The stories in Megan Giddings’s chapbook Arcade Seventeen blend elements that might seem dissonant, including dream logic, body horror, the Michael Keaton/Andie MacDowell film Multiplicity. But instead, the quotidian, the obscure, and the sinister all converge, creating a memorable collection that takes the reader to a host of unexpected places. I talked with Giddings via email about the chapbook’s origins, the themes she explores in it, and what’s next for her.
The chapbook’s title story nods to the tickets that machines in arcades give our when you win. As someone who grew up near the Jersey Shore, this brought back a lot of memories. What are some of your biggest associations with arcade games?
One association I have with arcade games a story that my parents think is hilarious, but I think makes me look like a huge jerk. When I was 8, I was at a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. I was playing the games and whoever was inside the Chuck E. Cheese suit thought it would be fun to mess with me a little bit. He kept putting his paw on my head while I was playing games and like miming at me. I kept losing because I was so distracted. And finally I just lost it and punched the Chuck E. Cheese right in the gut. I was a child and it was an adult person, so they didn’t get hurt or anything like that. And every time this story comes up, I feel like the person should have been doing their job. Like greeting the other kids. Walking around and mimicking playing air guitar. But I think about this weird story, that feels like it should be a dream, not a story my parents tell people when I think about arcades. And like I laugh a little bit because I was a child, but I do feel a little guilty for slugging someone in the stomach over like skee ball.
Other arcade associations I have: bright lights, fortune telling machines, cotton candy, being really down once and going to an arcade to meet some friends even though I really didn’t want to do anything, but like lie in bed watching trash tv. And I ended up watching a man do Dance Dance Revolution for a while. He was so into it and it made me feel weirdly good to watch him just like feel the groove. I ended up finding out that he lost fifty pounds from doing Dance Dance Revolution every other day for two hours. God, I should find him, get some licensing agreements, and write a best-selling exercise book. No one steal this idea.
Your book may be the first time I’ve seen a reference to the film Multiplicity in fiction. What prompted you to work it in to that particular story?
Because Multiplicity is a terrible movie with an interesting idea. I mean, what would you do if you could talk to all the parts of yourself? (Even if they’re rogue clones). And around the time I was working on it for this chapbook, I was reading Counternarratives by John Keene. That book is so good and layered; it doesn’t make me just admire John Keene as a writer, but it also makes me mourn the literature and art lost due to inequality. And that books also makes me regularly consider something that feels like it’s on the minds of a lot of female-identified, not white writers. How do we include ourselves in the literary conversation without having to follow the expected paths: slavery stories, am I a woman or just a living bruise stories? And even in those stories, how do we negotiate the values of the time where people like that (and often still are) consistently reduced? How do balance time and making ourselves complex? God, this is such a high-minded response for a very short story about Multiplicity. This is all to say, there are many entertainment objects that would be so much more interesting, so much more complicated, if different perspectives were in the picture. And beyond all that, I thought it would be funny and fun to take something I think of as complete trash and try to make a little art out of it.
“Dream Lover” memorably juxtaposes the illusory and the real. What do you find most difficult about working dream logic into your fiction?
I think the hardest thing about using dream logic and fiction is finding the correct language. You have to be precise and easy to follow or the reader might be taken out of the story trying to figure out what’s even happening. You also can’t be overly poetic or grandiose throughout the entire story. You’re trying too hard and again, the reader unless they’re a person who is really into that style of writing, might just be like no, stop your nonsense. It’s mostly finding the smooth spot where the story is much more visible than me, the writer.
“The New Audacious Line” heads quickly into visceral territory, with its descriptions of new lips worn by the central character. What do you find to be the best way of incorporating visceral scenes or body horror into your work?
Being a person is often hilarious and disgusting and fun. This ties a little into what we’re talking about earlier, but I think people are more likely to accept dream logic when it’s about the body. I mean, an easy way to start when thinking about body horror is to consider your mouth. The majority of people use their mouths all the time: eating, talking, whistling like a creep. And while on that’s happening, on the inside, a tooth could be steadily rotting and you don’t even know until another person shoves some tools in there, takes a quick picture, and tells you, your tooth is dying. Death is right there, in your mouth! And death is pretty gross. It’s not that hard to jump from thinking about tooth decay, having your tooth potentially ripped out and replaced with a new one to thinking about lips being ripped off and finding a new more aesthetically pleasing set.
How did you go about selecting and organizing the stories for this chapbook?
The initial, overly ambitious idea I had for this is that I would write a story for each card of the tarot deck. The name for this collection came from me daydreaming in class while a professor was discussing Arcanum 17 by Andre Breton. Breton’s book was guided by The Star card in the tarot deck. I liked the idea and I liked how I misheard and then miswrote the title in my notebook: Arcade Seventeen. Anyway, a big chunk of these stories were written using Rider-Waite tarot cards as generative points. So, it could be as small as writing about something I noticed about the image, it could be about who I perceived a person might be, or how I even just sort of interpreted the cards. I don’t think I would be especially good at reading the cards in a professional context for someone. I don’t go around saying shit like, the cards know! I just think the most appealing thing about tarot cards is their ability to stimulate the narrative creating part of my brain. Once I started putting those tarot-inspired stories together, I realized that a theme was trying to deal (either accept or ignore) the truth of a situation. Then other stories I had written that weren’t tarot based like “Dream Lover” and “Again and Again and Again” seemed to also have something slightly different to say. The other big thing was finding stories and ideas that all had elements of the fantastic. So even if I was playing with voice or style or point of view, the connective stitching of anything is possible, even having cheese DNA, in this book is still there.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing one last touch-up on a novel I’ve been working on. It’s about a woman and the small Michigan town she lives in. After a mysterious incident, she and the town start to change. Some of the corn has turned gray, a too-large woodchuck menaces a family, and mysterious people have appeared in Lakewood, seemingly only to observe what’s going on. The main character, Leila, is having a hard time determining what is real in the aftermath of all this. It’s about reality, exploitation, and how much people can ignore. I also think it is occasionally funny.