Taking Feminism to Fantasticoes
The Look2 essay series, which replaces our print book reviews, takes a closer look at the careers of accomplished authors who have yet to receive the full appreciation that their work deserves. Reviews of new books can still be found on our blog at http://blog.pshares.org/
If literature were politics, Jaimy Gordon would be the victim of a cabal. When she took home the 2010 National Book Award for her racetrack novel Lord of Misrule, the larger literary forums blinked at the news, astounded. At The New York Times—the daily, not the Sunday Book Review—Janet Maslin didn’t resist the cliché “bolt from the blue.” Maslin did go on to praise Misrule, calling it “assured, exotic,” and “an incontrovertible winner,” but her review also got off a sneering parenthesis about the shoestring publishing house, McPherson & Co. Overall, the effect was rather a backhanded compliment. The novel came off like a hothouse flower, lovely but out of the way, for special tastes only. Indeed, Gordon’s books have yet to draw notice in the Sunday Book Review or The New York Review of Books, among many other places, and if literature were politics, there could be no denying how this woman’s been shunned. Her name has never been linked to that of some Manhattan angel. For decades she’s taught in the hinterlands of Kalamazoo, and she’s published little journalism or criticism, those bite-size pieces of sensibility that can cause readers to hunt for more.
Indeed, this author has been slow to produce anything. Misrule is only her fourth novel since 1974. A couple of experimental dramatic pieces, which the author calls masques, can be tracked down. Otherwise, the most notable works are a pair of historical narratives, one a farce about Civil War Reconstruction, Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue (1979), and the other a free-verse fantasia of Prohibition bootlegging that features, of all people, Gordon herself: The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (1978). Their experimental qualities include brevity; together, these works run less than 150 pages.
Yet it does this writer a disservice to measure her accomplishment the way Andy Warhol would, ignoring the substance and measuring the inches. Neglect is endemic among serious authors, and Gordon’s done better than some. She’s enjoyed attention in magazines such as Gargoyle and Context, and she’s raked in a starry array of blurbs from writers as diverse as Gilbert Sorrentino and Jayne Anne Phillips. She’s won other awards, major grants, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories (the piece introduced characters later in Misrule). Her 1990 novel, She Drove Without Stopping (Algonquin), was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and in 2000 Bogeywoman (Sun & Moon) made a similar short list at the Los Angeles Times. These two will get a close look here, along with the title that’s made the woman famous, or sort of famous—and the point is, fame and its vagaries can’t be the primary criterion in assessing what she’s accomplished.
Without Stopping, Bogeywoman, and Misrule have more durable qualities. Their style alone achieves rare enchantment and risk, even in an incidental description, like “cowbells bouncing down a glass staircase, that was her laughter” (an aside in Bogeywoman). Brief passages cast such a spell they can cloud the seriousness of the larger project, a coming of age without end.
The young women at the center of Gordon’s full-length narratives struggle within the rubbery confines of the white American middle class. All three have Jewish roots, and this has a bit to do with their
inability to accept, to settle. Their more profound unease, however, stems from their bourgeois conditioning, not to say cushioning. Each starts out a well-off, well-educated Baltimore girl—the protagonists of Bogeywoman and Lord of Misrule are sisters—and they’re more than smart enough to see they have advantages denied many others. They never fail to notice, in their roughly Southern environs, the more limited resources of the nearby African Americans, leading a dray or pushing a broom. Yet the girls end up betrayed by their intelligence and privilege. When they forage beyond its limits, in the hallowed pursuit of happiness, they blunder into the school of hard knocks. Though each girl makes it into her twenties, she’s lucky to get that far. While the novels must be considered comedies—that’s the only word for them—each turns a Suburban Suzy into a creature of myth. She faces down monsters, but achieves nothing you’d mistake for the American dream.
Gordon hit this stride in 1990, with She Drove Without Stopping. Her lone novel before that is something else again, a boy’s initiation, in an alternative universe. The eponymous fledgling in Shamp of the City-Solo (1974, reissued on McPherson in ’93) shrugs off his stultifying hometown of “Bulimy” (ring a bell?) and takes on a more challenging dystopia, Big Yolk, the “City-Solo.” There, following as best he can the lessons of masters like the “Topical Tropist” Sergei Shipoff, the teenage Shamp finds his calling as a kind of performance poet. Shipoff ships Shamp off (to employ a fitting tongue twister) as a “novice lector.” The apprentice scuttles down Caligari byways, sits through nuthouse oratory, and finally takes the podium, speechifying with his life on the line at the “Arslevering Ox Roast.” In this citywide competition, literally do-or-die, Shamp emerges victorious.
