The Wilds: Stories. Julia Elliott.
Leiden: Brill, October 2014. 357 pp.
Reviewed by Paul J. Stapleton
Except to readers of the handful of literary journals where her short stories have variously appeared in the past decade, Julia Elliott, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, is hardly a household name even among most literati. With the publication of The Wilds, however, a collection of eighteen short stories, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning entry “Regeneration at Mukti”—in conjunction with the scheduled release of her debut novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, in 2015—Elliott’s limited reputation is hopefully about to expand to a degree worthy of her talent. Her surprising, haunting imagination and her eye for satire will no doubt bring to mind Flannery O’Connor, but Elliott is a practitioner of an unapologetically postmodernist and posthumanist Southern Gothic, and her pliant, erudite prose and quirky sensibility as a storyteller prove highly reminiscent of T.C. Boyle.
The Wilds delivers a scathing critique of American culture that verges on a prophetic kind of fervor, especially in the opening story “Rapture,” where Elliott performs her best imitation of O’Connor. Here the tone is set for the entire collection, as the character Grandma Meemaw catechizes her granddaughter’s secularized teeny-bopper friends during a sleepover at the family’s dilapidated house on the wrong side of town, having determined that they are far more familiar with the Dixie City Fashion Mall than with the “ruby wounds” of Jesus or the myriad cast of creatures from the Book of Revelation: its various dragons, angels, demons, and, of course, the Whore of Babylon. That night, however, Meemaw drops dead, leaving the “nice” middle-class girls psychically stained with her religious imagination, one which their coifed, Calvin Klein mothers ineffectually try to efface with a trip to the mall in the “sterile air-conditioning” of their Buick LeBaron and “Neil Diamond whining on the radio.” With “Rapture,” Elliott fires her shot across the bow of contemporary Southern culture, and in the pages that follow she fixes her aim upon all the hallowed metanarratives of a society in decay.
The twenty-first-century landscape of The Wilds is squarely set in the Southeast, in the suburban communities of South Carolina and Georgia, and the resorts of coastal Florida, locales where the terrain is “flush with check-cashing shops, car-title-loan joints, strip clubs, and used-car lots,” and the sky is scarlet with “the apocalyptic beauty of the postmodern sunset.” Yet Elliot overlays the Southern quotidian with a perspicacious brand of humorous science fiction that, far from puerile hijinks, conveys a grave posthumanist concern about the future: in “LIMBs” we meet octogenarians, powered by Leg Intuitive Motion Bionics, waning in despair in the unparadisical absurdity of the Eden Village Nursing Home, tethered to life by technology, if not volition; in “The Love Machine” the Frankensteinesque Dr. Dingo manipulates the “neurochemicals of infatuation” in his favorite, humanized robot in the labs at Georgia Tech; in “Feral” a grade-school science teacher and a famous biologist tryst prosaically in a Hampton Inn while an overpopulation of wild “de-domesticated” dogs runs wild through the community; and in “The End of the World,” a married couple lives in a Unabomber-style shack in the hill-country near Clemson, attempting a return-to-nature while the wife simultaneously adjuncts in the English department at the university.
A few of Elliott’s characters abscond from the South and suburbia altogether, as they seek antidotes for their varied permutations of malaise, transported to exotic settings, as in “Regeneration at Mukti,” where Zen-like “clinicians” in an faux Eastern resort administer their quackery to aging Westerners in the form of “controlled” pathogens which cause the skin to crust over from a combination of ailments like poison ivy, ringworm, and shingles, with the supposed aim of sloughing off the old skin for the new. (The resort is unfortunately invaded by pirates.) In “Caveman Diet,” middle-aged suburbanites trade off their nine-to-fives and daily Internet-surfing in exchange for a sojourn at Pleisto-Scene Island, “the Paleopalooza of fitness adventure tourism,” where they enact their inner “cavepersons,” learning a bit too late about the sordid appetites of their mentor Zugnor.
The Wilds aligns Elliott with a rising generation of writers like Benjamin Percy, Karen Russell, and Jesymyn Ward, for whom optimism about societal progress and the American Dream is a quaint, tired memory from a century which instead bequeathed to us, as Elliott’s closing story asserts, a country littered with “the apocalyptic stench of smoke,” “shattered glass,” and “a mess of orange construction cones.” Although many of her characters find their way into existential dead ends, Elliott nevertheless challenges them, and readers alike, to navigate the perils of this “new” world.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian American writer, performer, and youth worker. He has received grants from the Minnesota state Arts Board, the Metropolitan regional arts council, and Intermedia Arts. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, The Indiana Review, Phoebe, and Rattle, among other journals. His chapbook Refraction (winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize) is forthcoming from Organic Weapon Arts. He lives in Minneapolis, where he works as a youth counselor and arts programming coordinator for teens experiencing homelessness.
