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Feminist Forms

Leaving Realism Behind in New Fiction by Women 

ISSUE:  Spring 2019

<em>Binstead's Safari</em>. By Rachel Ingalls. New Directions, 2019. 218p. HB, 5.95.</p><em>Ghost Wall</em>. By Sarah Moss. FSG, 2019. 132p. HB, $22.</p><em>Once Into the Night</em>. By Aurelie Sheehan. Alabama, 2019. 149p. HB, 6.95.</p>

“All your working life,” asks an exasperated wife, “you’ve studied these stories. Why?”

She means the stuff of folklore, her husband’s academic field, in which most narratives take a turn to the surreal. The man replies that such stories present “a true picture of the world,” better than “what we see around us.” Ordinary reality, he argues, “isn’t any place for heroes.” This vexes his wife further. “There are always going to be heroes,” she declares. “As long as there are challenges or dangers or  injustices.” Really, isn’t that the whole point of storytelling: the heroes?

The answer proves complicated in Binstead’s Safari, an unsettling, splendid novelfrom the gifted Rachel Ingalls. The wife achieves a magical transcendence—she proves a legendary hero—and happily, her story’s now available in theUS. The book appeared first in 1983, in England, where the US-born author has lived since the mid-1960s. Yet the novel feels up to the minute. Insofar as the wife pulls off a supernatural escape, overwhelming the limits set by her husband, she fits in neatly with more contemporary protagonists in literary fiction by women. Lately, narratives of self-assertion, in which women throw off old notions of family and romance, have relied more and more on the stuff of folklore.

Ingalls herself, with this latest reissue, falls in with recent American works. Back in 1982, a year before Binstead’s Safari, she published the strange and delectable Mrs. Caliban. The novella, a small-press book in the States, drew a rave from John Updike but otherwise suffered neglect. Over time, however, readers were won over by the unlikely romance: neglected housewife meets amphibian monster. The love affair results in fresh freedoms, for the woman, and upon reissue in 2017, the book prompted comparisons with Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water. Marlon James gushed that it “out-weirds anything written today.”

James, however, goes too far. A good many women are weirding neck and neck with Mrs. Caliban. Kelly Link and Amelia Gray, to name just two, work up similar fictions, compelling and enjoyable if hard to define. They gleefully interpolate magical realism with science fiction—or are they combining fantasy with an Orwellian dystopia? The labels slapped on imaginative work never fit especially well, a problem Ingalls herself has acknowledged, noting wryly that, “for a while I was put in the Gothic slot.” Nonetheless, Gothic elements such as the madwoman in the attic feature both in her work and that of her younger “weird sisters,” likewise muddying genre as they brew up new models of emancipated women.

 New fictions from both Aurelie Sheehan and Sarah Moss, in particular, deserve consideration alongside Binstead’s Safari. Neither woman has been around as long as Ingalls, now seventy-eight, but neither is just starting out. Moss’s novel Ghost Wall is her fifth to date, and Sheehan’s collection of stories is her sixth work. Neither author confines herself to psychological realism, but neither allows the surreal to yield easy solutions either, even as they set their women protagonists free.

Once Into the Night is the latest winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize from FC2, with a rousing introduction by Laird Hunt. It collects some fifty-nine short pieces in fewer than 150 pages, and the brevity alone stamps the fiction as unconventional. Yet Sheehan began her career with a couple of relatively ordinary novels, socially acerbic treatments of coming of age. Plainly she’s chosen to alter her sensibility this way, producing fiction more in line with Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millennium. The two opening memos, on “Lightness” and “Quickness,” could’ve cited pieces from Once Into the Night. The most extreme case would be “Query,” which reads in full: “Where do drunk people go? // I go to a place of splendid isolation.”

An extreme case, as I say— most of these forays explore their fictional territory for a good three pages. That territory tends to feel meditative rather than dramatic, but a few efforts, such as “Degradation” or “The Dark Underlord,” work up rough facsimiles for rising action and climax. In any case, just about all provoke the same wised-up smile as “Query.” Sheehan never lacks for urbanity, even when she offers little more than an articulate shrug. In “Underlord,” the Cthulhu figure fusses over his cape and boots like a status-minded Brooklynite. “Degradation” has a premise out of Saturday-morning cartoons, but its mashup of the sex business and the writing workshop feels so right it can make you wince (for the record, Sheehan runs a university creative writing program).

A worldly chuckle also erupts from more somber pieces. One highlight is “Lake Charles, Louisiana,” an oddball eulogy to a Louisiana grandmother, at times suggesting Snapchat feminism. The narrator first considers the old woman’s halcyon days—“Vivacious, vivid, Vogue”—then the comfy drear of later years: “You could lead a good, vaguely cosmopolitan life here.” The madwoman in the attic comes to mind, and there’s a decidedly Gothic touch toward the end, as we learn that, in his wife’s final coma, her husband kept “dolling her up.” In ingenious shorthand, the story raises questions about a woman’s place while never stinting on the grief: “Where does loss begin? In the subject, and then it moves on, infecting others.”

