Storytown, Susan Daitch’s first collection, is a singular achievement, displaying a virtuosic command of technique in service to a kind of fractured narrativity, one privileging ellipsis, ambiguity, and odd displacement over the merely episodic, that is, the kind of predictable pit-pat pit-pat of the pitiful stuff that passes for fiction these days. These open-ended investigations problematize ideas about identity, memory, authenticity, language, intimacy, time, art, and originality. Cosmopolitan, history-hopping, and switchblade sharp, these stories-within-stories offer dark starry-eyed artists, troubled doubles, and overthinkers spinning threads that hardly serve as extensions of Ariadne’s lifeline, but threaten, instead, to further enweb them, keep them stuck in their own private labyrinths.
“Killer Whales” is a story in dialogue, of a kind, with Kafka, with metamorphosis, with metamorphoses, in fact, where the narrator, who works “at a university lab annotating the speech of sea animals,” undergoes a number of changes, especially with regard to language:
Some things aren’t as different as people like to claim. When I was a child I used to think about language as an odd job lot of words, random and haphazard, you find a string to do the work, to effect meaning. Then the metaphor evolved again. Words were like a school of jellyfish with thousands of tentacles streaming below the surface, and some of those tentacles were attached or stuck together below the waves: the seemingly unconnected jellyfish were really Siamese twins if you looked closely. The connections might be syllables or synonyms. I was a rubberized underwater diver looking for those strands which tied words together.
Later, she describes how her mother’s “language was so full of omissions that [she] didn’t learn it.” She also references that famed slowdown extraordinaire, imagining “if Bartleby suffered paralysis as a result of working in a dead letter office, those who sew and measure zippers and nylon on a body bag assembly line may also linger in future cells saying only I prefer not to.” This idea of stasis is played with throughout the stories.
Like Borges, Daitch is obsessed with forgeries, with the peculiar resonance of encyclopedic reference, with ideas about authenticity, about genuine and false attribution. “Doubling,” Gaddis’s The Recognitions writ small, features a courtroom artist whose home is virtually usurped by her Italian cousin, a sculptor, the two ending up successfully running an art forgery business, the courtroom artist at one point imagining “what her job would be like if she had to do it in a country whose language was meaningless to her”; her cousin “claim[ing] English words, too, lost the uniqueness of their appearance in textbooks and the precision of their sound on language tapes. American speech seemed like vague waves of sound. She perceived the differences between sequential sentences as being only slight, and therefore, she often misunderstood.” “The Restorer,” where a woman can’t “decide what to order in a language she didn’t understand,” features a lyricism as richly layered and textured as the surfaces the story’s central character creates:
Dirt and dust came off in her hands. Their skin was especially cracked; pigment splintered and fractured. She squeezed a blob of antiseptic titanium white onto a glass plate, then added a smudge of rose, but the result turned rubber doll oink. On another part of the glass Anne blended the skin color she imagined Delacroix had originally used and in the third corner the aged, yellowed flesh that remained.
With such concentration of imitations, doubles and doppelgängers, originals and copies, with “duplicates, replicates, twins of twins” (“Incunabula #1”), it’s hardly surprising that mirrors, as objects, would appear and reappear throughout the stories, my favorite appearance of which results in an examination of that classic, hilarious scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup:
Chico Marx, while running from Groucho, shatters a mirror. Stepping into the space behind the glass he pretends to be Groucho’s reflected self. Grouch hops. Chico hops. Groucho jigs. Chico jigs. There is a room behind the mirror, not a supporting wall, as is usually the case. Is the furnished space identical to the room in which Groucho cakewalks? If not, why doesn’t Groucho appear to notice? Grouch drops his hat. Chico drops his hat. They change places. The gag continues in silence. For me the question remains: why was a mirror, frangible and deceptive, used to separate two rooms instead of plaster, sheetrock, and building studs?
These kinds of collisions of art and life remind me of the kinds of knotty musings you find in John Haskell’s short fiction, where filmic moments become grist for philosophical speculation. Daitch’s “Asylum” investigates what gets lost, and found, in the translation of foreign films but also in the translation of what’s said and done within personal relationships. It’s a story where what transpires on screen bleeds into what’s called waking life, where one character couldn’t be told that what was happening on a screen “was just a story, because he had been in that city, and he knew it was all true.”
The eponymic story, set in a theme park full of people employed to perform carefully circumscribed roles of characters from children’s books stories, is a clever critique of those far from innocent narratives.
These stories reference a whole panoply of fictional characters and historical figures, like Gregor Samsa, St. Francis, Godzilla, Courbet, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Corregio, Mussolini, Rubens, Cranach the Elder, Klee, Vermeer, Pissarro, John Lennon, Jean Seberg, Judy Holliday, Orson Welles, John Barrymore, Walt Whitman, Homer, Shakespeare, Eric Satie, Elvis, Cleopatra, Don Juan, and many, many more; and like Davenport’s miniatures many of these stories imagine events with historical figures, or recast them to imaginative effect, like a conversation between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, like a depiction of Eleanor Marx’s trip to the U.S., like the moment where Oscar Wilde is somehow convinced to take a daytrip to Coney Island.
The last story in Daitch’s “Incunabula” triptych overtly examines the act of reading:
People used to read everything as if it were a story. Readers looked for moral tales. They wanted to be taught a lesson and then to move on to the next potential mistake. They matched accidents and natural disasters to hearsay, fables, and myths. It was a way of imposing logic on mishaps. It initiated a system of cross-referential meaning where none would seem to have existed previously. It was a way to avoid appearing like a city of helpless victims hit by random catastrophe. Here was an authority. Here was a motive for revenge. People used to read for pleasure. People wanted to recognize the end of a story in its beginning. People wanted to be surprised at its end, anyway.
People have always found before-and-after stories very compelling. The lives of formerly bald, now hairy, formerly fat, now thin people are automatically read as stories because they prove that anyone can start a new life, regardless of the past. People used to read as a substitute for religion. People used to read if they were patricians. People used to read everything as if it were a metaphor, or if not that, as if all the lines contained nothing but tropes. People used to put off the end of the story for as long as possible, putting obstacles between it and the moment at hand, even if they knew how the story would end, and had known its end since they could remember.
Besides serving as a preface and postscript, respectively, to an embedded story, these paragraphs raise questions about Storytown as a whole, about how one reads fictions which defy conventional approaches to storytelling, which deface or erase Freytag’s pyramid scheme, which sometimes replace it with collage effects, mosaic-like structures, with collisions of fact and fiction. In “Incunabula #3,” a character is described as having “so little information, written language was all she would trust. Words spread out like puddles of inference, thin at the edges, creeping toward misuse, misspelling, mispronunciation. The boundaries of words grew vague. One impersonated the next. She set up schemata based on analogous relationships.” Daitch’s fictions seem to ask what happens when you can’t even trust written language, especially when it’s used to narrativize reality. These fictions defy typical trajectories and tired destinations, resisting predictable linearities, and so a map for Storytown couldn’t simply be something you could roll or fold out, but something that further abstracts something which is deeply and knowingly abstract.