Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Discomfort Part II: Diane Williams ‘The Kind You Know Forever’

Initially I had intended this post to be concerned with all of this sister-fucking business and the way both Evenson and Williams use naming (‘cat killers’ and ‘sister-fucker,’ respectively) as controlling devices – the kind of dismissive, encapsulating, excruciatingly inescapable characterization that informs the reader as much about the narrator as those named, and then how the narrator’s posture towards subject informs the reader’s understanding of the narrator and thereby their experience of story, but I just wasn’t feeling it. There’s a lot to be said about Diane Williams’ work and how uncomfortable it makes people who read it. Her work is excruciatingly awkward and embarrassing; it’s worse than shitting yourself in front of the UN while being told intimate details of your grandmother’s vagina by your father, loudly. I promise.

But what really gets me about the stories of Diane’s that I really love has just as much to do with her language and rhythm as it does with her vulgarity. I’m not saying you can take the vulgarity away – leave my vulgarity the fuck alone – it’s better than you and any nice thing that might happen to fall out of your dumb mouth. Oh Jesus, I’m sorry. I just get so defensive and irrationally protective around that which I love. Anywho, there are also some incredibly pleasant and riveting power dynamics at play in her stories, and a lot of them make me think of the kind of perceptual power I’ve spoken about earlier with Gary Lutz’ work and the way in which power/control/agency is captured, taken by the force of a character’s (or narrator’s) ability to see, perceive, transform, and shape into language. I definitely get a little flutter reading ‘The Kind You Know Forever,’ kind of like the narrator’s flirting with me. Have we seen Flight of the Concords? Do we know Mel? Reading ‘The Kind You Know Forever’ makes me feel like Mel making a tiger claw and pretending to bite Germaine but then I’m embarrassed and kind of shy about it at the same time. Don’t judge me. Read the fucking story (it’s in Excitability). Desire bound up in power and perception and confession and acuity and willingness amongst debilitation, chaos, better judgment.

The tension and drive of Diane Williams’ ‘The Kind You Know Forever’ rests in her syntax; in the ambiguity of her clauses, the dangling confusion from phrase to phrase. While the movement of Brian Evenson’s ‘Cat Killers’ goes forward in small logical steps, direct statements minutely building toward an unexpected, fearful place, Diane’s sentences meander and mislead, opening one door that leads into a maze of several other doors, forcing the reader to slow down, to stop and look back, trying to figure out where they were, how they got to be where they are. While our feet seem to slide from underneath us, the narrator herself remains entirely astute, alert, cunning. We are struck still by the dismissive mastery she has over this universe, the easy competence she displays in her description:

“I had just met them – the brother and the sister who had fucked each other to see what it would be like. And then they said – either he said or she said – that it was like fucking a brother or a sister, so they never did it again.”

The real boner (okay, can we tell that I’m really trying to cram in the obscenity before I talk about something other than obscenity? PENIS. PENIS PENIS PENIS. cocksuckerchildporntittyfuckassrammer. Labial shrug, colonoscopy, poinsettia) for me, is the precision of Diane’s phrasing and how completely (wholly, experientially, viscerally) it communicates a sort of human vulnerability. In every phrase there is a tension and control or authority for character, narrator and reader isn’t simple. Event, experience, perception and expression interact; they live and breathe, slippery and incomplete, unobtainable, within, around and on top of language. Let’s hope that sentence didn’t mean anything. I’m not shooting to kill here; I just want to point at some stuff and make you look at it for a while.

Take the following passage (the second to last sentence in particular conveys a sense of nervousness in the clunkiness of its phrases and dangling preposition):

“She handed out little wrapped gifts in such a hurry at the door, when we were all saying goodbye – it was such a hurry – I didn’t get to see where she was getting all of her gifts from. All of a sudden there was just a gift in my hand, as I was going out the door. At the end of the party, I had never gotten a gift before, not since I was a little girl, and then we thought we deserved those gifts. So now, something was turned around.”

Different people will scan this differently, but the way I read the first sentence incorporates this rhythm:

she HANded OUT diDUm deDum
lit tle WRApped Gifts didiDUMDUM
In SUCh a HURry At the Door deDUMdiDUMdi dediDUM
When We were All dedumdedum
It was SUch a Hurry dedeDUMdiDUMdi
I didn’t GET to SEe de didiDUMdiDum
Where she was GETting All of her GIfts from DUMdedeDUMdi dedidiDUMdi

I apologize for not being savvier with my keyboard and figuring out some sort of strike and slash business, but this format might be more accessible to those less readily familiar with poetic scansion. If we focus on the larger stresses and how often or rapidly they appear among the smaller stresses, we can see the simpler, straight rhythm slowly getting pushed down, becoming sloggy, groggier, weighted. There’s more pushing and piling up of smaller stresses in order to reach the larger stresses. And it’s not just a matter of adding more grace notes but adding triplets that take up a whole beat. Am I making sense? Are we musically inclined? The rhythm in the next few measures (phrases) is largely made up of threes (‘All of a sudden/There was Just a Gift in my Hand/as I was going/out the door’) and then the last sentence takes a turn by framing the triplet on either side with twos: one Two/One two three One two One or deDUM DUMdidiDUMdeDUM. Some of you might recognize that last rhythm DUMdidiDUMdeDUM as that triumphant bugle call (or trumpet, it might be a trumpet) when the hero shows up in the cartoon or the western. There is a sense of arrival in the rhythm, a kind of closure or finality. As readers, we have reached a destination both rhythmically and as a turning point in the story; that an event has happened is definite, secure. Neither the reader nor the narrator is able to articulate precisely how that event occurred but both are able to experience the sensation, the emotional and cognitive texture of it.

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