Depth and Immediacy: Savannah Schroll Guz on Jim Meirose’ Crossing the Trestle

Crossing the Trestle, Jim Meirose, Burning River Press, 2010

In 2006, Jim Meirose wrote the short novel, Claire, which charts the adventures of a corpse fallen from an ill-fated aircraft transporting it to final burial. The book was lauded for its bizarre nature, unconventional narrative, and dark revelations about family and human nature. With Crossing the Trestle, published by Cleveland-based Burning River Press in late 2010, Meirose’s gaze is retrospective, but no less pleasingly eccentric.

The trestle the title refers to is one over which Meirose’s father regularly traveled to retrieve his hunting dogs, Righty and Lefty, who repeatedly escaped the fence designed to keep them in. In the book’s introduction, Meirose describes this ritual, which, to a child’s eyes, seemed relentless and futile. Now, Meirose explains, he recognizes his father’s practice as serving some deeper need for personal freedom, for time to himself as he walked the suspended railroad track, a dog under each arm.

In the slender, rectangular softcover, Meirose offers three stories, which could be described as two portraits and a self-portrait. However, they are not conspicuous renderings, where each intended homage is evident. Instead, Meirose depicts the people he has loved and lost by exploring the environments, ambitions, and overshadowing preoccupations that define them. And perhaps these stories are also portraits of relationships, limbed with a kind of philosophical profundity.

The shortest work, at two pages, is “Summer: The Trestle,” which describes the rocky-damp of his father’s final resting place, the moist gulley under the railroad bridge where the man’s ashes are spread. The trestle’s significance, explained in the books’ introduction, is also the environment that Meirose says his mind goes to while writing. The fact that the author finds comfort and creative energy along the same trestle that nourished his father’s need for space and liberty suggests an uncanny hereditary magnetism.

The story is conversational, told in the second-person, as if Meirose were a few steps ahead of us on the dramatically sloping bank. He shows us the details of his environment, pointing out where the feathery remains of his father have become part of the landscape he so revered. The seeming impulsiveness of his description, the fast rush of verbal approximations, reveals the immediacy of feeling the place elicits. He writes:

There’s a spot down there you need to get to and you slide or half-fall down the slope to a gravel platform under the trestle by the water. There’s a shore of rocks and pebbles and there’s weeds in the water, there’s the stretch of water to the other side of the bank once more rising, though it’s all heavy with brush there and nowhere to stand.

Where “Summer: The Trestle” refers to Meirose’s father, “Boy and the Mother Machine” makes reference to his mother and more specifically, his mother’s real life absence (something he notes but does not elaborate on in the introduction). Here, the mother’s absence becomes a kind of overriding presence. The main character, known only as “The Boy”, is no child, but a balding adult confined to a mental institution. Through a homemade apparatus, he believes his mother is able to communicate with him. He is surrounded by a janitor, Sherm, and roommate, Griff, whose principal concern is money. What, Griff asks, will happen when the money runs out? It is very likely that both The Boy and Griff will be expelled to an outside world that does not welcome them and which they cannot navigate alone.

Several motifs recur in the story. Of course, there is that of the channeled (or internally projected) mother, to whom The Boy looks for guidance and comfort. Second, there is an impending storm outside the asylum. Third is the damp warmth created by the janitor’s mopping, which elicits the recurring phrase “dark, wet” that appears accompanied by various associations with depth or fragrance. Fourth is Griff’s scar, along which he nervously and repeatedly runs a long-nailed finger. The scar is mentioned no less than five times on one page alone. And finally, there is the repetition of the word “loonies,” which the janitor, Sherm, uses as a mantra to separate himself from the inmates with whom he has more in common than he would like to admit.

