Books In Conversation
STACEY LEVINE with Kristy Eldredge
The Girl With Brown Fur: Tales & Stories
(Starcherone Books, 2011)
Since her 1993 debut collection, My Horse and Other Stories, Stacey Levine has used metaphor and artful exaggeration to illuminate unexpected corners of the human psyche. Levine is concerned with bodies and our relationship to these troublesome vehicles—her characters often notice worrying growths or discolorations on their skin—and relationships (however tentatively embarked upon) as they are enacted in a harsh, demanding world. Fans of Thomas Bernhard or Jane Bowles would embrace Levine’s psychological subtlety and her plotting, which can resemble a nightmare where you run and run but never move from one spot. Like Kafka, Levine has created a way to dramatize ambivalence—her characters are sometimes literally lost in fog. But Levine’s writing is more down-to-earth than Kafka’s, and her is ear (naturally) Midwestern, as she was born and raised in St. Louis.
Women at various stages of life are the main subjects of Levine’s fiction. In her second novel, Frances Johnson (2005), the heroine navigates a Florida town marked by mud pits that mirror her inner torpor—torpor she tries to dispel with pots of ever-stronger coffee—as she grapples with bewildering desires to both move on and stay put. In Dra—(1997), the eponymous protagonist faces the need to get a job, a quest that develops dreamlike properties as she tries to move forward, dealing with a series of creepy authority figures, ending up collapsing in the arms of her nurse. The Girl With Brown Fur, a 2011 collection of stories, shows Levine’s developing power with metaphor as she explores relationships through her inexhaustible supply of odd personalities.
You might say the unjustly neglected Levine is an old-fashioned modernist, with her rejection of realism and other conventions of contemporary fiction. I explored that subject with her, as well as many others, in an email conversation for the Brooklyn Rail. In a way, though, our conversation started years ago, since I first wrote about Dra—in the mid-’90s and began a fruitful dialogue with this warm and inventive writer.
Kristy Eldredge (Rail): Your first novel, Dra—, is a memorable exploration of haunted territory—the world between adolescence and adulthood. There’s such a sense of being suspended between things in that novel. Did you think for a long time about this feeling? Or did you start with the character and find the milieu through writing about her?
Stacey Levine: We have such an absurdly delayed adulthood-onset in the North America that we live it, embody it, for decades, so maybe to some extent that’s what I was exploring in Dra—. About suspension and in-betweenness, I didn’t consider that as much. I began with a kernel of the character and set her down in a world that I knew I would build into a dystopic, all-enclosed, giant mall-type place where everyone works and lives and finds their airline flights. I got her talking to others, and I guess the issue of being “nowhere” arose from both the setting and the character’s state of mind, so I let the book go there. I found the in-betweenness idea too through that super-serious activity known as “playing.” Do you remember how Harriet the Spy played “Town”?
Rail: I do remember how Harriet played “Town”—my sister and I had a thing called “the Community,” which was a dresser with a doll family in each drawer that we created to be company for our trolls. Anyway, that’s revealing about your character being the catalyst for the atmosphere rather than the other way around. You’ve been working on a new novel—are you using the same process for this one?
Levine: “The Community”—good title for a story! In my new novel I started with two overly intertwined sisters, and a setting that’s almost real, a little neighborhood in Miami. The tropical vegetation and canals have played a larger part in the book than I expected, so that’s a presence or a condition exerting pressure—if not a character.
Rail: And is there a “problem” you’re trying to solve in this novel? I feel like your novels are obliquely working on problems. Dra—is about the mystery of identity when you’re just beginning the process of individuation. Frances Johnson is about a smothering conformity.
Levine: I see novel-writing as an opportunity to ask dozens of questions. The question of self-“realization” is going to be among them, but I like to think a novel is a chance to throw dice that ask combinations of even broader questions. “What is the experience of being alone versus being ‘beside’ somebody else?” And smaller ones: “What is the best way to describe that one sensation?” And situational questions, too: “What would this character do if she were trapped in a well and mocked by local teenagers?”
Rail: I want to ask about the nurse or caretaker who often appears in your work. These figures (often women slightly older than the main character) serve as excellent plot devices, since they let the protagonist speak a lot about her inner state. I’m wondering if you could speak about how you arrived at writing so often about nurses and caretakers.
Levine: I’ve never thought of the cross-yet nursely types in my fiction as plot devices—what a great observation. Any kind of caretaker or helper is gonna elicit/solicit a specific sort of confessional language from the other character, I guess…. I’ve read a short story or two that featured a priest—the function is similar! And the birds and mice who’re Cinderella’s helpers… haha. Fairy tales have tons of interlocutor-helpers.
Some of my elder-than-the-protagonist characters are softer, and some are quite hard-asses. An authoritative male character in Western lit possesses very specific connotative baggage, unless the writer works to displace that baggage. With an authoritative, bossy female character, there’s less stereotype (in fiction, but that’s not the case for scriptwriters or Hollywood). It was fun to tease out ambiguities in female characters like the Administrator in Dra—. She is a combination of ironfisted and clueless with vulnerabilities and comic one-liners, too. As I continue writing, I don’t want to continue ad infinitum with caretaker characters, of course.
