Arsenal Pulp Press, 192 pp., $15.95