His reward reveals something about the game afoot, in that it recalls that other surrogate cityscape, Monopoly. The winning “soloist” at the Roast is given a great hotel in a posh district. Boardwalk or Park Place, one wonders? Anyway, Shamp rejects his trophy, he prefers an abandoned subway station, and this closing dissonance may be the most illuminating aspect of City-Solo, so far as this author’s later work is concerned. Later, her initiates earn their scars, but they, too, wind up ambivalent. No one simply cashes in and folds away the board.
To put it another way, the clown act of Gordon’s debut arrives finally at serious feeling. What critical attention it’s gotten has dwelt more on the off-kilter setting and fine-tooled language. Keith Waldrop, in a 2001 essay for Context, noted the many allusions, “classical, biblical, historical,” and made comparison to earlier high-style exercises, like “[Thomas] Urquhart’s Rabelais and [Richard] Burton’s Thousand and One Nights.” Gordon herself mentioned such “forebears,” in a 1983 interview with Gargoyle. Our present perspective, however, reveals a more recent model for City-Solo, another shaggy-dog story from an author with a Baltimore base. That would be John Barth, close friend of John Hawkes, Gordon’s mentor at Brown University. The obvious model for City-Solo would be Barth’s 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor, a book that likewise foregrounds a baroque language. It makes mention of both Rabelais and Scheherazade; it puts a holy fool through madcap ups and downs. Yet Barth delivers his poet picaro to a decidedly ambiguous “success,” and Sot-Weed ends up a love story, a work of serious feeling. Naturally, Gordon and Barth have many differences, but in order to understand what the younger author has gone on to do, it helps to see her first book’s connection to another radical experiment that, on one filigreed sleeve, wears a bleeding heart.
She Drove Without Stopping, too, is a picaresque. What’s more, its protagonist, Jane Turner, delivers a ringing peroration. About two-thirds of the way along, Jane reiterates the title clause several times as she bolts from Baltimore to L.A., struggling to break out of those rubbery comforts to which she was born:
She drove without stopping for twenty-four hours, midnight to midnight, except for a hypochondriacal consultation at a rundown one-pump station… [and afterwards] she drove off warily, trying to overtake her happiness now by sheer perseverance instead of velocity…
Jane’s middle name is Kaplan, she’s Jewish on her mother’s side, and she will never reach her Jerusalem, never overtake her happiness. The way she’s been raised has set an impossible, ecstatic standard. Hardly have we met the girl than she reveals: “I masturbated every night from age beyond memory.” At that point, the opening of the second chapter, the pleasure remains innocent, freed from “any sense that I was…pantomiming a conjunction of far more complex terms.” It’s Eden, where a girl goes naked unashamed and uses the personal pronoun.
But Without Stopping gets moving even while Jane’s too young to drive. She’s booted from Paradise by the violence of her father’s first refusal to accept her kiss on the mouth. He’s “not a criminal,” Philip Turner, “not even a bad sort.” Jane never suffers abuse, exactly. Yet Dad draws blood, the first time her love for him goes unrequited: “I was suddenly six feet away, blinking up at him, holding scraped elbows.” After that, she’s done with first person, for more than three hundred pages. The innocent becomes “the adventuress,” in search of an alternative heaven.
Importantly, these adventures lack for anything surreal, outside of Jane’s overheated mind. Even the brief passages above demonstrate how Gordon’s second novel constitutes a departure into the ordinary, with one-pump stations and scraped elbows. Once Daddy and Mom divorce, once his rejected baby hits her teens, she acts out just as you might expect, “trying hard to be a bad girl.” Not that her boyfriends aren’t interesting, sharp-witted misfits beneath Jane’s status. Not that her vicissitudes don’t take an odd slant. I’ve never encountered so comic a rape as in Without Stopping, and the startled laughter kept coming throughout the Mutt-and-Jeff response of the police. Still, the system fails the girl in ways all too typical, and soon it feels like a “whole megilla.” The rape’s the turning point, actually. Wary of its “black cloud,” Jane climbs into a rattletrap and drives without stopping. Only out by the Pacific, slinging booze in a dive bar and risking commitment to the faunlike Jimmy, artist and mystic and beach bum, can she have “her true adventure.” Only there can she shake the false promise of her upbringing and come to terms with how “even an adventuress cannot choose her father, her first lover, the one least liable to be forgot.”
