Book Review: Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas

I’m drawn to books with otherworldly covers, with titles that seem to speak both to the grittiness of reality and the unexpected horror and beauty of the fantastic. Lungs full of Noise, the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, by Tessa Mellas has both, and it’s not only a remarkable debut but one of the most memorable collections I’ve come across in recent memory, the kind of book I want to read over and over again for its heart and craft. The work of Mellas grounds her in a tradition of writers such as Karen Russell, Kate Bernheimer, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link in that much of her work bends and defies genre categorization, walking the line between what might be called “literary” and what might be called “speculative.” Of course, the debate between genres is frustrating and tiresome. Good, gut-wrenching writing transcends genre and the twelve stories in this collection demonstrate just that with a range of styles and forms that showcases the talent of this emerging writer.


I wasn’t familiar with the work of Mellas prior to stumbling upon this collection via my Amazon recommendations, but I quickly added it to my wish list because I’ve enjoyed previous Iowa Award winners (Douglas Trevor, Jim Tomlinson, Jennine Capo Crucet), and I have yet to come across a Bowling Green State MFA alum I didn’t like. While the themes of this book largely explore femininity and womanhood via the freakish and surreal, somewhat reminiscent of Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (and perhaps more so with the work of a writer like Angela Carter), they also comment on the human experience at large. Some pieces such as the Bradbury-esque “Bibi from Jupiter,” which revolves around the sexual escapades of a girl’s alien college roommate, and “Beanstalk” in which a baby becomes exceedingly plant-like, are more narrative and traditional in arc while others such as “opal one, opal two,” which reminded me of the work of Dawn Raffel, take on a more poetic, experimental license, where language is wielded like light. “Landscapes in White” reads like the embodiment of a painting, “Six Sisters” provides vignettes of the almost lives of a woman’s miscarried babies.

While some readers may not aesthetically gel with all of the offerings, I viewed the formal variation as both appropriate to illuminating the content and emotion of particular pieces and commenting on the multi-faceted way in which humans experience the world, especially during moments of stress, tragedy, and loss. Sometimes fables are the best vehicle in which to examine the horrific, to digest stories of the extreme that may or may not have a reason for being––life just is. Sometimes fracturing conventions of language allows the reader to get a glimpse of what the standard and colloquial cannot grant access to as easily––namely the abstract expressions of thought and feeling.

Whenever I come across an eclectic collection such as this (esp. those that function as books as a whole), I’m reminded of something Eckhard Gerdes said in an interview ages ago regarding the content and shape of stories: “I love idiosyncratic work. I want to see the hand of the fabricator at work. Remember that the word ‘fiction’ actually comes from the past tense of the Latin fingere, or to form out of clay, to fashion by hand. As such, fiction is something that is handmade. It is not just a regurgitated story. Storytelling is an oral art form, a verbal spewing. But fiction is a fashioning by hand, much more akin to sculpture or pottery than storytelling.” And if anything, Lungs Full of Noise is a testament to the artistic thought of a young, talented writer who has shown us the familiar and unfamiliar and made them wholly her own.

— Sequoia Nagamatsu