Rail: Relationships and their challenges is a major theme in your writing. I’m thinking of the story in Girl with Brown Fur, “The Wedding.” A woman falls ill during her wedding and repairs to her home where she’s attended by a nurse. This is a haunting little vignette—care to comment on it?
Levine: I had been reading Kobo Abe’s 1960 play Friends at the time, which I’d found by slip-chance. Such a nice way to find amazing reads—not through word of mouth or viewing an ad (although that’s how I found Ghosts by Cesar Aria), but through the wormy tunnel of chance. I found it on a dusty table in some kind of waiting room. I started reading it and was laughing almost immediately about the premise and Abe’s dry way of treating it. The play is about a roving family that moves into some urban dweller-man’s apartment. The family won’t leave and its members are so many and garrulous that they pretty much ruin the guy’s life. The hyperbole’s giant and hearty in its absurdity; the work’s on the level of myth. I never forgot it. Abe sets up the play to satirize Japanese social protocol, but also makes you think: why is it humorous in the first place to read about a family entering someone’s home precipitously and living with him? It leads to a critique of the Western capitalist structure.
One of my writer friends here in Seattle went through a little time of avid focus on the fact that we have separate, dedicated rooms in our dwellings for sleeping, and how at odds that is with historical precedents.
So, in “The Wedding,” I was still thinking of the Abe play and played around with a character ensconced in their functionary role to the point that it dictates their life. In that case it was a nurse who appeared out of nowhere. I wanted to work with that idea repeatedly and in other writing projects I did, sometimes without knowing it.
Rail: That’s fascinating, because an exploration of roles seems key to your writing. In Dra—, you have the Manager, the Administrator and the Nurse—all figures “ensconced in their functionary roles,” whereas Dra—, the heroine, seems unable to take on any role. Are you exploring a sense of incompleteness with your protagonist, Dra—? And is that why her name isn’t complete? (I’ve always wanted to ask.)
Levine: I remember wanting to invent a protagonist with a name that would be just about the grossest moniker possible. I thought that was funny somehow. Flannery O’Conner had some good, nearly disgusting names. One writer who reviewed Dra—, Emily Hall (now an editor at MoMA), mentioned that the name conjured Dramamine for her. I had not thought of that, but I sure was pleased! I also remember that in my first draft-pages for that book, I used “Dra___.” with three underlines and a period. That was nuts! I was spoofing the tendency in 19th century letters to disguise names by using only a first initial and a blank afterward.
Rail: You also explore the way ordinary roles can become distorted. In “The Danas,” from The Girl with Brown Fur, you deal with a sororal pair (I love the word “sororal,” by the way)—a brother and sister who are closely intertwined and also unusually enmeshed with their parents.
Levine: I like that word too! It’s underused. That story, “The Danas,” was commissioned by the Richard Hugo House, a literary center in Seattle, and I read it at one of their literary series nights. The wonderful late David Rakoff read that night, too. The story’s main thread is about two twenty-somethings, a brother and sister. Their parents pressure them into marrying each other. At the parents’ insistence, the married adult children (who have moved out) then move back into the parents’ house. Later, the women in the house next door, Janice-Katie and Mrs. Beck, watch all that’s going on with the Dana family.
The story links to one also in The Girl with Brown Fur, “And You Are?”, about Janice-Katie and Mrs. Beck. Mrs. Beck in the past had been Janice-Katie’s babysitter, and the two meet again when Janice-Katie is an adult and they move in together. Each is so unbelievably uncomfortable with being alive! It’s just horrible for them. But they acquire a little bit of peace at the story’s end when they run across an empty football field to look for some mustard. I was looking through a couple translations of Heraclitus’s Fragments at the time and like everyone, was just in love with some of those aphorisms (once I hosted a Heraclitus translation-ranking party but no one would focus). In murky homage, I worked a few of them into “And You Are?”
Rail: Emotional conflict seems to almost be another character in your writing, with the characters bursting out with accusations and admissions. How did you stumble on this wonderful way of writing about our emotional landscapes?
Levine: Everyone who wishes to can conjure the sound of voices conversing—meaning some particular sound and style of conversation. We heard these sounds from childhood. So that’s one mode of expression that I can conjure. I’m also pretty susceptible to everyday vernacular, especially U.S. Midwestern—there’re so many fantastic expressions. So I hear all that as I’m writing. You pick it up by listening on trains, buses, in restaurants, stores, bathrooms, hallways. Language is famous for being plastic and spongy, right? It’ll shape a character. And we learn the sound of speech from reading. Alice Notley recently said that the experience of deeply reading Faulkner about forty years ago lay inside her like something unexploded until all the voices of As I Lay Dying finally rose up to inform her 2016 collection, Certain Magical Acts. What else do you think goes into it? My family of origin was somewhat loud, impetuous, and spontaneous, and did not take much stock in manners (for which I’m glad). I must’ve brought that to my work, too. In my books it’s a form of exaggeration to make a point.