The point is, Gordon’s 1990 opus may be a grab bag, in which one page offers Jacob wrestling with the angel (Jane takes Hebrew lessons) and the next, Brown v. the Board of Education (she shares a homeroom with some of the first “colored” to attend her school), but, taken together, it reveals the outline of what once might’ve been acclaimed a parable of Women’s Liberation. Jane travels amid ’60s paraphernalia, there’s even sort of a commune, but the majority of such details connect to the Civil Rights movement. The novel’s first lines mention Martin Luther King, raising the idea of liberation, and providing specific historical context for this rematch of Yahweh and Lilith. In the climactic explosions, out in L.A., the most volatile elements are an African American and a Native American.
Yet the narrative never starts to feel like a political cartoon. Gordon’s bravura style allows for no such broad strokes, and when this Eve makes her peace with the serpent, it’s personal. For the final talk with Dad, the final break, she’s once more using the pronoun “I.” Still, Jane comes out of that conversation into a glaring reassertion of social and economic status, during a court hearing. The black whores around her all receive a thirty-day sentence, but Jane’s public-drunkenness charge is quickly dismissed. The judge needs only one look at her “white skin, glasses, curly hair,” to recognize her as “a child of the upper middle class. His class.”
Indeed, isn’t the protagonist’s cross-country ride a “moneygreen Buick?” Doesn’t she need the occasional small check from Dad? Even out West, she can’t get free of “reproaches from the unimprisoned creature she might have been.” She does publish her first poems, in a smudged and wacky venue, yet even this emblem of self-actualization takes her to economics. Her L.A. boyfriend may be a romantic hero, a starving artist—but after Jane sees print, she admonishes him: “I only started to be a poet so I wouldn’t think it was my duty to pay your rent.” A wonderful quip, one of many that raise the novel above simple diatribe. Feminism emerges, rather, like a monster from the id:
She could see what was coming. This would sweep her off to the world, which was suddenly altogether compelling and necessary, loaded as it was with human males. She would become a prowler…a centripetal force, with gravity in all her excentric orbs…From now on she would put herself into the hands of men without fear of disappearing, for she was the cunt from outer space.
She Drove Without Stopping can feel like the “women’s classic” that more famous cases hoped to be. Its heroine comes unshackled only to confront a fresh set of irons, heavier still, and so takes risks beyond those in, for instance, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973). Too bad, then, that the book’s what lacks the intelligence of its how. Its first third never quite transcends that predictable bad-girl pattern, the collapsing domestic circle and the child crazy to break out. Once Jane breaks out, too, some elements do seem drawn from a counter-culture scrapbook, such as her California boy. Nevertheless, in her first full-length fiction, Jaimy Gordon laid claim to the visionary knocking about, Bible-inflected, that American male writers have always taken as their entitlement. When the story fails to satisfy, it has to do more with limitations of the road novel than with those of the author.
After Without Stopping, Bogeywoman took ten years to appear. Whatever lay behind this long sabbatical (Sun & Moon Press may have been one of the most distinguished small presses, but of course it suffered the same lack of resources as all the others), the delay couldn’t help but contribute to the author’s obscurity. Yet the hiatus had a happier result too, namely that the novel turned out so well-made. Here Gordon solves the structural problem implicit in the previous book’s title. Free of Kerouacian meandering, Bogeywoman confines its drama to three not-unfamiliar Northeast settings: a girl’s forest camp in Maine, a psychiatric hospital in a bad Baltimore neighborhood, and the Great Dismal Swamp along Chesapeake Bay. It occupies a few eventful months of self-discovery for the 16-year-old Ursie Koderer. Ursie, Ursula, narrates a coming of age by way of coming out. Her first attempt at taking a woman lover leads her to disaster, but her second, while bumptious and terrifying, delivers her to (relative) safety. Indeed, the neatness of the drama proves surprising. A reader needs to step back to see how plausibly reaction suits action, in just a few key scenes, because the experience on the page seems all “humid longing,” feverish in its mood swings: “All at once my heart opened up like a peacock’s fan, I knew all the colors of love.”
