By Alissa Hattman
I write this review at the end of July from my home near Portland, Oregon, where unidentified federal law enforcement have arrived in unmarked vehicles to kidnap Black Lives Matter demonstrators under the president’s orders to “quell” the protests, which have largely been peaceful. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Grief and gratitude are at the racing heart of conversations I’ve been having with friends as we struggle to process the extremes of the pandemic (people are dying, but at least greenhouse gas emissions are down, etc.). Last week, I listened to a colleague give a virtual talk on journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells; and a couple weeks ago, my friend TJ and I discussed how antiracist book clubs are good but not enough. I’ve been reaching for voices—listening to speeches by Angela Davis and Dolores Huerta, re-reading letters my great-grandmother wrote many years ago. Over the weekend, I researched my Scandinavian and German-Moravian roots. So many lineages of violence and trauma. I, like many, am learning new ways to act, to stay in place, to adapt, but it’s been lonely. Being isolated from family and friends has been hard, but it’s the collective loneliness of a country that has me most concerned. Our government’s response to the pandemic has been a massive failure and further proof that the powers-that-be do not care about people’s lives. In our masks, separated from loved ones, laid off, abandoned by politicians—no wonder we feel so utterly alone. It shakes our sense of belonging in the world.
Jennifer Calkins’s lyric noir, Fugitive Assemblage, was published in February 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Though set in 1983, the loneliness depicted in the story befits our current emergency. The narrator wakes up in a hospital, pulls an IV out of her arm, and starts driving through California with a thing in her trunk. The thing is a specific thing (eventually revealed), but it is really many things—heartbreak, trauma, grief, to name a few. The story begins in a type of fever dream, leaping between her current crisis into the accumulated crises of self and land and history and people. The narrator’s plan is to drive to Central Valley, nonstop, where she will unload the thing. Only she does stop—at cafés, motels, Deetjen’s in Big Sur. Along her journey she learns new ways of coping, messy as they may be, vacillating between anguish and the sense of safety she gets through small, familiar comforts like watching television or drinking a Coke. The fractured frenzy of the crises starts to integrate as the story unfolds.
Though it focuses on one character, Fugitive Assemblage feels communal and expansive. Calkins artfully synthesizes personal, intergenerational, and geographical memory in short, fragmented sections or vignettes. She is a writer interested in not only the revelatory psychological interior of the character, but also family histories, human history, and the geographical origins of California. The narrator’s story is punctuated by a polyphony of voices: poets, philosophers, ecologists, geologists, architects, cultural critics, journalists, novelists, and “women who crossed” the western expansion trails. Each spare, urgent line gestures towards a multiplicity of human and nonhuman stories.
Fugitive Assemblage joins Calkins’s chapbooks Devil Card and A Story of Witchery and, as an evolutionary biologist and poet, Calkins has said she’s felt compelled to document “the immorality of the hierarchical philosophical construct by which humans view themselves as separate, superior, and granted the right to exploit other organisms without reserve.” Though she was talking about A Story of Witchery, documenting the exploitation of land seems to remain central in her current work. In Fugitive Assemblage, for example, Calkins tells the history of colonization as the narrator moves through “landtouched” and “reoccupied” spaces.
The stories of land and river, of modern human history, are both separate from and in concert with the existential dilemma of the narrator. The more she tries to forget the thing in the trunk, the more alone she feels in the world:
In Santa Maria, at the mouth of the ofttimes dried up river, in my hotel, I was trying to regroup. Is it possible that existence is our exile I was running from the thing in the trunk. Or rather, running from its implications. Middle of the night, this side of the border, I headed north, even though escapes are always southbound. I couldn’t cross into Mexico. nothingness our home
The italicized fragments are interjections from nihilist philosopher (and known fascist) E. M. Cioran’s On the Heights of Despair. Throughout Fugitive Assemblage, these intertextual accents (the polyphony of voices, fifty people named in the author’s acknowledgements) haunt the narrator’s point of telling in various ways—sometimes adding emphasis to the emotional tenor, other times disturbing or complicating the story. Here, for example, Cioran’s voice underscores the narrator’s debilitating exile while also splintering the forward-moving narrative. The effect is jolting, the voices adding to the tonality and texture of the prose, while also allowing for momentary lines of flight away from the plot-driven singular narrative, signaling to a multiplicity of stories. It felt similar to walking through a crowd, hearing just a fraction of people’s conversations, but somehow inferring the individual beliefs or traumas or hopes embedded in their tones.
The thing in the trunk is the current truth and past truths the narrator struggles to accept. The more she looks away from the trauma, the further she stares into the void. To say it another way, her gaze shifts from somethingness to nothingness.
The narrator’s dilemma and the dilemma many of us in the U.S. feel today is this: in the wake of collective trauma, do you persist through a series of painful truths (even at the expense of your identity as you knew it) or do you cling to a sense of the past, to safety (even if that means that you remain stuck in a loop)?
The dilemma has as much to do with loss of identity as it does with loss of home. Early in Fugitive Assemblage, the narrator is watching the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” on a television in her motel room. This famous episode, which combines Luigi Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” depicts five personas who are stuck together in a cylinder. None know who they are or how they got there. The episode plays in the background, while the narrator considers how she’s changed:
I’d forgotten myself. there is nothing left to the West except the past Blinds drawn, I thought I might stick a few coins in the vibrating bed. Shake the thing in the trunk out of my head. Or use my knife to cut a little hole in the floor.
Me on the bed in the middle of where I wasn’t supposed to be. Nothing in sight except a little mud and stick hut The sorts of things when you get to the end of the road and the truth consumes you in panic.
Do you speak your painful truth or do you let it consume you? Throughout the story, the narrator struggles with this, learning that she must accept the truth first. Considering the bleakness of the opening chapters, I was surprised to see the ways in which she persists.
Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés, partially paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, has said: “while storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s.” What literature such as Fugitive Assemblage offers us during our current crisis is a moment to break away from the individualist ideology that we, in the United States, have absorbed, a chance to practice a type of plurality that helps us hold a multitude of painful and often contradictory truths at once. Or, at the very least, it shows us how to expand and connect, to be utterly open to the urgency of that possibility. In so doing, we might feel less alone.