Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Starting Over" (on Stacey Levine's Frances Johnson)

starting over

by Douglas Messerli


Stacey Levine Frances Johnson: A Novel (Astoria, Oregon: Clear Cut Press, 2005)


About a third of the way through reading Stacey Levine’s new novel, Frances Johnson, I commented to a friend that, unlike so many American fictions which seem to plow through plot and character like a thresher moving down rows of corn (if rows might be understood as chapters), this was a wonderfully lazy narrative, a story that seemed to have no particular place to go and all the time in the world to take you there.


     The jacket cover of this Green Integer-size paperback compares Levine’s writing to that of Jane Bowles, and there is a certain truth to that observation, particularly in the eccentricity of Bowles’s characters who act less out of determination than from whim and behave with an almost passive acceptance of forces beyond their control. Behind Bowles’s writing, however, there are generally exotic, strange worlds (Panama, Guatemala, Morocco, etc) that transform or at least inform both characters and text. Although Levine has set her new fiction in Florida with a nearby volcano to possibly stir things up, the small town of Munson —despite the daily rumblings of the natural forces around it — is a drab world of dirt and mud. Buildings, streets, homes, and general landscape are rarely described, and when they are it merely confirms the feeling that the town and its citizens are perpetually in a fog, enervated, unable to act. Accordingly, the fiction, unlike more normative realist presentations with emphasis on place, centers itself on character —particularly upon the thinking processes of its central figure, Frances Johnson. And it is the languid revealing of this figure that seems to slow the story down and to allow it to move in the multiple directions in which Frances feels driven and pulled.

     Midway through the book, as Frances arrives at the house of her close friend Nancy (a house, incidentally, which the author does describe and observes it as being “lovelier than any dwelling in Munson, and perhaps for this reason folks bore her [Nancy] grudges”), Levine admits to the very method of storytelling I had noted:


“Frances, you recently told me you had several dreams about chopped onions,” and Frances nodded rhythmically, smiling happily as the two women found the thread of a familiar, meandering dialogue that proceeded in the halting yet serene manner of a snail crossing a road over hours, unaware of time; and forgetting the time indeed, not interested in turning back, the friends talked, less in a conversation with a point than in a kind of unstoppable practice that neither woman wished to end.”


     Faced with such a linguistic construction it would be almost pointless to describe the fiction’s “plot.” The story —for those who must have one —is about a few days in Frances’ life in which she suddenly takes stock of herself and feels drawn to make decisions about her life: should she leave the small and grungy town of Munson and enter the world; should she abandon her sexless relationship with Ray Mars, who the rest of the townspeople, including Ray’s brother Kenny, feel is not good enough for Frances; should she attend the annual town dance and be swept away in the arms of the new town doctor Mark Carol?

     These are the issues, along with others, that suddenly face our hero, and are posed, along with questions with which the author directly confronts the reader in her own series of interrogations such as “To which places would Frances Johnson go?”

     In search of answers, Frances goes many places: to visit her friend and doctor Palmer, to speak to the owner of the local diner, Mal, and, as previously mentioned, to visit Nancy. Yet none of these people can answer for her, and each helps only to instill yet more confusion as to what she should do. Mal insists she is sick and will die of some dread disease; Palmer encourages her to leave town in search of vast oil deposits that he needs for a balm he has concocted; and Nancy, who Frances suddenly perceives is more ordinary that she imagined, asks her to help out in cleaning and cooking for the impending visit of her children.

     In the end none of these choices seem to matter. Frances’s mother, a determined small-town woman who in her dominance of her daughter has obviously helped to generate the young woman’s passivity, insists that she attend the dance, where Frances is, so to speak, swept away into the arms of Doctor Carol. But even this event has little significance as the author hilariously pulls the rug out from under character and reader by sending the mother back to the clearing where she has left her daughter lying beside both Mark and Ray, to announce that the community has suddenly determined Mark Carol is a no-good “crumb-bum!” “There are others, though, Frances: you’ll see.” The story, accordingly, has the potential to start over. And the reader —like Frances and Nancy in their conversations — has taken so much pleasure in the telling of the story that, indeed, he is willing to read the book —and experience these few days of her life —again.


Los Angeles, October 25, 2005

Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)

Reprinted in Douglas Messerli, My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).


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