Rail: I agree it comes from our past. My family wasn’t loud—we were more repressed. In my fiction characters quarrel, but not with the hilarious directness yours do. At any rate, I want to ask about influences. I know you’ve mentioned Jane Bowles to me before—could you talk about some other lodestars?
Levine: Yes, she is fantastic and freeing to read. I love some realism—Willa Cather comes to mind today, but really effortful plot in contemporary writing is hard for me. I’m always looking for fiction that owes a little bit to tales and works its language to create texture, music, “offness,” and emotional craters. I like Marie Redonnet, Henry Green, Barbara Comyns, Tarjei Vesaas, Robert Aickman—it’s been fun lately to reread “The Trains”—such a careful story, with sentences that have the nerve and strength to refrain from explaining everything or to be opaque. Because people are opaque. Among writers I know, Michael Friedman has an amazing ear in Martian Dawn and can twist the lowest, coarsest boosterism and dumbness of our culture into hilarious tracts of hyperbolic plot while the whole thing kind of aches underneath. Others are Jennifer Natalya Fink, Lance Olson, and the British playwright Andrea Dunbar, who had a miracle ear for the language.
Rail: Is Kafka an influence for you?
Levine: Well, Kafka affected everybody, even those who haven’t read his work.
Rail: I see (from your Wikipedia bio) that you studied journalism in college. How, if at all, did that inform your writing?
Levine: It affected me a lot! Especially the required grammar class. The professor was missing a few fingers because of a war. I sat in the front row in order to rudely ogle this, then became really involved in the course, which was fourteen weeks of drills on sentence conciseness. It was great! It made me see how admirable a sentence can be, and small deviations from standard syntax popped out for me afterward. I feel that class still in me when I write today.
Rail: When did you start writing fiction? Was it on your own or did you take some workshops?
Levine: I took a night class in essay writing when I lived in D.C., so late twenties. When I went off on descriptive tangents that were not essential to the assignment, I found a sensation I couldn’t let go!
Rail: Do you see yourself as part of a school or movement in American writing? Do you feel lodged in any kind of group or out on your own?
Levine: I don’t feel “lodged” but that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’m aware there’s a clan of us who are “against” (being facetious) lush or memoiristic realism. A long time ago, nonrealistic stories were usually only accepted in “experimental” writing venues. That label seems so quaint today. What a relief there’s not a separate bathroom today for inventive or voice-driven literary work. Style is the most interesting thing to me. Writing’s less interesting or appealing when authors basically write about themselves—their struggles and sexual experiences. It’s harder to invent.
Rail: Argh, you’re right, it is. Who are some other realist writers you like?
Levine: Patricia Highsmith. Her novels are like candy. I’m pretty credulous, so I’ve also enjoyed at least one Richard Ford novel. It’s also fun to read books I don’t “like” too just to observe the plotting. What have you read in order to watch the plot?
Rail: Lately, everyone. I just finished Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I loved, and I was fascinated with how she handled plot, swinging back and forth in time (she really did swing time). I can’t help analyzing how novelists manage to create events, since I recently dragged my own novel over the finish line. Ian McEwan often starts with very striking events, but sometimes the novel loses heat as it goes along.
Levine: McEwan is staggeringly productive but his 9-11 book must’ve been written on a one-month deadline in the tropics. I can’t wait to read Swing Time.
Rail: Does the atmosphere in the outer world affect your writing at all? I’m thinking of the 1990s, which is when I first stumbled on your writing (in the wonderful magazine Puncture) and which feels so different from the way it is today in the U.S. That seems like a halcyon time, in memory.
Levine: Yes, the ’90s were different. I remember under Bill Clinton that some people were so giddy with economic boom and it was a “new” thing in N.Y.C., which I read about, for restaurant-goers to order fourteen-k gold flakes on their salads. Which really made me sick to my stomach out in Seattle—at that time, the tech and internet money had not yet arrived. It’s funny that with increasing poverty today, we’re so desensitized to excess. In the ’90s it was possible to live on 800 dollars per month and have time to write or do music or whatever. I don’t know if most fiction is tied to current events. You’re right that mine isn’t. But all good fiction is political in some way. Right?
Rail: Yes, all good fiction is political in some way—I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always responded to what I feel as a critique of conformity in your work. Would you say that’s one of your concerns? Or does it just happen organically?
Levine: Our culture is so puritanical and scared. The Puritanism goes in waves through eras. I see some college students these days more straight-laced than elderly nanas, but it’s not entirely their fault. But yes, I get concerned about insidious conformity in disguise as transgressive, stylin’, or revolutionary.
KRISTY ELDREDGE is based in Brooklyn. She writes about books, music, and tennis, and is the creator of the Robot Secretary series on YouTube. She works with no thought of reward.