If all the dots described above are connected, one might find the story’s pulsing heart: the asylum is the surrogate womb that protects the inmates from the chaotic nature of the outside world, which has deeply and irreparably scarred each of them, either physically or emotionally or both. Yet, it is a poor maternal substitute, offering the protection and restrictions of a mother but not a mother’s nourishing warmth. And therefore, The Boy builds The Machine to fill the inevitable deficiencies that exist within the asylum walls. Again, absence becomes presence, even if the presence is only illusory.

The final story, “Stellazine and the Mudpies” resonates with Flannery O’Connor. The title character is a lovable misanthrope, an aging woman, not friendless but ecstatically cynical, who is stuck inside a dilapidated gas station off an interstate that facilitates the high-speed disregard of what her store offers (although it should be mentioned that Stellazine gets quite a few customers over the course of the story). The woman creates a physical manifestation of her disdain in the form of small tarts apparently filled with mud, which she sells to the unwitting and easily persuaded.

The pies, it seems, are an experiment in psychology. Some customers buy out of pity or good intentions, having been told they are homemade. Others purchase the pies because of an inherently submissive nature, repeating an outcome that has likely recurred, in various ways, throughout much of their lives.
Yet, the pies are also philosophical. As Meirose indicates in the introduction, the story is a reflection his own position as writer, as a purveyor of sometimes unpleasant or unpopular truths. Meirose writes: “And if the thing she leaves with them ends up giving them a bad taste in their mouth, as a mudpie would, so much the better, as it is thus ensured it will never be forgotten; it helps her, and me, to live forever in a way, whether we realize it or not…” And there is no better way to describe the writer’s position: here are the unwitting philosophers and disinclined educators, who–also like alchemists—through the use of nouns and verbs turn triumph, frustration, and regret into implicit theories on the inexplicable mechanisms of the universe.

Savannah Schroll Guz: The Admonitory Nature of Janet Frame’s Prizes

Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame, Janet Frame, Counterpoint Press, 2009

A quote by New Zealand writer Janet Frame hangs on one wall of my office. The words reveal a great deal about Frame’s life experience and, as I interpret them, tacitly inform much of her work, particularly her later literary production. The quote runs, “‘For your own good’ is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction.” It’s a telling line from a writer misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, subjected to over 100 electroshock therapy treatments, and scheduled for a lobotomy, from which she was rescued only by the prestigious Hubert Church Memorial Award for her 1952 collection The Lagoon and Other Stories. Even more amazing is that, according to legend, the lobotomy was canceled only after a hospital orderly happened to spot the award announcement in the paper. Fittingly, Frame’s mid- and late-career writing—which certainly would not have been possible had she undergone the lobotomy–makes frequent reference to the consequences of unconventional logic, eccentric perceptions, and the redemptive power of fame (or, at least, the relationship to someone famous). Several of her novels, like Faces on the Water (1961), make more direct reference to the freedom of madness.

Recently released by Counterpoint Press, the retrospective collection Prizes brings together 42 works from the four short story collections Frame produced in her lifetime. Included is the award-winning collection The Lagoon and Other Stories (1952); Snowman Snowman: Fables and Fantasies (1963), The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches (1963); You are Now Entering the Human Heart (1984); and a group of five uncollected stories, which have not been previously anthologized. This direct and chronological juxtaposition of these stories allows literary scholars and Frame enthusiasts to have a single-volume record of Frame’s evolution, from the development of her voice, the continued and ever more forceful impact of her life experience, and the specific imprint of these preoccupations on her work.

This concept of liberation and inexperience is a tone set by the first collection, The Lagoon, where childhood, its innocence and misapprehension of adult concerns repeatedly emerges. Here, the child’s vantage point–or the child-like observations of an omniscient narrator–represents immunity to conventional adult expectations and disappointments. This is perhaps most vividly represented by “The Pictures,” where the omniscient narrator observes a woman and child, ostensibly a single mother with her daughter, escaping the grim reality of their lives by going to the cinema. While the two experience elation at the beautiful scenery and strong emotions associated with the movie, by the time they head back to the boarding house where they live, the woman is once more focused on her own life concerns. The daffodil in the flowerbox outside her window is the only representation of beauty and happiness that exists for her, outside the movies. It is not enough. Frame writes: “And the woman thought of going upstairs and putting the little girl to bed and then touching and looking at the daffodil in the window-box, it was a lovely daffodil. And looking about her and thinking the woman felt sad.”