CQ: How does external reality interact with internal things such as memory and identity? Hannah Arendt has written of memory that it is “the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion.” How do the layers of reality and internal discourse present themselves in your poetry? Does this understanding of the presenting of invisibles manifest in your poems?
ML: I love that Arendt quote, and I think a great deal about how my external realities and my internal discourses and memories intersect. What’s interesting to me about remembering is that the etymological opposite is not to forget, but is in fact dismember. Thus, when we remember something we are actually putting it back together. We are in essence fixing something, rebuilding it. Of course, when we fix a broken thing it will be different from its original form. Memory is like this too, but does that make it less real? Arendt seems to think it makes it more so. My poetry is largely about rebuilding my life, re-imagining it, both my past and my present, my contexts, how those affect my emotions, how my emotions affect how I perceive my contexts. Reality and internal discourse are very entangled in my life and my work, I think these intersections manifest in my poems. I try to manifest them, anyway. I once dreamt that a house I lived in was condemned and torn down. It made so much sense to me, I told all the friends I had lived with that “Big Blue got torn down,” they believed me. I believed me. For two years I operated under the fact that place I had made so many memories had been destroyed, the place I was in my darkest depression and addiction, and then the place I got sober, was gone. Two years after learning about our house being torn down I drove through the neighborhood I had not visited since I left, just to see what had been built. The house was still there. I had this moment of wonder and fear. A sense of magic and the surreal. I had been so sure of the house’s demolition, but it had been a dream. What else hadn’t been real? Would it have been real had I never gone back to see that it wasn’t? Was it still true to my life because of how it affected me? I sat staring at the house for ten minutes just questioning what the hell had happened and what it meant. I want to inhabit that space in my poems.
CQ: How does the question of identity tie into this felt expression of memory and the persistence of the past into the present?
ML: I think identity is hugely tied to our pasts. Where we come from and where we’ve been IS our identity. But how we remember where we’ve been also affects that; for instance, I didn’t grow up with much. I’ll never forget asking my father for a candy bar and him telling me, “we just don’t have the money right now”, my mom crying late at night and me intuitively knowing it was the bills, or the fact that almost all of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my cousins, purchased at Goodwill, or sewn by my mother. At the same time, my family had a car, a garage, a computer, a television.
I had a scholarship to a private school where my father taught, and all my friends at school were rich. Or seemed like it. I wonder now how much of my identity of being lower class comes from fact, or comes from comparing myself to the kids I went to school with. Maybe we were always better off than I thought, maybe it was just because my friends were rich and other kids at school made fun of me for being poor that I grew up with the identity of being lower class, and taking pride in that. Maybe we were middle class, maybe we had a few rough patches, but overall were never as bad off as I thought. I’m not sure, but my perceptions and memory of my past have absolutely shaped my identity, even if they might be exaggerated and defined more by the context of my past rather than a quantifiable reality. Had we possessed all the same things and I had gone to a different school, I may have felt rich. I may have been perceived that way, even. Context determines so much of perception and of identity.
CQ: Do you prefer the symbolic over the literal? How do you find a way to mix the two?
ML: At this point in my writing the narrator is almost always me, I’m still working through a lot of personal grief and trauma, and I feel I have to get these stories out/articulated before I feel ready to move fully past my own narration. I wouldn’t say anything is fabricated, but I will be hyperbolic to create a certain effect. For instance, in my poem “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory” I write “. . . it was the year / I lived on a train and passed the rusted ship yards. . .”, I didn’t literally live on a train, but for a few years I did spend a great deal of time on trains, busses, planes, cars. I was wandering and felt closer to the road than to anywhere else. I wanted to capture that feeling in that line-I wasn’t necessarily lost, but I had this constant feeling of leaving. I was always leaving somewhere, something or someone. That to me is one of metaphor’s strongest qualities, the economy of language it allows, the meaning that can be packed into a single line. I don’t have to explain anything, and often that leads me to prefer the symbolic over the literal. The symbolic is like a flash of light illuminating a room for a split second. This flash allows us to see what is there, but it’s so quick that when it is gone we wonder if what we saw was real. Then we begin to imagine things that may have been there until we can’t tell the difference. The further we get away from that flash, the stronger it gets in some ways. Memory is like that too, I think. Memory is the flash of light by which our pasts are illuminated. We see what is there, but the further we are from the source, the more we have to wonder if what we saw is the truth. In some ways, I think the symbolic is the truest documentation of memory.
