Review of Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack
by Eric Beeny
Giraffes in Hiding is Carol Novack’s first full-length collection of stories. Here we see Novack’s prose gliding effortlessly through stream-of-consciousness narratives into childlike realms of imagination with sly, refreshingly subversive and indignant humor while being highly critical of both political and literary establishments. Novack’s “mythical memoirs” depict the private, innocent perceptions of childhood translated through the horrors of loss and abuse while ultimately exploring humanity’s relationship to the natural world and, indeed, critiquing the organized society humanity has erected around itself.
Novack’s language is a unique amalgam of pleading and acquiescence, of demanding and surrender—at once abstract, symbolic, yet vividly concrete:
Minnie beseeched him: Put them back, please do! She repeated her entreaty for the frantic minnows, slippery slivers of iridescence leaping out of the bucket onto the sand into the sky, fearing extinction she said this reminds me of early death, please no please no! The heavens turned dense ash blue like hospice hair. (“Minnows,” 7-8)
There are moments of intense, desperate longing in the wake of serene violence:
Drowning shadow, burning breast, fruit that bleeds and spills? My garden is scorched, deluged, uprooted. The country has disappeared. […] My mother and lover smother one another in soil, stuff dirt into their vacancies. […] I awakened to dream in black. No light. No garden. I slithered onto the verandah. It was gone and I couldn’t feel my self. No one left in my bed, in fact, no bed, no covers. No food, no water, no land. No mothers, no milk, no pomegranates, no blood, no cocks in the mornings to crow. No mornings. No fire in the sky. No sky. Only a moon like a lash left by an eye eloping with a vision. (“Ramon’s Dream,” 87-88)
And comedic bursts of wonderful wordplay:
The Court was sick, the sentence in a coma. This state of affairs hung up the hangman, who was waiting to hang out with Harriet. Harriet caressed the loose noose of her S&M rope, wanting to let loose with the well-hung hangman. (“Execution: All Fall Down,” 142)
Several of these stories are infused with socio-political commentary. In “Signs,” townspeople speculate about the meaning of a derailed train. Each member of the town believes this tragedy was foreshadowed by signs they’ve seen: a weeping Virgin Mary, Allah squatting on the tracks. Other mysterious signs materialize, all of which cause religious conflict while three news camera men are knocked over by signs (presumably protest signs). Unknown to all is an eyeless woman in Nigeria who somehow knows but can never reveal what actually happened to the train (her plight not being ‘newsworthy’ enough for coverage, so far removed as she is from the event—so far, in fact, from the first world where, oddly enough, superstition still reigns juxtaposed with the scientific achievements of the Industrial Revolution).
Other stories adopt a more epistolary form, sharply magnifying Novack’s satire. In “The Sex Lives of Starfish,” the narrator, a PhD student, flatters a well-known marine biologist hoping to lure him to meet her. In the polemically-charged “Missive to the Fiction Editor of The New Yakker Yeah The New Yakker,” the narrator refers to the self as “eye” (a rather Emersonian view of consciousness) and rants on what the narrator perceives as realism’s lack of imagination. In “Rations Bulletin,” a militia group urges ‘Qualified Consumers’ to own weapons due to the high crime rate (crimes here referring to absurd incidents of people being killed by umbrellas in a riot caused by stubbornness at a portable toilet, and a former senator being grazed in the head by a hurled copy of the Constitution).
In “What to Do with the Babies,” a father’s obsessive attempts to capture with a butterfly net several flying infants whom his wife has given birth to reveals his own Oedipus complex (using his daughter, the story’s narrator, to replace his mother, as he, “with his voice like bagpipes, eyes urgent bees,” looks upon his daughter “as if [she] had a breast” ). The image of breasts, particularly a mother’s breast unable to produce milk for her child, recurs throughout this collection.
The narrator’s mother in “What to Do with the Babies” suffers from a tumor in her stomach—she is pregnant with a terminal condition, contrasting the abundance of flying infants. But this tumor also represents the inherent mortality of all living things, the futility of life bothering to live when death is the one true biological heirloom. This theme of excessive reproduction reflecting the inability of life to ultimately survive itself is echoed again and again throughout several of Novack’s stories, most notably “Spawning Babies.”
The narrator’s father wants to “drown [the babies] in moonshine” (11), as if the babies themselves are emotions he hopes to repress through substance abuse (in fact, projecting his own self-abuse onto his children, which they will no doubt adopt as a family tradition). Perceiving life itself as an emotion, the narrator looks at her own mother as a withering figure unable to provide for all the life she’s created:
“There wasn’t enough of anything to feed all those babies. Mommy’s breasts were hollow inside like Halloween gourds.” (12)
The narrator eventually decides to escape all the noise of life. She opens a trap door and climbs down into the fallout shelter, where she plans to live forever. This image of the trap door becomes a rebirth. She emerges from the womb of her current life into a fallout shelter which ironically represents the outside world the narrator hopes to find a place to hide in—to be silent and anonymous and alone. She is reborn, already buried.
Novack’s stories are accompanied by a wealth of disturbingly tranquil images by several international artists, including Carolyn Adams, Amy Cohen Banker, Orna Ben-Shoshan, Tantra Bensko, Don Bergland, Jean Detheux, Loren Erdrich, Marja Hagborg, Heide Hatry, Marty Duane Ison, Andrew David King, Joseph Victor Milford, Sue Lense and Leo Wijnhoven.
Giraffe’s in Hiding is available now from Spuyten Duyvil. Carol Novack is also the author of the poetry collection, Living Alone without a Dictionary. She is the publisher/editor of Mad Hatters’ Review. Here is herblog.