Now, that sentence pulls off quite a performance, with its active metaphor and surflike all-all-l-l. Yet the tone’s serious, and while this seriousness suits the moment—Ursie’s first meaningful encounter with Dr. Zuk, the woman who will save her—by far the majority of the well-turned phrases in Bogeyman traffic in laughter and surprise. The laughter may sag with pain, the surprise may pack a threat, but isn’t such paradox natural to the best comedy? The novel brings off an open-throated new demotic, omnivorous in its attention to detail, especially sonic detail, and this constant celebration feels comic.
Consider the few lines leading up to the peacock moment. In these lines, the “you” is sister Margaret (the central figure in Lord of Misrule), on a visit to the psychiatric facility, Rohring Rohring. Maggie has come to persuade the younger Koderer to check out (“I know you’re not buggy, Ursula”). To that end, she’s giving her disheveled sib a haircut. But Big Sister knows at once what’s up, when she sees Ursie share a loaded look with Dr. Zuk.
Trouble dented your forehead. Your idled scissors snipped air, tinka tinka tink. Dr. Zuk, having blessed me with that look, was already squinching out the door in her silver sandals. I watched, the familiar systole diastole of her muscular buttocks, the flickering curves of her soccer player’s calves. All at once my heart opened…
Rich as this stuff is, here wiseacre description and there spellbound epiphany, it does without some of Gordon’s most enchanting coinages. In particular, it does without “dreambox mechanic,” Bogeywoman’s term for a psychiatrist. The expression occurs first in the opening lines, and it was mentioned in all the novel’s few write-ups, though these tended to be brief (in Publishers Weekly, for instance). One can’t help but wonder how many reviewers simply lacked the patience required for such neologisms to come clear. Gilbert Sorrentino blurbed the work as “radiant with energy…a radicalization of language,” but it’s just such language that tends to scare off a larger audience.
A shame, because Bogeywoman also deserves the encomiums that have to do with emotion, such as (in Sorrentino’s case) “funny” and “bittersweet.” Gordon’s phrasing may suggest a Rube Goldberg
contraption, but it’s always in service to her character. Her opening evocation of “Camp Chunkagunk, Tough Paradise for Girls” feels moist, redolent, altogether woodsy, yet isn’t such lush business
appropriate to a 16-year-old who suddenly finds herself abrim with illicit desire? “From that moment,” she declares on the second page, “I saw everything in a different light, murky, as through a dark lake. From then on I was a * Unbeknownst To Everybody, and that was the meaning of Bogeywoman.” The oversize asterisk looks queer, and the prose includes one or two other typographical oddities, tricks one might consider signs of postmodern experiment, the brand of fiction that’s supposed to keep us from caring about characters. But then, the girl who dreamed up these off-the-wall constructions is queer. Ursie’s far from the only gay teen to prefer living “unbeknownst.” She’s far from the only one to make a mantra of keeping mum: “Lemme die first.”
To put it another way, Gordon has not lost touch with the ordinary. Ursie may speak in tongues, but we recognize the tomboy type, a “Wood Wiz” who loves “what a feast run amok the whole earth was.” We understand when her first kiss and cuddle with another camper causes the “girlgoyle” to act out like the Kaplan Turner kid. She raises a great hue and cry over a tryst (hetero) between two of the staff, and they in turn discover what she has up her sleeves. The Bogeywoman has taken to self-mutilation. Such behavior lands her in the “bughouse,” but it never gets in the way of sympathy.
Is it Ursie’s fault, after all, that she’s surrounded by such names, at once goofy and significant? Isn’t she herself the bear in the woods, delighting in camp tales of “giant Gooskuk?” Then once the girl’s goose is cooked, she’s sent to a facility to assuage the Rohring Rohring in her head. This verbal gamesmanship (admirable in itself) is set off, always, by tragedy. Ursie can’t be sent home from Chunkagunk, for instance, because her mother’s dead and her father’s on tour with his experimental troupe, Merlin’s Puppets. And who’s kept dancing at the end of the magician’s strings, if not his daughters? Ursie and Maggie don’t hate their performer Dad, but, “for Godzilla’s sake,” he can be distant.
Small wonder his younger daughter has been left hungry for “the feast of the world.” Small wonder that, in the hospital, Ursie and others form a band, banging on homemade instruments and sending up cries for help. These are the Bug Motels, and their Kafkaesque torments also get a compassionate, though hilarious, fleshing out. Their songwriter is the Bogeywoman, and her greatest hit may be her piece for the anorexic heartbreaker Emily Nix Peabody, “refusal was her middle name.”