CQ: In the poem “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory,” you use the form to convey the message by erasing certain words in the second half of the poem. How did you come up with the idea to do this? How did you decide which words to erase? Which part did you write first: the “erased” part or the complete part?
ML: I had written a poem called “The Law of Halves as Applied to the Blade” about a friend of mine who was stabbed to death. I imagined if the distance of the blade from his body at been measured in halves it would never have reached his body-if you halve a distance between two points you will never reach the destination. In that world, the knife is still approaching him, and will be forever. I was trying to create a series of poems around this idea that explored the idea of vanishing, but never being gone. Of things always in motion, transpiring, but never fully coming to pass. My poem “The Pill” started as the idea of a pill halving itself inside the body, how it never fully leaves you, how addiction affects you forever. It was first a cantos poem measured in milligrams (80m, 40m, 20m, 10m, 5m). I might still write that poem. I still have drafts of it. “The Pill” ended up being a consolidated version of the first and last sections of that piece. My “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory” piece was born out of this series, you can see that in how the three sections are numbered 24, 12, 6 to denote age. With the erasure, I initially tried to cut half the words from the first to second sections and then again from the second to the third, however I saw a lot of lines I wanted, but that I couldn’t make with that form so I abandoned the idea. It’s still present in the poem, but the poem no longer adheres to the form, which I believe allowed it to be successful. I began the poem with the complete part and then cut down, which is closest to my process in general. I overwrite in most of my poems. The first section came out as four full pages, one stanza. Truthfully I didn’t know exactly what I was writing when I started, I just started writing one evening and when I was done I looked at the first section, which came out almost in one sitting, and realized what I had, and what I needed to do. I worked on cutting the first section down and then spent the next month or two fine tuning the piece, erasing and tweaking. Each time I got to the last section, I would notice how a line could be better. I would have to then go back and change the previous two sections to allow it, or go back and see if the edit worked in each section. It was fun and challenging process, and when I had it, I knew I had it.
Robin McLean was a lawyer, and then a potter, for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst in Massachusetts. Her first collection, Reptile House, won the BOA Editions Fiction Price in 2013 and will be published by BOA in May 2015. A figure skater first—having learned to skate and walk at the same time—McLean believes that crashing on ice prepared her for writing fiction. She currently teaches at Clark University, and splits her time between Newfound Lake in Bristol, New Hampshire, and a 200-year-old farm in western Massachusetts.
Robin McLean’s “Cold Snap” was selected by Jim Shepard as a grand prize winner—along with Ian Bassingthwaighte’s “When Trains Fall From Space”—in Carolina Quarterly’s “The End is Nigh” writing contest. You can read her story in our most recent issue, 64.2.
AA: Obviously, some time earlier this year, you came across our “End is Nigh” contest. Was this story one you had already written, or did you begin writing it specifically for the contest?
RM: “Cold Snap” was already done when I learned about the contest. I had written the first draft mid-winter in New Hampshire. I was looking out at the snow flurries everyday and missing Alaska where I had lived for 17 years. I was sad. A friend suggested that to cheer myself up, I should write a story about what a “real” winter was like, since I was convinced that all these east coast people did not know the meaning of real cold. I was having trouble letting go of Alaska. Still am. That’s how “Cold Snap” got going. I had never written an end of the world story before and did not plan this to be one. The story just got colder and colder, never warmer.
AA: Yes, and foggier and foggier. The story develops through a sort of intermittent, elusive imagery. Readers get glimpses of the world you’ve created between the fogging and clearing of masks. Was this aesthetic one you set out to accomplish or did it develop as you wrote?
RM: I feel like the biggest and scariest things that happen in life sort of sneak up on us; we sort of see them, sort of don’t see them. When we come to the end of the world, the last people standing might possibly think, “Wow, look at all the clues we had. We might have seen it coming.” I’ve heard someone say that about Easter Island. The people cut down every tree. What did they think at that last one?
Anyway, the fogging and clearing of the imagery in the story was really useful for illustrating that idea: seeing and also not seeing. Also, landscape and place are very important to the story, since the natural world ends up being vastly more powerful than the human world. Perhaps particular language was called for to convey this enormous, non-human realm.