By comparison, the little girl, not yet bound by the empty longing of the adult world, focuses entirely on the present moment and the peppermint-flavored candy she is enjoying. The future, an adult concern, neither upsets nor consumes her, as it does her mother.
Adult myopia and its dangers also appear in “Child,” where a teacher, while giving singing lessons, spanks her pupils for even the smallest, most innocent infractions. Here, a movement towards the idea of “for your own good” begins to emerge as a bitter totalitarian reality in even a child’s experience.

This specter rises yet again in Snowman Snowman, where the expectations of conformity and fear of confinement to a mental institution force a ‘Distinguished Stranger’ in the parable “The Terrible Screaming” to deny a fact delivered to him by his own senses. The omniscient narrator admits that more than one person also hears the screaming, but fear of job loss or detention causes them to similarly deny its existence. Another parable, “The Mythmaker’s Office” reveals the machinations of governing agencies, where the Ministry of Mythmaking (an office made of glass, at which the minister casts stones when bored) succeeds in making death a profanity and, later, a punishable offense. Frame sketches a delightful illustration of the disconnect between governing bodies and reality, while she also illustrates the dangerous caprice of authoritarian power. Here, the Minister of Mythmaking, having just jostled his musty cap and finding the notion of banning death in the haze of dust that subsequently falls, declares,

‘This will surely please the public, the majority, and prove the ultimate value of Democracy. All will cooperate with the denial of Death.’ Accordingly, he drafted an appropriate bill which passed swiftly with averted eyes through the House of Parliament and joined its forebears in the worm-eaten paper territories in paneled rooms.

Meanwhile, “How Can I get in Touch with Persia?,” part of The Reservoir: Stories and Sketches, is a pitch-perfect account of a man who feels chosen. His world thrums with hidden messages, intended solely for him, which travel in electric current and along radio wires to generate a language and meaning that he begins to understand better than that communicated by humans. Still, while we recognize in his delusion a kind of abashed introversion, we are not cued into his consuming mania until his mother dies, he disinters her and attempts to resurrect her by binding her with copper wires that conduct revivifying electricity. He has clearly abandoned behavioral norms and, therefore, society itself. But we are left to wonder, having glimpsed his logic, is he now free or even more entirely alone with his mania than the isolated and disconsolate adults of Frame’s Lagoon.

This theme, along with the redemptive power of fame, is further explored in the story that follows it, “A Relative of the Famous.” In the main character Wilfred’s world, however, things are more hopeful. An apparent savant, who wanders along the beach, is entirely absorbed by identifying the kingdom and phylum of the creatures that wash ashore. Eventually, it is indicated, he would have been confined to a mental institution were it not for a benefactress having mistakenly identified him as the nephew of a famous, now deceased painter. Here, celebrated talent and even a tenuous relationship to acclaim, free a man to follow his unnatural whims, which stand outside social mores.

Frame’s stories flower outward from the initial stream-of-conscious narration of The Lagoon, where the candid expression of ideas mimics the concerns of her principal characters, usually children who fail to understand their parents’ seemingly irrational motivations. It’s interesting that this broader theme continues even as Frame’s voice becomes sharper and more finely tuned, using unflattering truths to slice keenly through narrative traditions and saccharine moral meanings. (A change that’s perhaps most evident in Snowman Snowman and the one-page fable about faithless Daylight and exiled Dust, who travel together “to blind and smother.”) Each engaging collection, organized chronologically and brought together in one volume, reveals the development of Frame’s mind, its affinity for the ideas of freedom and isolation, innocence and awareness.

