A Familiar Beast
The Mere Weight of Words
(AQUEOUS BOOKS, 2012)
Stories of male infidelity have been around since the first recorded narratives, and we continue to find new ways to tell them. Here from the small press universe are two novellas, each compelling tales of complicated relationships, which succeed in different ways.
A Familiar Beast by Panio Gianopoulos (Nouvella Press) is just a little bigger than a passport, but the design elements—a heavy, seemingly impervious cover and an illustration of giant deer antlers cupped around the title—are metaphorical pointers to the rigors of daily life.
On page one we meet Marcus, set adrift after cheating on his pregnant wife with a coworker at his father-in-law’s structural engineering firm. He knows not what to do nor how to carry on. We learn of Marcus’ indiscretion via former friends, who are forced to take sides in a battle of the sexes that Marcus has clearly lost. With nowhere to turn, our disgraced narrator laments those who “leaked their derision like potted plants overfilled by amateur gardeners.” Gianopoulos’s exacting prose had me re-reading lines and laughing along with the narrator—even in his misery.
Much of the action is centered on a visit with Edgar, an old high school friend Marcus looked up online, having succumbed to another weakness: “ravenous algorithms that [run] on nostalgia and curiosity.” The two men, both equally off-course, ramble around a vast, empty house, head to bars to pick up women, and talk about going hunting. When I arrived at the top of the last page I slowed down to a crawl, wishing it wasn’t over.
The second novella, with a similarly afflicted narrator, comes to us from New Orleans based Aqueous Books. The Mere Weight of Words, by Carissa Halston, is the story of Meredith, or as we’re asked to call her: Mere, a nickname not to be pronounced like the name Meredith but like the word: mere. The opener to the novella has you at the core of the story instantly:
I learn of my father’s condition online. While reading the Arts and Leisure section of the Times, I see a thumbnail-sized photo of him appear in the side bar: Notable Filmmaker Suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease
With that sinking weight of awful news I was hooked, ready to join Mere on her journey to visit her estranged father and wanting to learn more about their fractured father-daughter relationship. Through this visit Mere relives her teenage years (fights with her overbearing father about her career goals and his expectations), college (Mere rejects the arts to become a linguist), and her father’s final cliché of male collapse (his frequent cheating on her mom).
Halston’s writing begins strong and her sentences, short and punchy, work to let us into the narrator’s crippled world. But the story is soon mired in opacity. When our narrator is afflicted by a strange condition, which we don’t learn the name of until pages later, she doesn’t go to the hospital but decides to sleep, then, awakening hungry, she drinks “dank water” and “[eats] from unwashed plates.” Mere is bent on trying to find the right words, but ultimately stops sharing lucid thoughts with either the reader or the other characters in the book. Father and daughter barely speak to each other and this seems to translate to what the reader learns: very little. Our narrator sums up her method of life succinctly in the early pages: “I preferred to do nothing. Or everything. Or both. I refused to make a decision.”
In The Mere Weight of Words I wanted to get deeper into the characters’ heads; instead I was faced with a complexity that covered rather than revealed. As though I were reading an English romance where the main characters don’t profess their love until you’re screaming at the screen, I felt myself wanting to yell at Mere, begging her to reveal what was in her mind. But really, is that much different than in real life?
These two novellas finely demonstrate the form’s potential, which allows for stories that are affecting enough to finish in one sitting or strong enough to read twice.