Because I could not stop for lunch,
It kindly stopped for me.
The van read PIZZAS BY HASSAN
FAST FREE DELIVERY
It’s two years later now and I’m
Still tryna put away
That eighteen-inch cold pizza
Known as immortality.
Again, the tomfoolery cuts unexpectedly deep, in its concern with outcasts. In the starveling Emily and in Emily Dickinson, in immigrant food and its on-the-fly counterfeit by other immigrants, the song dwells on the American fringe. Another in the Motels’ repertoire tosses in, wouldn’t you know it, a bit of Hebrew: “Ma nishtanah hullo whozat?” Also Ursie must negotiate favors with Reginald, “the Regicide,” a very cool cat of an African American attendant. He enables her eventual escape with the help of two “Ayrabbers,” the black ragmen who park their wagons across the street. By then, as Reginald puts it, the girl herself is “persona niggerata” around the facility. She may have killed one doctor and she’s the underage lover of another. Dr. Zuk in fact has ducked into the wagon beside the girl, putting at risk (to say the least) her research fellowship from “Caramel-Creamistan.”
The climax in Bogeywoman includes, to be sure, sexual climax. For the lovemaking the rhetoric rises but never loses its oddball integrity, such as the recurring reflection that Zuk’s body is “like Central Asia.” And by the time the runaways make it to the doctor’s family lodge in the Great Dismal Swamp, where Zuk must sit down with her diplomat cousin and face the consequences of her infatuation—consequences that include Ursie’s fortified sense of self—by that time, every incident is poised between comic and serious. The dialogue between Zuk and her cousin sounds as if it were lifted from Duck Soup. Gordon creates yet another demotic, but in their country homosexuality carries a death penalty. The swamp may recall good old Camp Chunkagunk, but here the Wood Wiz must pick her way between burning peatholes that could swallow her whole.
Has the girl come full circle? She’s come out, among family and friends; she’s no longer “Unbeknownst.” Yet in acknowledging that hunger, has she brought on a new “hunger for difference”—meaning someone besides her Svengali? Ambivalence like that pervades the ending of Bogeyman. After the girl returns to Baltimore, she learns of the twins born to Reginald and one of his charges, the nymphomaniac of the Motels, and those twins embody duality: “boygirl, blackwhite, buggysane.” As for their blackwhite, buggysane mother and father, they marry; their story has a happy ending. But what of the larger story? Was Zuk the crazy one, falling for love’s fairytale? Once the doctor sees the error of her ways, she abandons the girl in the Great Dismal, where snakes crawl in the shadows and flames burst from the ground. It’s an inferno, and the Bogeywoman’s journey proves the reverse of Dante’s. Starting out in a child’s paradise, she moves on to a purgatory of souls in arrested development, and at last she achieves the hell of adult desire, gnashing its teeth while bound, inescapably, by rules and obligations.
Jaimy Gordon dares stand The Divine Comedy on its head and yet delivers a potent philosophical comedy all her own. The Bogeywoman may reconnect with family, she may make herself a place among the sane and straight, but she takes pride in the fading scars of her self-mutilation:
I think of my arms as my monster ticket…in case the whole world goes the monster way and monstrosity comes into its own. I’ll be there. I’ll be ready.
She remains a warrior, even lying dormant. The novel closes diminuendo, as the grown girl coolly demystifies what she had with Zuk, and yet at the same time, she affirms her belief that, as her
renegade lover put it, “the heart is khan.” So too, Ursie allows her older sister the final pungent summary of this magnificent novel’s core value, in an adage appropriately Janus-faced: “an ounce of positive desire is worth a pound of negative regulation.”
In Lord of Misrule, Gordon still flourishes postmodern colors. Throughout, she does without quotation marks, and the sex, while hetero, is all eyebrow-raising B&D. There’s challenging vocabulary, like xanthous and hierodule. Early on appears a bit of American drug arcana, goofer, and many pages go by before a definition emerges. The word, in this context, refers to an herbal potion for hexing a horserace, a traditional magic among black grooms of the old South. The goofer’s effect, however, is always unpredictable, and so too, remarkably, this novel casts an old-fashioned spell. Despite occasional devices that foreground experiment, Misrule impresses most in its command of story structure.