“Lake Charles” may have a companion piece, the equally fine “Darkness.” The latter story considers another sort of oppression, that of immigrants, while brooding on another dead grandparent, a man. Pairings such as this turn up a number of times among this clatch of fine-tooled scrimshaw. The iterations underscore the cyclical arrangement, overall; as Hunt points out in his preface, the collection opens “I was born…” and concludes “completely dead.” Between those two, the collection isn’t shackled to the bildungsroman, any more than every story prizes women’s emancipation. Rather, Once Into the Night renders these elements as intriguing shapes in the dark, something we’ve got to feel our way around, all while Sheehan’s droll observations keep us off-kilter. One writer-narrator, looking over her desk, feels almost as if she’s buried, her papers “a dog’s stash of bones.” But then the brilliant penultimate piece, “Iceman,” sketches a miraculous escape, with the sweep of legend in just three pages, and so asserts the value in rejecting convention: whether by telling stories or trying to live freely.

 Bones also haunt Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’s nightmarish novel, though the title isn’t explained until almost the end. Moss has a university professor summarize: The wall is an ancient stratagem, used by Celtic tribes “as a last-ditch defense against the Romans.” The natives “made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arrayed them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was their strongest magic.”

The run-on sentence suits the speech, a lecture long since memorized, and the author’s finely turned ear is one of the pervading pleasures here. What Moss really excels at, though, is taking scholarly business and turning it spooky. Her Professor Slade may talk as if this is Anthro 101 (cf. the Lakota “Ghost Dance,” likewise useless against invaders) but as he speaks he’s “interlacing willow to make some kind of fence panel”—constructing his own ghost wall. Around him lies a spartan campground, with a firepit, up by Hadrian’s Wall in northern England.

Slade and a few students have devoted their summer solstice to “experimental archeology.” “Re-enactors” of Iron Age life, they’ve pulled tunics over their underwear and spend their days trapping and foraging. The project seems worthy, teachable, but the teenaged narrator nonetheless has concerns:

Er…what are you going to do for human remains? For your fence? Oh, said Mum, I’m boiling up the rabbits’ heads…. Dad snorted and then coughed and snorted again. What, he said, ghost rabbits, you serious?

The talk flows this way throughout, shifting from person to person without breaks or punctuation, and over time reveals the dysfunction in this family, the Hamptons. Their only child, Sil, though almost out of high school, hasn’t yet set herself apart from Mum and Dad. The father laughs at the idea of rabbits, but his daughter won’t press him about alternatives.

This was Dad’s idea, joining the “experiment.” He drives a bus for a living, but is an amateur researcher, in correspondence with academics like Slade. Sil’s rare happy memories with the man involve the week they spent walking the length of the wall. Here in the camp, however, Dad picks at her about the rabbits and more, treating her like a drudge. Sil’s mum suffers the same, so that even when flashing some personality, she’s speaking of her chores: “I’ve a mort to do.”

As for Sil, her father rejected the Latin “Sylvia.” Rather she’s Sulevia, after a “Northumbrian goddess,” one more way for Dad to protect what he sees as endangered, white Britain. When he rants against “Paki muck,” Sil confesses, “I knew better than to challenge him.” Like her mum, she keeps her head down, and the ferment inside includes horrific touches: “someone came to wake you carrying a rope, the blades already sharpened and waiting.” When a freethinking university student corrals Sil into a stop at the nearest convenience store, it sends the younger teen into a panic: “please can we just get on now we’re going to get in so much trouble.” With that, the new friend realizes she’s discovered a different sort of an old story: “Your Dad. Silvie. You’re terrified of him.”

Ghost Wall unveils the father’s abuse—violent and cruel, though never sexual—with terrific restraint. Sil first glimpses a fresh bruise on her mother’s arm, then remembers one of his harder slaps, and only after that endures an actual whipping, alone with Dad in the woods. Shocking as the scene feels, it doesn’t lessen the suspicion that the man intends worse. By then we know both father and professor share a fascination for the so-called “Bog People,” corpses mummified in the local peat. Evidence indicates that these weren’t merely unlucky strays, but rather sacrifices, another case of the dead protecting the living. For the tribes of North Britain, nothing so pleased the gods as a nubile young woman.

