Despite the multiple references to modern life—McDonald’s, Walgreens, cash for gold—there is something timeless about Tiff Holland’s seizing little heart of a chapbook, Betty Superman. Mothers and daughters. Strength and weakness. That sticky mess between life and death. Holland’s stripped, unsentimental prose is a pleasure to read, a worthy vehicle for this mother and daughter’s lives, irrevocably tied to one another, one recovering and one not. Holland illuminates the everyday, flipping what we do and say to each other on its back, telling it to open those gams and get ready.
She begins with what she wears, the first words of the first story, Dragon Lady, one of the chapbook’s finest. What she wears, what she says, what she calls my friends, what she likes, what she does, how she is now. I felt compelled to answer each passage, tell her what my mother wears, what she says, what she calls my friends, what she likes, what she does, how she is now. I haven’t tried yet. It would do too much to my heart.
How she is now: she wonders why we aren’t close, like we used to be. I tell her we never were, not for a minute. When I try to kill myself, she asks, How could you do this to me? She still kisses me, once on each cheek, and rubs the lipstick in… She is jealous of my father. You’ve made him into a saint since he died, she tells me, both of you. She has emphysema, quits smoking. She coughs so hard she wets herself, so hard I know she’s going to die and I feel ten again, sitting outside her bedroom door listening to her sleep because she threatened to die in the night. She ignores me, me breathing each breath with her.
Goddamn. You want to answer too, don’t you?
I am endlessly captivated by memories. Perhaps that’s why I’m usually so “in my head.” Perhaps that’s part of why I read and write stories. The fact that this chapbook is a blend of fiction and autobiography was heavy on my mind while reading. Although, asking Holland what is true and what is imaginary never crossed my mind. That’s irrelevant. The way our minds work doesn’t allow us to remember the entire truth of anything, anyway. We strap narratives onto the backs of what we can recall, we assign importance to some things and downgrade others, we remember gulps of water but have no idea what glass, we project, we project, we project. Isn’t that lovely? We are our own stories. So it doesn’t really matter how much is true. These thoughts were the undercurrent of my reading.
Holland’s brief collection is, among other things, a superb character examination. Betty is interesting. She captured me. I wanted to know her. I wanted to buy more tissues for her brassiere. She was fucked up, and she was sick, and she was harsh, and she was beautiful, and she loved her daughter, the narrator, and despite it all, our narrator loved her too. Betty needed her, as we come to know quickly, even in the first story, there is that echoing need. What I loved best about the way Holland rendered the mother and daughter was the way her description revealed intimate things about our narrator. This is two-way description, according to Jennifer Egan. It told me about the daughter’s bitter love, the way it cast a certain sharpness over the world, the way it revealed the self-loathing tricks and loneliness of her mother, the way her mother had colonized her life, the way she needed her to just keep being there, keep needing. It also said a lot about the way being broke settles into a person’s skin, so they can sell cash for gold without a whiff of self-sympathy, so they can fill up the tank to get to work.
Holland’s Betty Superman is, for me, ultimately about unconditional love and what it gives us, what we take from it, how we live in it. Holland’s mother and daughter seem to know that no matter how painful, or how tenuous, you bear it. You can’t stop carrying love.