Matt Forney
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This Malignant Mirage by Andy Nowicki

How exactly do you write an erotic short story collection starring characters who really don’t seem to like having sex?

That’s the conundrum Andy Nowicki faces with This Malignant Mirage. Much like his previous novella Heart KillerThis Malignant Mirage is an erotically-charged work, a collection of short stories revolving around his usual cast of dejected male losers, barren housewives, and teenage girls who are just a teensy bit more mature than their idiot peers. Unlike Heart Killer, where the sex took a backseat to other elements in the plot, This Malignant Mirage shoves eroticism—and the characters’ distaste for it—front and center.

Effectively, this book is an anti-sexual sex story.

It’s also worth reading if you’re a fan of Andy Nowicki or fiction in general. While some aspects of the book are weak, as Nowicki tests the upper limits of his storytelling abilities, This Malignant Mirage shows that he’s willing to venture into new literary waters, bringing his unique sensibility along for the ride.

The first story, “Motel Memento Mori,” establishes the mood of the book pretty well. A tale of a secret tryst between a college professor and his student in a sleazy motel, the story’s prose sets up a motif of death and destruction, as shameful lust and lingering discomfort with the material world collide:

With that last word, “thrust,” he tapped her hip three times, and she, as if by instinct, knew exactly what he wished; feeling a delicious little shiver of anticipation, mingled with a no less urgent rush of nervous apprehension, she strode to the room’s dresser, placed her hands over the surface of the top shelf, and bent over, arching her back, flexing her knees, and sticking her bottom in the air. He lifted her skirt and fingered her inner thighs; she inhaled ardently at the touch of his smooth, dexterous hand, as his finger crept along the border of her panties, by now grown supremely wet with excitement from her lubed-up crotch.

Nobody with a functioning cerebral cortex would ever describe Nowicki’s writing as arousing, but he does a good job of depicting the discomfort his characters have with their lives and actions. This Malignant Mirage is shot through with a decidedly Catholic sensibility, in spirit if not explicitly, doomed people living doomed lives of desperation. I find Nowicki’s use of certain terms to be a little annoying after a while—for example, his insistence on using “maidenhead” as a synonym for “hymen” gets tiresome—but the writing remains strong throughout.

Indeed, This Malignant Mirage has a pyramid-like story structure, each chapter heightening your senses, setting you up for the nuclear bomb at the end. You’ll finish one story, think to yourself, “Jesus, this book can’t get any more fucked up,” and proceed to be proven wrong again. Standouts include “Natalia,” about a spineless husband who is guilted by his wife into having an affair, and “Collette’s Dream Man,” about a Catholic high school affair gone disastrously wrong:

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” he began. “It happened after I got in trouble back at Notre Dame. I had just gotten back home to Savannah and I was feeling, I don’t know, awash with despair. Yes, poor, poor me. I had truly fucked myself good and proper… Blew a promising academic career, and all because I just couldn’t stop feeding my addiction. Too many fresh-faced freshmen girls, and randy hot-to-trot graduate assistants. They wanted me, and I wanted them, and seduction has always been an activity at which I’ve been hideously adept. But it finally caught up with me. Word got around… I’m not sure who tattled on me, but it was probably someone who got jealous. ‘Hell hath no fury,’ and so forth. Anyhow, I was quietly dismissed. Mother and Dad intervened, of course, as they always have whenever I’ve indulged my desperate depravations in the past… They keep praying for me, thinking that somehow, some way, I’ll transform like Saint Augustine, who in his young and licentious days prayed, ‘Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet…’

Unfortunately, it’s moments like this where Nowicki’s ordinarily razor-sharp dialogue unravels. This Malignant Mirage features too much monologuing; admittedly not as much as some of the other books I’ve read, but even a little bit of monologuing is a bad thing. Every so often, one of the characters will spit forth a loogie of exposition, which not only sounds completely unnatural, it works against the atmosphere that Nowicki so painstakingly tries to establish. People don’t talk like this in real life.

Additionally, for all its innovation, This Malignant Mirage recycles tropes of Nowicki’s that are seriously starting to get old. “The Rape of the Therapist,” for example, is yet another tale of a therapist/psychiatrist becoming involved with her “sad-eyed young man” of a patient, a theme that Nowicki has already covered in Lost Violent Souls and The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories. It’s not a bad story, but at times This Malignant Mirage feels like the literary equivalent of a remix album, with Nowicki trying to wring every drop out of his hit singles before moving on.

How long can one man play the same song over and over before people get bored?

In pointing out these problems, I don’t want to seem too critical. This Malignant Mirage is a great short story collection, a nice palate-cleanser for those who can’t stand traditional erotica. Nowicki also deserves a great deal of credit for being willing to step outside of his comfort zone; while This Malignant Mirage has stylistic similarities with Heart Killer, the book is a clear jaunt in a new direction. It’s precisely because of this that the creaky old tropes that Nowicki reuses seem even more out of place than usual.

Ultimately though, if Nowicki can write like this, I can guarantee you that his future work is only going to get better.

Click here to buy This Malignant Mirage.

Read Next: Heart Killer by Andy Nowicki