Through the Body of the Storm
Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board
edited by Nava Renek & Natalie Nuzzo
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2014)
Reading through Wreckage of Reason II, this convivial selection of women’s prose writing in a spectrum of non-realist forms, I found myself thinking of Guillermo del Toro’s dark, femme parable, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). This film is set during the early years of the Franco regime, in which a smug, militarist masculinism violently clenches its leather-gloved fist. Our heroine, the 10-year-old Ofelia, is made vulnerable by her age, the death of her father, as well as by her gender, as her name indicates. Through fairy tales, she is summoned to a double world of grotesque flora and fauna, a risky yet luxurious Catholic domain. In the ambiguous final moments, we learn with both exaltation and grief that the heroine will transcend Fascist oppression not by revolutionary means but by crossing permanently into this Underworld of Baroque immanence.
To return to WoR2: though the short works in this collection reflect the sensibilities of 33 women contributors and span a variety of tones, styles, dictions, and genres, the pieces are united by their energetic attempt to imagine alternate worlds which, like del Toro’s film, enjoy or endure a fraught closesness to our known one. Many of the stories thus wear their allusiveness on their sleeves, moving into the penumbra of Greek myth, Yeatsian proto-myth, A Streetcar Named Desire, Diane Arbus photographs, and making new stories—and, especially speakers—bloom in these spaces. Notable in this grouping is “Jaclyn the Ripper: A Memoir” by Nicolle Elizabeth. Sadly for the gore-addicted, this story does not in fact imagine a female serial killer eviscerating Victorian bankers, but instead features another kind of ripping—the ripping apart of story itself. The “story” proceeds in jumpy paragraphs in a phrasal, hectic style at once erudite and distracted:
This is from my notes from my astronomy elective today. Q: Are we not listening? A: We are sound.
What do Teresian Carmelites believe again? Synergetic ideal. My classmate who I was staying with has been deported.
Worst C.G.I. thunderstorm ever.
I love the bouncy motion from section to section, the way the story’s scale is both astronomically expanded to the entire universe and reduced to an acronym (C.G.I.). I like being made to ponder how the paired letters “Q” and “A” signal a different meaning from the triple letters “C.G.I.,” and how this is like/unlike the quasar soundbeams the speaker refers to in the first passage. How do we map the world with language, our own human sonar? And how does this story approach or veer from the “synergetic ideal”? Over and against all this quandarying comes the real threat of deportation, breaking into the story’s luxurious thinking space. What to make of disappearances such as these, and in which ways do the asterisks rehearse the voice’s own disappearance with their terse, astronomical asterisms? The mention of deportation signals a real-world register which punches a leak in the effervescent world of Elizabeth’s story; this mention brings to mind the difficult position of foreign students in the post-9/11 world, even, since her story is set in Cambridge, MA and evokes the student roommates of Dzhokar Tsaernev.
The interleaved relationship of fantastic/fantasized and real-world events provides the sharpest moments in this book. Carmen Firan’s “Re: Good Morning, My Love” presents us with the one-sided email correspondence of Sonia and Sebastian—that is, with Sonia’s lovely, manic, romantic missives to Sebastian—a pair of Romanian lovers whose mutual exile has beached them an ocean apart. Many lives have been lived since their young romance—both have marriages, children—and yet, for Sonia, an unquenchable flame burns which sets the sentences alight like a fuse: “When I die, I will drop like a skittle, bang! And that’s it. No time for illnesses or treatments. I will die when I want to.” The single-sidedness of the story does not so much suggest an unreliable narrator as the intractable nature of a personal history that cannot be lived in reverse. Sneana abić’s “Failing Haibun” moves with prose-poem immediacy through a more linear period; a protagonist’s coming of age before and during the violence which convulsed Yugoslavia in the ’90s, it is also temporally “convulsed” by the author’s use of the haibun form, a Japanese form interspersing prose and haiku. This form serves to punctuate by pausing to reflect longingly on the threshold of one anecdote before moving on to another, in effect developing a series of Imagist snapshots, which hover in the mind when the story is finished. Stephanie Dickinson’s “Waiting on the Visigoths” should perhaps be classed with these more overtly political stories for its parallax view on Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, at once mundane and lyric-dystopic. Through the body of the storm, all kinds of history, distant and recent, floods the city.
