Throughout Nada Alic’s debut fiction collection, “Bad Thoughts,” sunny facades belie strange, dark interiors. The stories feature a privileged millennial milieu in Los Angeles with all its carefully observed trappings – neutral linens at a baby shower, destination bachelorette weekends, social media obsessions, alternative wellness practices and a chic, spare loft “furnished with gray modular furniture resembling life-size Lego pieces.”
Alic’s characters fear environmental catastrophe and freely discuss mental illness, but it’s all casual, often glib. At first, superficial appearances, 280-character missives and quick fixes seem to take precedence over authenticity or real intimacy. “Their generation had become utilitarian, efficient, machinelike,” Alic writes about a couple in “Ghost Baby.” But eventually, each story pushes into weirder, more vulnerable territory as it captures the (usually female) narrator’s borderline perverse thoughts.
Alic depicts contemporary womanhood with a wry, uncensored voice reminiscent of those in Miranda July’s off-kilter SoCal tales.One narrator worries that “motherhood is contagious, like a parasite or the way cohabitating women synchronize their cycles.” Another fantasizes that a man in a ski mask lies on top of her and kills her. “As I die, I say goodbye to all the things I love most,” she imagines: “my niece, coffee and swimming pools.” There’s a woman who joins a kooky support group instead of confronting her crumbling marriage, one who makes it her mission to rub a stranger’s crotch, and one who thinks about her dead cat and an auto-pay subscription she needs to cancel while her boyfriend performs oral sex on her.
Meanwhile, Dani’s “soft” boyfriend and her friend’s hip, dating-app-using dad wander in and out, more demonstrative with their feelings but hopeless with power tools
“My mother loved to tell me who had died, who had gone to jail, who had got out of rehab, and I could always hear her smiling with some sick joy about it, as if she were doing me a service, telling me,” Alic writes. Her stories, like this mom’s, similarly revel in seedy detail. At the heart of this, perhaps, is her characters’ fraught need to be seen. In “Watch Me,” Anya contends with living alone while her musician boyfriend goes on tour. “I was tired of impersonating myself,” she says. “I’m always a few degrees off from the real me, but with more smiling and feigned enthusiasm for topics like gear and sync rights and things being derivative.” Yet by the end of the story, Anya fantasizes that her boyfriend is checking in on her via their security camera, whose red light gives her comfort. From then on, “everything is a performance,” and she becomes “a woman luxuriating in her solitude: self-assured, goal-oriented, effortlessly beautiful.” Like many characters in this collection, Anya can’t seem to reconcile her hope for autonomy with her need for an audience.
To renovate her crumbling bungalow, Dani enlists her stern, Slavic father, who shows his affection via physical labor (as Alic’s narrators might put it, acts of service are his love language)
In the collection’s final and most moving story, “Daddy’s Girl,” Alic juxtaposes the contradictions of female desire with ideas about family and masculinity. When Dani’s father leaves, she finds herself compulsively dismantling her shower tile, compelled to make things ugly again so her father will return to fix them. In a subtle nod to generational angst, Dani notes that she dislikes the “sterile purity” of the tile, “the ghosts of tenants past buried and forgotten under layers of wood and paint.” While her motivations remain messy and a little destructive, Dani is rejecting pristine surfaces to access something more honest – and, ultimately, to connect.