Book Reviews: Scanlon & Theis

by on Nov.27, 2012

Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon (Dorothy, a publishing project). This book consist of a series of narrative fragments, somewhat like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and like the Johnson book it has one foot in the realm of short story and the other in the world of the novel. There is one character, named Lizzie, and we follow her through a shifting, non-chronological account of a time earlier in her life when she was so severely depressed she was institutionalized in the Rockland State Psychiatric Institute. Yet the book, despite the similarities with Jesus’ Son, is by no means a copy of that novel. (I’m not saying this as a criticism of Johnson, whose work I love, but as a criticism of the countless Johnson-like stories and books that came out after Jesus’ Son and that all too often felt like pale imitations of that earlier work.) The pieces that make up this book give a wonderful account of being young and creative and out-in-the-world for the first time, and, to me at least, the best parts are those that relate how Lizzie maneuvered through her world before and just after institutionalization. In “Mount St. Helens,” we get a glimpse of Lizzie as a young girl watching her mother slowly die in a hospital; in one of my favorite stories (or chapters), entitled “All That You Aren’t But Might Possibly Be,” we see Lizzie in the first weeks after being released from Rockland, trying out for a part in a play and getting hit by a car in the process; and in “Am I Blue?” we see the narrator in her dorm room calmly swallowing pill after pill, her tone no more emotional than if she were writing a term paper. In fact, “Am I Blue?” is the last story in the book, and the implication is that this is the suicide attempt that leads to Lizzie winding up in Rockland. Because it closes the novel, it gives the entire book a circular feel, as if time has secretly been tugging us backward through the narrative.

Another element I like about this book is how it openly wears its influences on its sleeve, and yet never in a coy, Gosh-I’m-smart manner. The moving ending is a clear reference to the famous ending in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where Allen’s Isaac Davis talks about his list of favorite things while speaking into a tape recorder. In Scanlon’s scene, Lizzie and her friend Dread make a list of their own favorite things shortly after meeting each other in Los Angeles. The fact that Lizzie references Allen elsewhere suggests that she had internalized Allen’s film, or rather that she uses Allen’s narrative to frame her own narrative. Scanlon has Lizzie do the same with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych in the chapter “The Other Story.” Here certain elements from the Russian novella (the syllogism on mortality, the black sack) are re-employed by Lizzie to speak about her mother’s death. But no grand statements about authorship, etc., seem to be implied. Rather, Scanlon’s use of Allen, Tolstoy, Plath and others, suggests that we all pick up narratives here and there, and that we use these narratives to create our own. Art is always infused with life, and vice versa. By having art intermingle with life so casually and subtly, Scanlon’s use of outside narratives (Allen’s, Tolstoy’s, etc.) is more subversive than those novels and stories that have their sources displayed with bright neon letters since those bright neon letters windup reinforcing the divide between art and life even as they claim to undermine it. Scanlon’s book takes place in a space that is already beyond the poles of authenticity and inauthenticity.


The June Cuckold by Catherine Theis (Convulsive Editions). If Greco-Roman statues could speak, I imagine they would talk like the characters in Theis’ new poem-play. The tone is stately and formal, and yet the poems are brimming with Nature and Art. Early in the play, we are told about a sprinkler snake “embedded in cream-drop white flowers,” and a coat of arms “imbued / with champagne bubbles, rosy circular reds, / bottom-lip pinks.” A few pages later, the central couple is described as being “perfumed in a wealth of orange blossom,” and one of the characters claims, “The only painting / I can look at for hours / is the sun.” As that last quote especially suggests, nature and art are often entwined in this book, with one seeming to spill out from the other. And the sun, as both Van Gogh and Bataille knew, is not only a figure for lucidity and reason, but also, when looked at too long, an image of the extinguishment of lucidity and reason. As one of the last lines in the book states, “We all live in furnaces of heat and light.”

As in Theis’ previous book, The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt), the poems here have a very Nietzschean spirit. Too often Nietzsche is thought of as simply the philosopher of Dionysian impulses and Grecian fatalism, but what is often forgotten is that he was also the philosopher of lightness and dance, a philosopher who argued for “a mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art, which, like a pure flame, licks unclouded skies.” Gravity is as much of a yoke as so-called “truth.” One of the many things I like about Theis’ work is that it isn’t grave and it doesn’t search for deep psychological and/or phenomenological truths.  As one character shouts, “gallivanting greens, wake up!” And yet this lightness doesn’t cancel out fatalism. As Samuel the husband says, “So begins a new affair: / Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, / which really is the project / from before the Before.” Fatalism doesn’t have to be a burden; as Nietzsche wrote, the “Greeks were superficial out of profundity.”

But as Greco-Roman and Mediterranean as these poems are, they’re never backward-looking. There’s nothing dusty or slavish to the past here. Rather, the classical world is dislodged and made new. The past becomes a way of de-familiarizing the future.

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Matt Miller

    Enjoyed this review James. The last sentence reminds me of the discussion we had about Kafka and historical interpretations.

  2. James Pate

    Thanks, Matt. This winter break I’ll finally have time to read that historical study of Kafka you mentioned. I’m also interested in Kafka’s Clothes, which I haven’t read yet but sounds really interesting. It relates Kafka to the ‘decadence’ movement, its impact on him, etc.