It’s devil damselfish night, winds fighting and circling and the water surging when they rush each other. […] Some are veterans whose eyes smoke like desert oil wells billowing blackness. They’ve slept and pissed in Mesopotamia between the great ancient rivers, the Tigress and Euphrates.
The violently shifting registers of Dickinson’s story are, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, both the source of its special effects and the signature of its realism; this stylistic violence allegorizes the climatological violence which is, as Benjamin’s Angel observed, the signature of our age, the storm we call Progress.
The majority of the authors in the volume use deliberately unconventional structures—like haibun, email, standardized test format, definitions, constraint, collage, or pointedly divorced vignettes. Gathered together like this, these choices on the parts of the authors seem to indicate a deliberate breaking away from traditional forms in which male authors have delivered masculinist points-of-view. For another story to be told, another form must be found. The challenge of the forms has a double effect, both giving the author an opportunity to showcase her ingenuity and also to construct form as a kind of resistor, paradoxically pushing back against the story even as it brings it to light. Aimee Parkison’s “Save Her” unfolds a fairy tale so harrowing it reads like a screen memory—so harrowing it must be true. “She knows. It can’t be possible. She knows. It can’t happen. She remembers. He was there. Her father. So were the masked falcons and the obedient servants.” Melanie Page’s story “Metal Eye Drifter” is a seemingly compact feat—it has a second person, male-identifying speaker— but becomes paradoxically complex when the second person begins to take on a tone of accusation more than familiarity or self-address. When the final sentence loops us around to the story’s swaggery opening, which we had by now forgotten, the return of violence shatters the second person again: “They won’t know what to call you.” Could the second person bea form of violence in narrative—intimate, aggressive, too familiar, domestic, boxed in and banging against the laws of syntax?
Finally, this volume is riven by a lyric thrust which is by turns songlike and dense. E.C. Bachner’s “Lullaby” is a pell-mell torrent of ballad (read “battle”) rhymes submerged in prose. “Baggage,” a collaborative piece by Alicita Rodriguez and Danielle Alexander, is by turns spell-like and encyclopedic; it reads half like a grimoire and half like a very bewitching etymological dictionary: “A vanity or train case although similar to a hatbox is not. Invariably the shape of a snare drum, its hinges and mirrors, not to mention shelves, compartments and linings are made as miniature furnishings in a miniature house in which we hide.” The compression and variety in Rodriguez’s and Alexander’s sentences make each one like a bejeweled and beguiling box, wrapped in enigma, wherein display and concealment are mysteriously twinned. Debra di Blasi’s piece closes the volume; it appears to be a textual documentation of a multimedia collage, a format which points, like anything in medias res, towards an always elsewhere.
Overall, this pleasingly thick and various volume makes good company; the stories, while brainy and fun, are accessible, direct in their voices, forms, and methods, and generally delightfully short. The editors have not set out to make a representative collection of contemporary women’s writings; such a representation would be Borgesianly impossible, since the map would then be as large as the territory. Still, I did find myself longing a bit for the black crepe exactitude of Kate Bernheimer (that fabric is very hard to work!), the sci-fi metaphysics of Renee Gladman, the mysticism and concision of Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, the geeky briliance of Roxane Gay, or the Baroque obsessiveness of Sandy Florian. Despite darker turns, overall the collection is also a little on the peppy side rather than Gothic, which will displease less sunny readers. Yet as its playful and drastic title suggests, Wreckage of Reason II gives a very ample and diverse serving of ingenious, even wicked, writing from a variety of contemporary women authors, and this plenitude is its own kind of pleasure.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of Salamandrine: 8 Gothics; Nylund, the Sarcographer; Percussion Grenade; Flet; The Red Bird; and The Commandrine and Other Poems. With Johannes Goransson, she publishes Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web-quarterly dedicated to international writing and hybrid forms. She writes regular reviews for Rain Taxi, The Constant Critic, and other venues, and teaches in the MFA Program at Notre Dame.