My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog

Legna Rodríguez Iglesias

reviewed by

John McConnell

There’s an admission of sorts, or maybe it’s more of a statement of purpose, late in Legna Rodríguez Iglesias’ small puzzlebox of a collection, My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog, new from McSweeney’s and a bright spot this otherwise plagued and haggard July. In the story “Bad,” the narrator, again nameless, again a meandering and vatic voice, tells us she, “would rather be covered in ticks than write a book of poems about which the specialized critics say: precise and correct.” Now, speaking as one such critic—and one willing to overlook palpable disdain for such a fundamentally harmless and unkempt species—I can offer the reassurance that no critic would ever describe the fifteen stories of My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog—a motley assortment of voices as a rule more interested in the bubbling forth of their idiosyncrasies than telling a story in anything resembling conventional scene and story structure, achieving a kind of unity nonetheless by channeling, or being channeled by, Iglesias’ distinctively spaced-out energy—as precise and correct. 

     My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog is what’s called a linked story collection, or “novel in stories” as it was frequently branded lo those many years ago, the early aughts, after the (relatively) popular success of the form achieved by writers like Junot Diaz, Denis Johnson and Edwidge Danticat culminated in the 2011 Pulitzer of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a coup that surely had agents and publishers feverish with fresh marketing opportunities, striking that desert stone again and again hoping to eke out just a little more water out of the otherwise hapless “short story”—everyone was writing a novel in stories in those days—but instead marked the beginning of a steady decline in the commercial and critical viability of the form so stark that the then fashionable term has been all but abandoned. The trend chasers have moved on—have you heard of autofiction?—not least because writing a novel in stories is, it turns out, pretty goddamn hard. The trouble is serving two masters, the simultaneous narrative demands of long and short often working at odds of each other—imagine a mountain, and now imagine a hill, and now imagine trying to build a mountain out of hills. The best iterations of the form, consequently, tend to build around some unifying factor other than rising plot; this is true going all the way back to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, where each portrait of a citizen of the titular Winesburg builds towards a mutually informed sense of the whole. Place, not plot, links its disparate parts, just as both Fuckhead’s and Yunior’s inimitable voices (though frequently and unsuccessfully imitated all the same) did for Jesus’ Son and Drown respectively, and just as the sense of a bygone era, the punk scene circa 1980, helped bind together the stories of Goon Squad even when its loose narrative connective tissue could not.

     Place, tone, time; Some combination of  these strategies makes My Favorite Girlfriend hang together even when its constituent parts strain against containment, constantly threatening to float off in movements at once violent and ethereal. It helps that each story is set either in Iglesias’ native Cuba or among the Cuban expatriate community in Miami, where Iglesias herself now calls home, so that, as varied as these stories can be in formal and genre conceits (there are transformations, ghosts, mystics, androids), the sense of a conversation taking place between them, and an urgent one, remains. Iglesias is not afraid of engaging with the political ramifications unavoidable in a gallery of Cuban portraiture, but as in the collection’s opening story—titled, in fact, “Politics,” in which an old, and recently deceased revolutionary muses over the course of his life—that engagement is grounded in the individual, down even to the level of the bodily—as the narrator puts it, “the system against which the revolution fights.” Which, you know, seems at least a little ambivalent about the possibility of any final apotheosis of unity politics; if there are generalizations to be made they’re of the willfully paradoxical sort that insist “everybody” is an individual, or as the narrator of “Politics” puts it, musing about his children literal and figurative and on the meta-contextual level describing the stories to follow: “that’s what my sons and daughters are, and that’s what my sons’ sons and my daughter’s daughters are: more or less ferocious beasts.”

     The book is quite short, and there are fully fifteen stories in it, if “story” is even the right word for these obsessively paced flurries that frequently feel much larger than the slim real estate they occupy. This is hardly Iglesias' first go round as a prose writer, but she's probably better known as a poet, and she retains a poet's immediacy of language. The allusiveness and interiority of her style (deftly captured by translator Megan McDowell) can occasionally frustrate in story context—probably the best  of the collection is “Clitoris,” a harrowing anecdote that illustrates how seeming abstractions like “structural misogyny” play out brutally at the clinic... and is coincidentally or not also the one that most paces itself both in language and in scene—but more often her approach works wonders. Take this passage, for instance, that vibrates with both atmospheric threat and seduction, never mind that the women holding this high-noon staring contest are sisters:

     So she would come in, look at me, sit down, look at me,  

     open her legs, look at me, pick up the contraption, look at

     me, put it between her legs, look at me, settle it in, look at 

     me, adjust the endpin, look at me, turn the pegs, look at me, 

     tighten the strings, look at me.

The evident alienation between them infects the prose down to its mechanical rhythm, leaking out into speech—it’s called “the contraption” even in dialogue, so it takes a few pages, nearly half the story, before it turns out the narrator’s sister is, in fact, just tuning her cello. The same intensity can be repurposed to comic effect, as in the narrative poem “Wanda" when Wanda tells us with unsettling composure,

     My husband wanted the perfect pair.

     And we had the perfect pair.

     And I birthed them both at home because there wasn’t time     

     to take me into the city.

     My husband got drunk and fell into a ditch, both times.

Or again in another of the collection’s standouts, “Sinai,” in which the fervent prayers of a true believer keep getting derailed by an apparently overwhelming distaste for her brother, a particular blend of holiness and pettiness that calls to mind, of all people, Flannery O’Connor.

     It’s an open question if that accidental exposure, the slippage into something like truth, what O’Connor would call “revelation,” is ever finally available. This the problem that occupies one of many author stand-ins, the narrator of "Bad," already mentioned, the one who doesn't like critics. She thinks everything’s just a pose, man, or, in her terminology and in what has got to be one of the all-time serendipities of accidental political resonance, “masks”:

     The thing about the masks is inexplicable. No one would 

     understand if I said that a mood is a mask, a political 

     position is a mask, a logical reaction is a mask, an attitude 

     toward life is a mask. The masks accumulate, one on top of 

     the other, so that a person is never, ever exposed. It’s funny.

That tag at the end captures her essential stance. It’s funny. The final element that binds these stories together is the revelation at the end of the book that the series of little poems, “interesting phrases,” that have acted as epigraphs to each story have held, in something between a gag and a cry for help, a deeper significance, structural and thematic, all along. Or maybe that too is a mask. Even at its most morbid My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog always retains a sense of play, deadly funny.

My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog

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