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Wild Imperatives in Character and Prose

ISSUE:  Spring 1998


Kneeling on Rice, by Elizabeth Denton. Missouri. $12.95 paper.
Nightwork, by Christine Schutt. Knopf. $22.95.

Two recent, startlingly hewn first story collections chronicle the last decades of our century with original gifts of craft and insight. The characters in Nightwork by Christine Schutt, and Kneeling on Rice, by Elizabeth Denton, heed urgent emotional and societal directives with varying degrees of terror, boldness, delusion, violence, desperation, threat, atonement, and, rarely, qualified hope. In circumstances by turns wildly banal and claustrally strange, the characters in these collections feel their way through the shifting, often punishing phenomena of late 1980’s–1990’s “domesticity”—a murky, often sexualized complex of rituals and kin. Importantly, the net of language is never invisible in these stories—we’re never allowed to fall completely through it. Instead, we’re often caught there, in the net, in the realm of words and their manipulation, and to a significant extent these stories occur, and their characters develop, in astute confoundments and accruals of syntax, image, and fractious music.

Sophocles called Echo “the girl with no door on her mouth”—her punishment was never to have words of her own, but to repeat back whatever was said to her, in a kind of lingual Rorschach. And, given how loquacious Echo was, as Anne Carson has pointed out, we can only wonder to what mouth(s) Sophocles was referring in his remark. Like Echo, the women in Christine Schutt’s lyrical, lapidary fiction react to their experiences; they are endangered by a critical inertia and lack of emotional discernment. In “You Drive,” a daughter and her father sink into a static limbo of shared drugs and illicit meetings in a car. A preoccupation with the physical details of each other’s bodies and a kind of somatic dullness created by proximity and sexualized experience seem an attempt to avoid the anomie of their emotional lives:

“But yes,” she said to her father. She was always saving yes to her father, and only when she was away from him did she wonder, Does this make sense, my father? Driving all the way to her and home again in a night, driving to where she worked and waiting for her in the lot until morning—did her father make sense?

Caught in a cycle of desperate, often speechless intimacy, the daughter drifts, defining herself by her father’s own damaged reactions: “[T]hird party to things, watching, scattering other women’s charms like seed and clucking in a backward shuffle was how she saw herself, asking “Do you like that woman? Did you see her breasts?” Her father said, “I like your breasts.”“

Familial bonds twisted and often sexualized by emotional scarring—and an attendant shame and inarticulation—form the basis of nearly every story. In “Metropolis,” a woman finds herself unable to expel from her apartment a sadistic, dying former lover. Despite the fact that he is physically and emotionally abusive (at one point he has apparently stapled the woman’s head), she allows him to remain there, leaving food out for him, and then retreating behind the locked door of her young son’s room, where the two lie locked together in bed. When her son’s teacher tries to talk with her about the boy’s anger and sociopathic behavior, the teacher’s description of him could be a characterization of the grim, lost grown-ups in his world, as well: “Bored or hungry, sometimes ignorant of what inspires him to speak, the boy says he does not know why he does it. ‘A monologue,’ the teacher says, ‘with glancing reference to the class; otherwise, just bloodshed.’”

Like other female protagonists in Nightwork, the mother in “Metropolis” moves through her life in reaction to the dicta of those around her: “[H]ow is it I have let this happen to us,” she asks, “opening the door to men who come in and who do not come in, threatening ruin, slapping money on my bureau, saying, ‘I am dying,’ or ‘This is all I have,’ or ‘This is all you want.’. . . Bad, bad to be a woman, indiscriminate and needy, linking arms with any man who promises relief.”

Responsible in large part for these stories’ disturbing sense of vertiginous danger and skewed desire is Schutt’s elliptical syntax, disjointed dialogue, eerie, minimalist tangentiality, and disturbing syncopation—an “odd arrangement” at the level of language that matches her characters, their hearts’ “tricked beat.” “Religion.” for example, is a story about a group of children who have escaped from a cult compound, where their “mothers, butting tambourines and crying out, “Amen,”” often left the youngsters to scramble for themselves, peeing into a pan in the compound basement, scrabbling for water from a single spigot, “[f]ood greasing the goosenecked paper bags the women gave us for the afternoon when they remembered there would be an afternoon with us children left to draw in the common room; nothing but gobby pens and squared-off pencils sharpened by a knife to make our names with—we used erasers. We could blow off what we wrote: our names and our mothers’ names and where we had come from or been to, which was no place you would want to be once you had learned how to spell it.” Here a sense of desperation in a world awry is in part created by disrupted word order and by a breathless accumulation of ephemeral detail.

Often Schutt daubs her way around a scene, suggesting meaning through disassociated gesture or dialogue, as in this passage from “Teachers,” in which an emotionally crippled mother attempts to draw her young teenage daughter into her claustral world:

“Come back to bed with me,” she said to the daughter. “We can look at magazines together and figure out what we are doing.”

“We should get dressed,” the daughter said.

“Today?” she asked the closet, the dresses hanging smally—no expectation, the compact bags for evening in a dust. She said she couldn’t find the energy to blow. She said, “Come here,” and she took hold of the daughter and led her to the bed. She said to the daughter, “maybe we should see someone together.”

The daughter said, “No, I don’t need to talk to anyone. Mother, no.”