Tensions mount in more standard novelistic ways than in Sheehan, raising a clear feminist outcry while never shortchanging her characters. Moss’s unpunctuated dialogue allows room for humanity, leavening the gloom. Then, too, Sil’s not so cowed as her mum. In the privacy of her mind, she’s capable of fine snark: “Gruel is a thing you can eat without thinking about it as long as you’re very hungry, a bit like white sauce or maybe wallpaper paste.” But the true richness of this brief narrative resides in the horrified empathy it achieves with its wall-building villain: “I felt Dad’s gaze on me and knew with a shiver what he was thinking. My daughter. Break her and stake her to the bog, stop her before she gets away. ”

The father seeks “to hold back history,” as Moss put it in a recent interview. A ghost wall prizes the dead over the living, ossification over openness to change—though of course, Moss concluded, “it never works.” Certainly it didn’t work in 1989, the year in which her fiction is set; the university kids buzz with the news out of Berlin. Over the thirty years since, we’ve seen a backlash, a clamor for more walls. Here in the US, of course, one thinks of Trump’s folly, nothing if not macho, but over in England they too have a new wall, the papier-mâché of legal documents known as Brexit. Sarah Moss, in her take on the social novel, demonstrates anew how such fantasies of protection are “foundation myths of a really damaged country.”

 Binstead’s Safari, more than either of these other two books, seems at first to be a classic novel of psychological realism—and a very good one. Everything unfolds with an unerring sense of just how much the narrative needs, a natural grasp of scale that distinguishes work at a creative peak. In the seventies, Ingalls began with stories closer to straightforward horror, but in this work she imbues the uncanny, the diabolic, with a greater humanity. Yet the bickering between her unhappy couple, Stan and Millie Binstead, will never play on the Hallmark Channel:

“Look, Millie, you’ve made your point. I haven’t been trying as much as I could have.”

“Oh, Stan. Now, listen…. I don’t believe you care about me. It’s as simple as that. I don’t believe you ever really did.”

“Are you crazy?…Are you saying you don’t love me anymore, not at all?”

“I’m still very fond of you, Stan.”

“Fond of me. Oh, great. Shove that.”

The author has claimed her “top favorite literary idols are playwrights,” and this time she shows off a skilled playwright’s way with dialogue and tapping into differing perspectives —swapping off between husband and wife. The palaver caroms every which way among a cluster of exotic players, all wounded and yet articulate.

Less complicated people, doing routine things, have no place on this Safari. Thecouple travels first to London, then spends most of its time in former British East Africa. Stan intends the trip as academic research; he needs to collect the stories of backcountry tribes for a book “about mythic character and its relation to…society.” As for Millie, first she “kept pleading” to come along, and then she lucked into some money—almost a leprechaun’s pot of gold. The fairytale touch turns out to be but the first of many. Millie, on arrival in London, seems “a miserable frump” to Stan, and he’d much rather spend his time at “conferences,” his code for nights out with a swinger friend. The husband’s infidelity, just how much and with whom, is for Ingalls another device for generating suspense, but no sooner have Stan and Millie reached Africa than he’s startled to find her looking “young and elegant.” A bit later, out in a camp in lion country, he “saw Millie as if he’d never met her…so beautiful that she took his breath away.”

The metamorphoses feel worthy of Ovid, often rendered with grinning panache. The night Millie insists on her independence, and Stan groans that he’s “so lonesome,” she snaps: “We’re in a beautiful country, on a luxury safari, surrounded by hot-and-cold running servants and gross plenty…. There isn’t any reason to be lonesome.” Naming names, she throws Stan’s adultery in his face; she’s sowing her oats by then, enjoying her own whirlwind love affair. Her breakthrough recalls, ironically, the fables of the heroes Stan has come to study.

Naturally, I don’t wish to spoil the plot, slick as a round of three-card monte. I can say, however, that Millie’s escapades are handled with the same clever indirection as Stan’s. More than that, the secret love letters and the songs of the griots, the possibility that Millie’s gotten pregnant and that Stan’s uncovered a poaching ring—all this and more is grounded in the politics of the moment. Ingalls never specifies her locales, but she makes clear that the couple travels with a vanishing local aristocracy, the whites who stayed on following independence and struggle with the changing East African dynamics. These folks have seen plenty of hanky-panky, another sort of folklore, shared with a grin over a gin and tonic, and isn’t this the epitome of cultural decadence? Doesn’t it reveal an old patriarchy in steep decline? So, too, although the Americans’ changes partake of the supernatural—there’s an outsized lion who may be a lover’s reincarnation—they also find ordinary expression. The wife throws herself into painting, while the husband takes ever greater risks hunting big game.

On a scale from the mundane to the magic, there’s no question Binstead’s Safari tilts toward the latter. As an aesthetic object, its effect is that of a tour de force—it knocks the head back—but as a reflection of our changing culture it’s of a piece with the magical feminism that erupts in more recent novels and stories by women. Whether out in the bush with “hot-and-cold running servants,” or revisiting a grim Iron Age sacrifice, or meditating on the loss of promise in a grandmother, such fiction casts a combustible spell; it blasts away old barriers. Good work in the arts is always against something, and the form we call the novel was born when Cervantes decided to take down the romances of chivalry. In these three superb works, the mystic element thrums with the same subversive energy. 




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