Terese Svoboda’s narratives are demanding: she does not tell her readers how to feel about her characters; her descriptions often make the physical world less recognizable; and her story lines do not climb, arc, and fall in a conventional fashion. They often begin, disorientingly, in the middle and only allude to the true end. Moreover, her sentences must often be read more than once to truly grasp their meaning. But this makes her stories all the more rewarding because they are an exercise in intellectual and sympathetic understanding.
In Svoboda’s “Trailer Girl,” the longest work of a 17-story collection by the same name, there is a desultory quality to her main character’s first-person narrative. This seemingly unfocused monologue, by a nameless woman (who is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Trash Lady” because she rakes up detritus and picks plastic bags out of the barbed wire fence behind her trailer) requires close concentration so that her line of reasoning can be followed, and so we might better understand her unconventional actions, like eating cat food from the can and drinking, like tea, the water used to boil hot dogs. When we understand this, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that Svoboda’s narrator has seen the inside of mental institutions.
What’s of greatest interest, however, is that yes, there is logic to the unnamed woman’s unusual descriptions and obscure references. Yet, the woman’s reasoning is not necessarily the kind readers might instantly understand, and Svoboda’s ostensibly wandering narrative serves this purpose well. The woman lives uncomfortably in our world and operates by a classification system entirely her own. Take for instance, her description of a blind mechanic, who helps the trailer park manager (who is also the narrator’s childhood friend and sometime lover) move furniture, “…the mechanic who today is wearing his commando beret from the theater where he served and returned from without an audience which he is fond of pointing out to any and all…” Here, we meet a character who is most likely—although we can’t be sure—a Vietnam veteran, who returned without a welcoming crowd. Svoboda’s main character makes poignant connections between a theatrical-looking beret and its more dour implications.
A few pages earlier, the character’s oblique but expansive reference covers, in nearly one breath: an apparition of a girl she repeatedly glimpses in a nearby pasture, a girl living in the trailer park, the narrator’s own experience in group homes, and an oft-imagined vision of her two lost daughters. Svoboda writes of the girl in the pasture, “What she needs is someone to protect her, a Kate, so in the home when they lay blame, she is there, the one who asks first for another blanket and gets the No. That is why I had two, why two is all you need.”
And while we are sometimes told how the narrator feels, more often than not, we are shown. She is consistently guarded in her expression of emotion, sometimes seeming entirely devoid of it. She watches the world with a vague curiosity and almost drugged numbness, knowing her place is not to intervene but to quietly accept. Sometimes she even seems confused by what she should feel, and perhaps this comes from having previously felt too much. Svoboda gives us glimpses into her character’s past life, one defined by group homes, a series of foster families, and dismissive men who abandoned her with children even as her breasts continued to leak milk. Hers is the behavior of the abused, and Svoboda captures it perfectly.
Throughout the story, the main character watches (and hears) the abuse of the young girl named Kate. The woman details the overtures to these repeated beatings in vivid descriptions of shouts, body language, and frightened glances. Meanwhile, she and Kate seem to understand something fundamental in one another. While it is never spoken openly, it seems the narrator sees her own childhood in Kate’s. Kate, in turn, glimpses something familiar in the narrator, whose recognized insanity gives her a kind of freedom Kate does not yet enjoy. Kate’s regard for the narrator is revealed by her attempt to construct a wine bottle garden similar to one the narrator has made. However, the trailer park boys crush it, which makes another symbolic reference to the world’s assault on Kate’s creativity and emerging identity.
Where the unnamed narrator in “Trailer Girl” is a distant, resigned victim—an object of contempt to trailer park residents, Svoboda shifts the power fulcrum in the story “Psychic,” which also begins in medias res. Here, the unnamed first-person narrator, a psychic, is revealed to be female only when another character warily addresses her as “ma’am.” Through her gift, she gains knowledge and wields this power carefully against a man, whose sinister actions are only alluded to but not definitively confirmed.
In “Polio,” told from an older child’s point of view, a decidedly nonchalant babysitter deals with a pack of children, repeatedly telling them that if they obey her commands, they will not get polio. The sitter, referred to simply as “Mrs.” seems older than described by the child, who is, according to the narrative, six years the sitter’s junior. The sitter furtively spikes her Coke with her employer’s booze and fills the bottles back to level with water. By the end, a casual remark made by the children’s mother reveals (perhaps) the reason for the sitter’s drinking, which also happens to be the reason why she shouldn’t be drinking. Svoboda deftly reveals that people’s tyrannies and vices are often fueled by more of the same.
Throughout the book, there are narrative moments that carry the vague scent of other writers. In an early December 2009 interview at Largehearted Boy, Svoboda cites William Faulkner, Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme as her favorite writers. Certainly, the oblique, oft-dubbed postmodern stream-of-consciousness apparent in Barthelme’s works is apparent in “Trailer Girl,” “Psychic,” and the concluding story “White,” where a grandfather and grandson spray paint a barn and, on a metaphorical level, white-wash a traumatic, if abstractly revealed, event from the boy’s recent past. Svoboda’s lyrical but almost elliptical descriptions often smack of Calvino. And certainly the subject matter, the focus on motherhood (however fleeting), and the stream-of-consciousness evident in “Trailer Girl” are reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
All influences and literary echoes aside, Svoboda’s book bears an undeniable sublimity, even if it is hard-won through careful reading, and sometimes, re-reading. Trailer Girl, as a collection, has power to surprise with simultaneously definitive and cryptic statements, which allow for the reader’s lingering uncertainties and assumption of the worst for the characters. Here is a portrait of humanity in all its complexity: Svoboda sketches the outline of her characters, includes more haunting details, and through the abstruse and unspoken, allows readers to fill in the darkest patches.