Stacey Levine, The Girl With Brown Fur: Tales and Stories (MacAdam/Cage, 2009)
Quirk has become a mainstay of contemporary fiction and also something of a malady. Eccentric narratives featuring psychologically disheveled characters traveling through a weird space of contingency, distorted landscapes, and unfathomable conditions are a growing sub-genre. Yet emphasis on the pathological often leads to caricature; what first appears as shockingly strange loses the luster of the bizarre and novel, leading not only to a loss of believability but also of the narrative thread. This kind of pseudo-story, less a chronicle of social dysfunction than its symptom, becomes a retreat not just from realism but from coherent storytelling. In formulating an objective correlative for a character’s addled psyche, some authors tend to mechanistically craft worlds for them to inhabit which bear only a wispy resemblance to reality; they seem more like echo chambers or involuted biospheres of patented oddity. Any attention to the experiential or empirical goes out the window, or would, if the window were not a mirror reflecting inwardly and only back onto the haphazard faces of improbable characters.
Writers like A.M. Homes, Miranda July, Leni Zumas, and Robin Romm move deftly through remote or marginal regions of human enterprise, filtering their words with outré situational upheavals and linguistic dissonance. But for many other writers, quirk becomes a pretentious confection, a banal veneer of unworldliness. This is unfortunately the case with Stacey Levine’s The Girl With Brown Fur, a collection of 27 pieces which mainly read like squibs, not “tales and stories,” as the subtitle would have it.
A man parents a twig (or tries to), people with names like Lax Forb begin to doubt their own existence, and leaves fall “dogmatically.” Wolves—or one at least—sashay. Pathetic fallacy is tortured into a cartoon of the Adult Swim variety. The improbable is a constant and becomes a numbing constraint, a convention.
There are some attempts, here and there, to yoke satire to quirk, yet the brevity and lack of dimension of these micro-narratives prohibit an authentic barb from being cast. “Bill Miller” opens: “Oh, to be Bill Miller, the unreachable one with invulnerable eyes, the 35-speed bike, the sixty years more of life and a future as good as real.” Later on, we are introduced to “The World of Barry”: “Barry was everywhere and so easy to marry, full of springtime which is always hope and trust.” Abstraction and concision detract from the effectiveness for sizing up the characters in their muddled mundaneness. The most compelling story, “And You Are?,” chronicles the toxic symbiotic relationship of two women, once strangers, who become, if not lovers, then benefactors of Beckettian destiny—they cannot stay together but they must. There’s a touch of poignancy here that few of the other tales foster.
More than a couple of Levine’s characters grapple with their existence and their apparent mental or carnal disintegration in relation to it. The presiding problem is that to be an existent one needs an essence, and hardly any of these characters enjoy such a center. More gravity and substance, less quirk, would have helped.
Poet and critic Jon Curley is a New Englander currently living in New Jersey.