No longer does our author rely on a handmedown drama. Even Bogeywoman, as if to compensate for its brilliant bizarrerie, steers by the landmarks of initiation. A growth experience does figure prominently in Misrule, after Ursie’s sister Maggie, “around 25 years old,” arrives at Indian Mound Downs, a no-account track and stable in West Virginia. She learns the race game and gains the strength to break free of the rakish gambler Tommy Hansel. But then Hansel’s in thrall himself, “challenged” by his girlfriend’s “monkey-green eyes.” The two young people, “bound in slavery of the man-woman kind,” have fallen into sadomasochism, in scenes that match the trysts of Bogeywoman for their commingling of flesh and mind:
…had he read her mind? Maybe because he had that empty space where her own drawers and pigeonholes were stuffed with words, he often, spookily, out of a silence, echoed back to her her most treacherous thought…In an almost soothing gesture [he]…brought that hand down behind her, and suddenly he was binding both her hands together with the leather shank, then the chain.
Maggie also very nearly joins Jane Turner as a rape victim. The novel’s “monster,” the hoodlum Joe Dale Biggs, slips her a horse tranquilizer. The young woman does get free, first from Biggs and later from Hansel, but she’d never have managed either without the intervention of an aging local relation known as Two-Tie. The nickname both suggests an angel’s wings and picks up, lightly, the bondage metaphor.
Two-Tie’s actual name is Jewish, we learn via clever indirection, and his connection to the Koderers is another of Gordon’s brushes with that ethnic identity. Yet Two-Tie reflects mostly on his own Jewishness, not his relatives’, and he never mentions the younger sister by name. In this novel, Maggie may carry the author’s banner of Women’s Liberation, but unlike Jane and Ursie, she’s not the whole parade. She’s not our sole vehicle of consciousness. Misrule also enters the personalities of Hansel, Two-Tie, and others, in roving third person. A few brief passages even seem to sample the wicked thoughts of Joe Dale Biggs—but those are actually another case of mind reading, courtesy of the novel’s true protagonist, the weary racetrack veteran Medicine Ed.
One of the “old-timey negroes from down…in the hunt country,” Ed offers sharp insights into everyone. Yet at 72 he finds himself closest to “Mr. Boll Weevil…He’s looking for a home. He’s looking for a
ho-me.” The folk-song refrain not only provides pithy expression for the old man’s tragic yearning but also places him at the head of Gordon’s African American chorus. He’s far more fully realized than
Bogeywoman’s “Regicide,” or its “Ayrabbers,” or any of the dark-skinned strays in Without Stopping. It’s Ed who comprehends the “slavery” that binds “the frizzly hair girl” and “the young fool” with the “crazy look.” It’s Ed who provides essential background in the sport, the economics that underlie the drama. He knows about “goofers” too, from bitter experience; he’s seen how fickle their magic can be. We share his regrets and refusals—he’s sworn off magic, and booze along with it. We share what passes for his home, a half-crushed Winnebago decaying at the edge of Indian Mound. In Medicine Ed, Misrule brings off an act of imaginative sympathy that’s nothing short of sensational.
The characters who make things happen, to be sure, tend to be younger. Just as old Ed suspects, Hansel’s a hustler, with his own failing stable elsewhere in the state. He’s come to Indian Mounds to cash in on a few of his horses; as unknowns, they’ll run at long odds. As the scheme strays into complications, Gordon handles things with the skill of some racetrack-noir professional, another Dick Francis, scattering clues like a trail through the woods. But speaking of babes in the woods, doesn’t this Hansel have a Gretel? Doesn’t he think of Maggie (Margaret, Gretel), as a “long-lost twin,” and doesn’t the heroine wear her hair in braids? She likes to use the oven too, though she’s “not the homey kind,” rather “the restless, unsatisfied, insomniac kind.” She’s got a lot in common with Jane and Ursie, that is, as well as with the lost girl who kicked the cannibal witch into her own oven. So one night, as a pot of beans bubbles beside her, Maggie thinks how beans “were lots in the lottery for Lord of Misrule and his Lady, king and queen of Saturnalia, when the order of the world turned upside down.” With that, she turns rightside up. No longer the child victim, she’s “free to fly about the snowy skies on her broomstick.”