AA: This “non-human realm” feels particularly emphasized each time the story’s protagonist, Lilibeth, calls out “Hello” only to have her voice ricochet back to her, unheard and unanswered. It’s also reflected in her habit of leaving notes that will likely go unread. How do you see language—and communication, generally—functioning in your story?
RM: The story is about isolation, both physical and emotional, so there is good reason for Lilibeth to get no answers to her persistent calls. Generally, I feel like specific language — like the words “cold” or “love” or “hello” — is just an attempt at approximation or translation. Language is useless to Lilibeth in the story. It gets her nowhere, her calls, her books. I pretty much agree that the surface language is impotent, which is a weird thing for a writer to feel. I have three sisters. We say stuff to each other. One of us gets mad at something said. “You burned the rice.” But it’s never the rice. It’s for something underneath the rice, of course, some long ago history, some real pain. In this story, I’m very interested in showing the impotence of the surface of language and also the real power it has underneath. But how we cling to the rice as the subject. Try to make sense of the rice, which will never make sense.
For real communion with another human being, I think language must transmit the feeling. Just like a poem circles around an un-sayable subject, I hoped the language in “Cold Snap” would make the reader feel Lilbeth’s isolation, her failure to connect, to communicate. Also, the pain of her hope to communicate. Her hope is foolish, given the circumstances of the story. That contrast, to me, feels both beautiful and terrible.
Continue reading “the backdrop of the end of the world”: an interview with Robin McLean by Aisha Anwar
Phillips Saylor Wisor is a musician and artist living in Washington, DC. His portrait sketches are drawn on cardboard food boxes from black and white photographs. He is currently setting the poetry of Carl Sandburg to music under his moniker, Stripmall Ballads.
In your artist’s statement, you call yourself a “refugee of the Cheap Art Movement.” What originally drew you to this movement, and what does it mean to be refugee of it?
Around 1998 I was introduced to Peter Schumann and the Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont. They live on a giant farm and make puppets and bake bread and stage productions in fields, barns and forests. They construct their puppets and sets from recycled, salvaged and repurposed material. That’s where I first heard about the Cheap Art movement. I was attracted to Peter’s work ethic and subsequent aesthetic. Really great, imaginative stuff! They are self-sufficient and geniuses at community involvement and utilizing hidden talents of their volunteers when staging large productions. I found that immensely inspirational. I existed on their periphery for a time, taking part in some performances and a pageant, and silently absorbed as much as I could. I took what I learned and primarily applied it in musical contexts.
How does the Cheap Art Movement define “art”? How do you define it?
I am not an ambassador for any art or artist or movement. There are other experts who know better than I. But to quote Schumann, “Art is not business! Art is like white clouds in blue sky!”
“Cheap Art” a broad term that one can find elements of in street art, zine culture, certain music, etc. It can be visual, performative and literary, separately or all at once.
To me, it values economy and accessibility and freedom. It’s unconcerned with profit and removes money from the equation of creating and experiencing art. Artistic skill comes from the creative process but is not needed or “required” in order in engage with the creative process. It’s not about being “good” as much as it is about “being” and “doing.” That’s empowering.
Continue reading Cereal Box Ballads: an interview with Phillips Saylor Wisor on art and music
Anneke Schwob reviews
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Coffee House Press
Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is difficult in almost every sense of the word. Removed from specificity of time (post-Star Wars, pre-iPods) or place (split equally between Ireland’s generically rural and the anonymously urban), McBride’s nameless protagonist fights her way through adolescence under the repressive regimes seemingly de rigeur for an Irish bildungsroman. Her conflict is familiar – an upbringing awash in patriarchal religion; family relationships both fraught and fiercely protective; a deeply uncomfortable, exploitative sexuality – but the terms of engagement feel urgent and fresh.
Given both McBride’s nationality and broad thematic strokes, the comparisons to Joyce have felt both thickly strewn and inevitable. McBride acknowledges a debt: in an essay in The Guardian, she said, “Reading Ulysses changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do.” Drawing parallels, also, with Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, William Faulkner, reviewers have called the book’s style “neomodernist” and “stream-of-consciousness.” This last, however, doesn’t seem quite apt. McBride’s prose resists streaming; at times, it seems barely conscious. The Girl is inchoate, her thoughts choppy, as disordered and half-formed as the title. Sentences are broken into stuttering clauses. Meaning aggregates through repetition only to be disrupted by another character’s crosstalk, lost forever. Maintaining a firm grip on the narrative is a pointless exercise; leaving plot behind to coast on waves of prose similarly futile. Rather, the text demands to be felt – affectively, yes, but also viscerally.
Continue reading Book Review: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing