You ever look back on your life and think about how easily influenced you were? The time that sticks out to me happened during both my masters degrees. For four years, in two different states, and two different graduate school programs, I was convinced of the genius of authors who challenged conventional storytelling. Instead of making it relatable, they made it avant garde. Instead of readable, it was an idea masticated. After I graduated and spent years reassembling myself into myself, I realized my heart longed for plot, emotion, character. Neither of my masters programs really offered such books. It is what it is.
But a couple of books stood out, including Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine (she/her). A novella that was so small in shape it could fit in your back pocket, and included a sewn-in ribbon book mark, Levine’s story of a nervous woman trying to get to a dance, but who is afraid someone will see a scar on her leg, in a location that includes a volcano that doesn’t belong there, struck me as real life told in slant. It was a familiar reflection but like someone punched the glass. Levine says she was inspired by old vintage nurse novels (I believe Cherry Ames was mentioned??).
Thus, I bought My Horse and Other Stories. I found myself often thinking “bleh” as Levine described a woman growing a hump that seems full of fluid. It wobbles in a sloshy way, and as the woman wearies with the pain from it, her doctors suggest it’s always been there in some way. Or the titular horse story, which is about a horse that is nothing like a horse. He’s small and has saggy skin covered in sores, and he lays on the hood of the car on sunny days. The details of bodies gone unfamiliar is gross in a weird way you want to explore, but not while eating.
And then a number of them repeat lines with only slightly different wording. A story, if you can call it that, movies forward almost imperceptibly. The more Levine showcased her experimental style, the more I found myself getting distracted and practicing the ASL signs for countries in my head, or thinking about that popcorn I’m gonna eat on Friday while I watch a scary movie, but not too scary because Nick won’t be home.
When Levine reels it in just a bit, she does something uncommon yet familiar. For example, in a story about blind twin brothers at camp, we actually never hear from the bothers. Their counselors and father talk about them and force them to lay quietly on their bunk beds while they’re talked to. It’s almost as if the talkers are blind to the twins.
And Levine gets tricksy on us, changing details. The twins are called boys, but it’s mentioned their hair is thinning (and that’s why they got sunburned at camp last year). The narrator notes the twins have their own cabin at camp, but really also called an apartment. They’re preparing for a hike, but a cavalry shall follow to track them. Their daily lives are charted, and the father is upset about their time at camp, for he can’t personally monitor the twins.
As the story unrolled, I puzzled what was going on. Were these actually children or adults? Did they actually exist? Were they a government experiment? Why couldn’t they move? They were fed on such a schedule I pictured hungry dogs awaiting their food. It’s true, this story also goes slowly, as the counselors and father talk for ages about putting on sunscreen, how to put on sunscreen, why they burned last year and that can’t happen this year, etc. But the story does move forward, almost comically as a result of the absurdity, and I didn’t lose focus. Here is an example:
But for now, boys, concentrate on preparing for this hike. That is the most important thing, the way I see it. Because it’s a fact that a thorough, no-holds-barred preparation is needed here; you see, from the moment I informed you about this hike, seconds ago, it became your responsibility to prepare thoroughly and correctly. I remind you of this now, brothers, because the right thing, the only possible thing for you to do as the hour of the hike approaches, is to prepare.
So, some hit and misses in my reading experience (a couple I skimmed or did not finish), but some of Levine’s style that I enjoy in her novella shines through, too.
CW: The body stuff I mentioned above might make some folks squeamish. Some references, unless I’m reading it incorrectly and it’s just a metaphor, to domestic violence.