“Chronology commits you to a straight line, I said. This story’s ovoid.” But no, not ovoid either. Vertical. Kellie Wells’s Fat Girl, Terrestrial looks up rather than out. There’s that “terrestrial,” right there in the title, to remind of us the orientation the book intends us to have; the language comes from Wallace Stevens (as do several names, or else maybe that’s coincidence), but instead of pointing me to Stevens, it had the effect of making me feel alien to myself somehow.
The plot has something to do with Kansas, a country of plots—and what plots they are; Wells has the noir patois down pat (and her stories aren’t so bad themselves)—but our narrator, Wallis Armstrong, doesn’t really pay much attention to it. Instead, she draws to herself other characters we become deeply invested in and entirely lose track of in matters of pages. There is Vivica Planet, a giantess (as is Wallis, over eight feet tall and nearly a quarter ton), and her brother, the novel’s precipitant (Wallis accidentally kills him—allergies). And there is Elsie Lehmkuhl and her in-laws, Mateen Mundrawala, Lucky Teeter, Mary Alice McGuiness—the list could go on. Wallis’s orbit is wobbly, folded; maybe it’s that she’s a kind of wormhole in the universe of these stories, and their conclusions have warped to some distant part of the galaxy. In any case, she seems not much concerned with chronology, as her story unfolds in bits and pieces, no straight line anywhere in sight.
The common ways of talking about story (viz. my own above, “unfolds”) seem, after reading this novel, stubbornly flat: unravel, reveal, delineate, limn, paint, draw, spin out, uncover, sketch, outline—all presuppose that there is, in the end, something in two dimensions to be appreciated. We can talk about “arc,” but we won’t be talking about arches; what I mean is, they are intangible somehow, untouchable. Maybe we’re only able to perceive two dimensions of story. And maybe, in the case of a written work, this isn’t so unnatural, given that the words appear on a page, a flat surface, and are untroubled by time (its own dimension), the book being a rather old form of asynchronous communication. Still, when presented with describing the virtues of a novel like Fat Girl, Terrestrial, this flatness makes things difficult.
With our eight-foot tall narrator, the temptation is to read the book as a collection of tall tales, but tall tales have a beginning and ending, can easily be tacked to a board, a string tied to those tacks, a shape made of the tale. In Wells’s novel, as I’ve said, characters come and go, sometimes subsequently reappear, sometimes just disappear. Their stories drift in and out with them. It’s hard to plot them, hard to know where their boundaries are or what shape to give them. Even Wallis is left an enigma, mostly. As she tells us, “Selfishly, hopefully, I have always been investigating the circumstances of my own disappearance. That’s what any investigation is, an inquiry into one’s own coming absence.” An inquiry into an absence isn’t, you might have noticed, a presence. Once someone is gone—really gone—you can’t bring them back. Wallis’s brother Obie, missing for many, many years, being the prime example.
I inch piecemeal toward the unknowable, the irrational, the senseless, one clue at a time, but ultimately it’s like that drive in to Goodland, an unreachable destination, receding with every mile, so you throw up your hands, stop where you are in resignation, and it’s that defeat that becomes both the place you’ve come from and the place you’re going to, a shadowy endpoint of innuendo and allegation, a place of no answers.
For Wallis, and also for us. Coming to the end of the novel, I’m not any more sure than I was beginning it what it is all about. This is a disorienting feeling,
Folks figure someone who stretches into next week, whose head brushes against the basement of the unbordered beyond, must at least have glimpsed the other side, and they beg me to tell them, like a cheap spirit rapper, eyes kohled in an oracular manner, wrists bangled, head swaddled in scarves, what I’ve seen while gazing into the cloudy crystal ball of heaven.
The reader (or at least me) may as well be Wallis, called upon to report something he or she is only presumed to have witnessed. What would it look like to have a story that, instead of unfolding or unfurling, grew like a cancer? or a person?
Obie, having conferred on the subject with our neighbor, Mary Alice McGuinness, said all believers, male and female, imagined themselves brides awaiting the union that will give their vain lives purpose. This longing lent their bodies a specific shape, a shape fitted to one of the world’s many yawning cavities, the ones awaiting mass.
Could we give it a shape with our own words? If called upon, I’d point my reader to the aforementioned noir tropes, both the first things I noticed in the book and also my favorite bits for parochial reasons. But there are also elements of fairy tale and tall tale, mythology and miniatures, all a theology of a kind (and God (and god) is a bit of an obsession here, though not in any way one would expect).
I don’t know. While I read Wells’s book, I thought for some reason of ascending a tower, looking out on a landscape that remained the same but took on different aspects after each set of stairs. When we go on a journey, our miles have both rhythm and rhyme—time passes along with space. But somehow, a climb to a lofty viewpoint doesn’t operate the same way for me. One travels, of course, but to look at a map (a flat surface) for evidence of that journey, the displacement begins to seem mostly of the mind. When one reaches the top, the view may be impressive, but, even captured by camera, it is fleeting: It has no appreciable story to it. Worse, one inevitably returns to the start; because of gravity, every trip up is a roundtrip. One does not say that one has crossed Texas “because it’s there”; instead, one talks of El Paso and Ft. Stockton, Dallas, Houston, the desert, the plains, the wind. For a mountain, though, it’s fine.
All of this may come across as dissatisfaction, but think of the geology involved. All heights were once flat, after all. If one story was subducted by another, would something like Fat Girl, Terrestrial result? As I’ve written, the book’s dimensions make describing it difficult, and I find myself feeling inadequate to the task. I can say that I was always worried about my footing, on the edge of something if not exactly my seat, intrigued by the mystery and utterly dumbfounded by the beautiful language opening out before me. It was a humbling experience, which seems to fit this story about a humble person who is humbling by virtue only of her size, but whose size makes genuflection a reflex. I bow, and I rise.