by Jim Feast
She or the unknown person
She or the unknown person
(Red Dust, 2011)
People say postmodern novels can be read in more than one way, and Joanna Gunderson’s new She, due to its quirky collage technique, proves this with a vengeance. The book consists of a texture of quotations, each line cross-referenced with both the speaker’s name (or rather a reference number in the margin, which refers one to a key at the beginning of the book) and footnotes so the reader can find the exact text from which the quote derives in the book’s endnotes. This means the novel can be read in a jagged or smooth way. One can move straight through, following the flow of musical prose, or one can thumb back and forth to the front and back to see who said what, where.
So, you know how the book can be read, but what would you be reading? In the July 2007 Rail, I described Gunderson’s Night, in which each section focused “on a displaced, subjugated minority and its spokespeople. [The section] ‘Night’ concentrates on U.S. black writers, racism, and slavery; ‘Fire,’ on Russian Jews at the time of Stalin’s rise.” By contrast, She centers on only one person, Simone Weil, around whom wheels a much larger verbal universe than the ones found in the earlier book. Not only does it contain testimony from Weil’s mother, friends, and biographers, but, triptych-like, it has a bloc of material about earlier, iconoclastic women writers (such as Charlotte Brontë), and another bloc describing the author’s own life struggles.
The effect of this multi-tiered collage is not as in Night to make the dominant author’s presence felt in a palpable form, but rather to take Weil, an elevated thinker on ethics, and, as it were, lower her into everyday life so that the connections between her thoughts and those of beleaguered, more ordinary women are exposed.
It’s a tall order, connecting all these strands without losing or confusing the reader, and though there are places when things don’t come together, at others the author achieves powerful rhythmical and sentimental effects. Rhythmically, the book offers a playground of echoes, as certain motifs flit by repeatedly, accumulating more meaning with each weave. Emotionally, the book gravitates to reoccurring themes, such as a mother’s feeling at the death of a child or the way women make do in impoverished circumstances.
All in all, the book reads like the inspired free associations of a literary scholar, who is intent on showing that celebrated women have shouldered the same buffetings and rebuffs as their less famous sisters. This is done in a complex, experimental form which may be off-putting to some, but repays the patient by handing her or him a ticket for a one-of-a-kind literary voyage.