Gordon may have become a pro at plotting, but her artistry remains complex. The touch of allegory, something else Misrule shares with its two predecessors, again gets treated with playful high-handedness. Maggie may escape destruction and come into power, but the journey proves bumpy indeed. After Biggs slips her a Mickey, as she fumbles for a way out, once again the author fetches laughs where you’d least expect: “She had to try, of course. Nowadays you couldn’t just let some Black Bart tie you to the railroad tracks and walk away.” So too, Lord of Misrule turns out to have a life outside the “drawers and pigeonholes” in Maggie’s head, a rambunctious life, as a racehorse with a reputation for winning. Once the black nag arrives on the scene, Medicine Ed declares him “the devil.” Who trucked Misrule in from Nebraska, after all, if not Joe Dale Biggs, that “monster in a labyrinth?” For the climactic race, monster and devil are in cahoots, Biggs intends to win, and he strong-arms the old trainer into breaking his vow and mixing up one more goofer. “I don’t want no uncontrollable factors,” the gangster snarls, and in that line this complex multivoiced narrative reveals a simple central irony. What could be more uncontrollable than magic?
The uproar at the novel’s close proves apt, well-nigh supernatural, and it comes with a threat. This time it might be murder into the bargain, for Maggie. The final confrontation does resolve itself as
comedy, again, and again distinctly Gordonian. Its blessings are mixed, and besides, the conclusion leaves us up in the air about the fairytale’s ruling spirit, Medicine Ed. Has Ed found a home? The last pages are his, as were the first, but both show him working at the Downs and sleeping in the crippled Winnebago. Perhaps home requires a new definition, a metamorphosis, something like the way the natives reshaped the earth, building mounds to house the spirits. Or like the vision Maggie had whenever she groomed her horse:
…she knew…this one thing: She could find her way to the boundary where she ended and some other strain of living creature began. On the last little spit of being human, staring through rags of fog into the not human, where you weren’t supposed to be able to see let alone cross, she could make out a kind of home.
Love would be another term for it, this belonging beyond “the last spit.” But love would be the more common term, hence pitted with cliché, and Gordon’s careful with it in all three of her mature
comedies. The happy ending never leads to the altar; not even Ursie gets her “girlgoyle.” Rather, once this author outgrew her explorations in other genres (among which I’d include Shamp), she began delivering her women to mystery. They change, passing through those “rags of fog” we call myth and fable, the smoke that trails from all classic literature, but the ultimate shape of their metamorphosis remains “Unbeknownst.” In this, the novels make a much-needed contribution to the American novel of a woman’s self-actualization.
From the doomy brooding of Kate Chopin’s Awakening (1899) through the sexed-up capering of Erica Jong, and from there on to the vengeful ferocity of Marge Piercy and the more complex cross-
cultural materials of Louise Erdrich and others, fiction about a woman’s place in the world has tended to omit the spiritual, the Unknowable. Instead such narratives emphasize social issues: political, economic, or otherwise. Erdrich’s work provides the closest thing to an exception, and the best correlative for Gordon’s. Granted, a novel so violent and admonitory as Love Medicine (1984) could never be called a comedy. Still, in that book and others, while Erdrich never ignores class or money or Realpolitik, no more than Gordon does, nonetheless she leavens their oppressiveness with magic and miracle, sometimes Christian, more often Lakota. In the process, she also risks formal experiments, at the level of both sentence and structure. She, too, had early exposure to John Barth, as a graduate of his program at Johns Hopkins, and her fiction demonstrates what he argued for in his “Exhaustion” and “Replenishment” essays: a postmodernism that can “have it both ways.” The work, that is, both calls attention to the dream-making artifact in our hands and sweeps us up in a dream.
Still, Jaimy Gordon presents the more freewheeling case. Literature so potent as hers will outlast any cabal. Every story sustains a strong feminist element, and yet none collapse into lecture. Though the
author can roar like the literary equivalent of a punk-rock Riot Grrrl, still she remains open to the least tenderness. And that tenderness may be a simple gesture of sisterly caring, ordinary as Baltimore, yet any gesture can set us wondering, with the Bogeywoman, “how many fantasticoes dare we hope…from any one family?”
John Domini’s essay will appear in his forthcoming selection, The Sea-God’s Herb, on Dzanc Books. He has three novels, the latest A Tomb on the Periphery, two books of stories, and a number of grants and awards. See johndomini.com.