“No breakfast, either,” the daughter said. “No lunch.”

The daughter said, “Shit school,” and turned her backpack upside down.

The daughter dressed.

The daughter undressed and dressed again, studding the curled lips of her small ears and rolling bracelets over the heart that was her fist.

Schutt’s highly stylized language clearly calls attention to itself, suggesting, at times, an over-familiarity with its own intensity of design. But her ambitious economy effects a kind of nadir of the spirit, and these dark, almost fabulist vignettes give us a grim, late 20th-century mythology—contorted, incestuous, fated. “All this talk about this boy,” says the narrator of “His Chorus,” “he was just a boy, who lived, a brother with his sister and his sister’s husband—in odd arrangement—but who did not these days?”

Except for a few startling sketchy props, Schutt’s characters experience themselves and each other in a kind of spatial and material wasteland. Not so with Elizabeth Denton. Like other “Yankee sensualists”—Elizabeth Bishop, Alice Munro, Edna O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf—she shapes her characters in Kneeling on Rice out of an acute attention to external phenomena that is so aptly restrained and quirky that it at times borders on the erotic. In “Bold,” for example, a young business woman home for the holidays squats over the toilet in her parents’ suburban home, where, downstairs, the family’s annual Christmas party is underway. As she urinates into the cup of a home pregnancy test, she wonders if the artificial insemination she has recently undergone has been a reckless or a positive move—and, if conception has occurred, whether or not she can meet the new world the pregnancy bodes with the real courage only hinted at by her uncharacteristic and comparatively easy act of risk in engineering it. In “Kneeling on Rice,” two women once married, at different times, to the same man—a man who has died in an ambiguous skating accident—hide beneath a bed in a house darkened by an electrical blackout. Downstairs their unwelcome mother-in-law, who owns the house and who has just arrived from out of town to force some change on this folie a deux, stumbles around looking for them. As the two concealed women wait in fear and longing for something to happen, the housecat gives birth in a nearby closet—a palpable manifestation of the two women’s alternately ambivalent and pressing compulsions to commit to living together and having a child.

Denton’s characters are often caught between worlds they have made for themselves, but which no longer fit or work, and worlds that threaten them with despair or promise. Denton captures her characters in flux, on the cusp or threshold of some change. There is a great deal of crouching down outside of windows, of stealth and concealment and voyeurism in Denton’s stories, as her characters spy on the lives they have made and must face, and as they confront the conflict between their ransomed worlds and the unadorned needs and emotions of the lives they must continue, somehow, to conduct in those worlds.

The free-spirited title character of “About Johanna,” for example, is “used to the world as she made it for herself”—a world of honest and intense physical risk and pleasure played out in a large, hay-filled barn at the family’s summer place. After she is nearly raped on an adolescent camping trip, Johanna slowly comes to believe “that feelings connect with experience and . . . [that] once you’ve had an emotion, especially an ugly one, there’s no getting rid of it.” Unable to reconcile her lost, pre-lapsarian world with the terrible realities confronted by her new consciousness, Johanna presumably burns the barn and leaves home. She eventually marries a boorish import-export man who keeps a Parisian factory full of leopards, tigers, and baboons—animals as wild as Johanna’s lost spirit—and pursues a punishing career of denial as a stunt woman on the international ski circuit. In “Callings,” a fast-track career woman who has lost her job abdicates with it all the trappings—makeup, colleague-lovers, collected art, gourmet food, the illusion of belonging, of mattering—by which she has known herself. She must rediscover that self in tandem with her struggle to accept the presence in her life—and self—of a mentally ill brother who has escaped from his half-way house and moved into her closet, “[a] place her brother had made his own.” If “About Johanna” asks, in the end, whether Johanna’s untamed self has been domesticated or if her self has been rendered utterly unknowable, “Callings” concerns itself with questions of self and volition: will this young woman allow the world and its exigencies to dominate her will, or can she make emotional room for its domestication through love?

As striking as Denton’s eccentric characters is her startling prose, which clusters and radiates with a deliberate and almost ravishing scrupulosity of detail, each sentence contributing something essential, surprising—now questioning, now taking a new emotional turn—without losing narrative integrity. The real wildness in Denton’s work often comes through in her perspicacious understatement and subtle humor, and she has a poet’s eye for potent, dimensional imagery and ironies. Finally, though, it is the characters that haunt—emotionally risky or vulnerable people who, to different degrees, are in varying stages of eschewing or depending “on drama, and, if need be, . . . [pushing] buttons to make it happen. . . . [characters] reaching far afield to avoid their own lives.” Sometimes psychologically fragile or tenuous (“If she doesn’t see us, she might forget about us,” says Catherine in “Kneeling on Rice”) and at others surprisingly tensile and resilient, these characters confront that there is no “getting rid” of emotion, with its attendant tolls, risks, and gifts—at least not without tremendous consequences.

Both Schutt and Denton deserve a wider readership, not only for their vision of our “unhinged season,” but for its translation into language renewed by confrontation and manipulation of words and their limitations. In “Metropolis,” Schutt writes:

“You’re upset,” the teacher says. “Maybe you don’t want to talk.”

I shake my head, saddened and amazed.

Such characters, and our experience of their stories, may leave us, too, “saddened and amazed.” But also grateful for the intelligence, urgency— even compassion—with which they, and we, are seen and articulated.


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