A General Strangeness
(Ohio State University Press, 2014)
Elizabeth Eslami’s Hibernate is a slim, yet nowise slight, volume of 11 stories about America. Perhaps “about” is not quite the right preposition: Eslami’s collection spins tales of an old, weird America of past centuries, as well as circling and entering the even stranger America of today, and of tomorrow. To say the stories are rooted in America is understatement: Wherever her Americans have come from, initially, they are all on native ground by the time she is done with them, for better or worse.
Anahita and Nasibeh and Niloofar, Iranian girls who find themselves a long way from their opinionated grandmother’s hometown of Zarabad, are now “more Californian than not,” and have a little nephew named Thayer and new Barbie-dolls with upturned button noses. The Buttress-Scully family of Comanche, Wyoming, consists of a cardiologist father, a health-nut mother, and three children of different colors named Paloma, Torrance, and Kwezi. Adwok escapes to “the scab-shaped city of Frederick, Maryland, living a different life, no better than his life in the Sudan, merely different, and engineered completely by him, which was what made it worthwhile.”
American-born Americans are immigrants, and emigrants, too. The country throws up serious barriers its inhabitants suffer in crossing. The Los Angeles into which Joanna and Ruby tumble after a surreal flight seems on another planetary plane from the Atlanta they left. The nameless soldier boy (revealed at the end of his story to be Brian) is lost, or perhaps found, in Victory Forge after a life of “Olive Garden and the Startown Cineplex, where you made sense.” Barry and Micah, Montana brothers, have their teenage years stolen one summer afternoon and live thereafter in a land of literal and figurative prisons, a land of shadows, “shadows in the keyhole, shadows by the river.”
Eslami searches for and finds in Hibernate something of the arc of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Like Dubliners, these stories begin centered on children and a child’s voice and memories, flowing through teenage and young adulthood to something past middle age and beyond. Like Dubliners, most are concerned with an imaginative place full of intricate cultural detail and swift, keen character sketches–but overall dictated to by geography. The first story, “Jocko Hollow,” reminded me of a bleaker, darker version of Joyce’s “An Encounter.” Barry and Micah don’t escape, though, as Joyce’s boys do, or as do Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, larking on their river. Barry ends up “some kind of drug addict, some kind of prostitute. So dumb he kept buying meth-making equipment from the same Reserve St. Walgreens.” Eslami’s characters are often in pain and hurt, and their plight is made the more wrenching, and memorable, by the elegant directness of her prose.
To a degree Eslami pushes her characters away by narrating, Dashiell Hammett style, in the third person and generally in the present tense. This is fine with me. None of them, while engaging, are particularly sympathetic, and I don’t want to get much closer (except to the determined survivor, Deacon). A rejection and revulsion characterizes these stories, both on the part of trapped characters, main and minor, wanting out of they often know not what, and on the part of the reader, happy to keep their distance. The worlds aren’t pretty, or exotic, though Eslami's words are. To an American they’re particularly all too familiar, and Eslami piles it on: jobs at the Wal-Mart or travel plaza; nasty motels masquerading as “hotels”; trailers with dead dogs under them in yellowing prairie grass. But be warned. Don’t get complacent, and don’t think you know what’s coming. Eslami can hit you with a line—generally a physical or psychological description of a person—that contains multitudes: “He was born with a blond pompadour in Comanche, Wyoming to raconteurs and pitiable circumstances.” “They will think fleetingly that they should feel some sort of kinship to the Indians, because they are people of color, but they will not feel anything but the general strangeness of being around a people who live without electricity.” “The girl was a feminist, so she did most of the digging.”
Three of the stories—the title story and the last two—seem to be the odd ones out, but they give the volume its real vitality. Echoing the book’s cover image by Monique Goosens, the word “hibernate” made of swirls and snarls of black hair, the title story is strange and sad and funny, like a George Booth cartoon of prehistoric peoples. “The Yana Land” is a historical flashback to the days of the Eskimo, which days, after all, still exist, Eslami reminds us. History is no further back than right now. Go to a genuine Indian Pueblo, pay $10 to photograph genuine Indians, stare at the brown children, and “imagine the Indians’ bodies in a blood-stained, bullet-ridden heap, documented by their digital cameras.” Everyone making, and losing, their way in these hard, brief, well-told tales is stuck, mired like Brer Rabbit in the Tar-Baby, in this land where—as Eslami says of the pueblo—everything gets mixed together.