It seems that nearly every story resonates with that quote that hangs above my desk. Beware of people who mean well because they may be hastening you along the path to hell. And so, Frame’s stories remain entirely applicable to contemporary issues. They are a kinder, gentler 1984, pointing to the danger of ‘well-meaning’ coercion and compulsory psychological conformity.

You’ve Been Warned: Jen Michalski on American Soma by Savannah Schroll Guz

American Soma, Savannah Schroll Guz, So New Publishing, 2009

“Soma” is ethnologically known as a ritual drink of impotence in Indo-Iranian culture, but its more popular reference may come from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wherein it’s literally an opiate of the masses. Big shoes for Savannah Schroll Guz to fill here in her second collection of stories, American Soma, but she does her major influences, Huxley and George Orwell, proud. Which is why I don’t understand why American Soma is not huge, like in bookstores and on all major indie reading lists. It’s not that Guz’s stories are timely and foreboding, which of course they are, it’s that her writing is damn good.

Take the opening title story, which serves as the thematic anchor for the collection. We are told that, during a critical presidential election, deals were cut by the government with major pizza chains and coffee, soft drink, and beer suppliers to add a yellowish-looking, tasteless powder to their products, a product believed to enhance serotonin levels in the brain. Because a happy public doesn’t vote out the incumbent, right? What makes the story particularly compelling is the narrator’s seeming authority on the manner of production and the course of metabolism in the unwitting subject. And yet we don’t believe him or her entirely; when explaining how this information reached the narrator, he or she vaguely offers that “people who know things shouldn’t talk and often do.” Is the narrator complicit in this monstrous government cover-up and one of those who shouldn’t talk, or is the government cover-up merely an illusion, a byproduct of the narrator’s own instability? Guz creates an interesting premise that in believing no one, not the government, not even oneself, all things are possible.

Guz revisits the theme of societal vulnerability, particularly when it comes to our food and water supplies, throughout. In “Evolution,” a surge of prepubescent boys become hermaphrodites as the result of urban water-purification systems not filtering out estrogen from birth-control pills and hormone-replacement therapies, and in the “Fountain,” one of my favorite stories, toilet water in the bathroom of a hayseed bar turns out to be a kind of fountain of youth.

But pathology isn’t limited to government screw-ups. Guz also explores the cult of celebrity in “An August Night in Paris,” which imagines the last moments of Diana, Princess of Wales, and “Not Very Far from the a Tree,” a study of the rise and fall of Anna Nicole Smith (or someone very much like her). Although it is territory Guz explored in a previous collection, The Famous and The Anonymous, it’s a nice change of pace here. Famous or not, Guz’s characters are either sedated and unhappy or painfully aware they have been pushed into a corner like cats without claws. Although we are relieved we are not these characters, we realize we really have no solutions for them, and ultimately ourselves, which is the scariest realization of all.

Guz may be channeling the coming of the apocalypse in American Soma, but at least it doesn’t sound ugly. Her writing is layered; word choices are simultaneously clinical and appraising. Sentences like “I’ve sniffed the traces of hopelessness that leak like sewer gas through cracks in the parquet” and “The music made him dream, and inside his brain, the chemical radiations and the thermal burn expanded further and could well have lit the room were it dusk” and “a might in cracking open pearlescent lies to find the abrasive grains of fact that spurred them” are worth the purchase price alone. Woven with a sophisticated sense of narrative, a cross-stitch of satire, and pattern of societal indifference, American Soma smiles at you while reminding you that, yes, you’ve been warned.

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Jen Michalski’s first collection of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, is available from So New Media (2007) and her second is forthcoming from Dzanc (2013). She is the editor of the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE (CityLit Press 2010) and the editor of the lit zine jmww.

Undeniable Sublimity: Savannah Schroll Guz on Trailer Girl and Other Stories by Terese Svoboda

Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Terese Svoboda, University of Nebraska Press, 2009

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.

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