- Books, Reading, Review, Small Presses, Writing

Chrostowska’s Chrestomathy

By Jeff Bursey

 

I am a bad animal, a black, broken, and lousy animal. I pull my driver behind me like a train of heavy fur.
—“His Road Lies”

 

Introduction

It is not an exaggeration to say I never know what to expect from the mind of S. D. Chrostowska. In addition to academic works, in the last few years she has written: a semi-epistolary novel (Permission, 2013); a cultural and philosophical choral commentary or novel filled with aphorisms, humor, and incisiveness (Matches: A Light Book, 2015; rev. ed. 2019); and, in 2020, The Eyelid, a dark fantasy that accelerates the blurring of work and life we’ve been experiencing for some years (especially during the pandemic) by removing the “life” part through sleep of its characters, robbing them of regeneration, true rest, idle time, and thus the necessary individuality we (think we?) possess so that the citizens of Greater America (not better because it seems headquartered in France) are ever more indentured to work without repose. It’s a dystopian work that is lush, startling, surreal (Chrostowska has a fondness for the Surrealists of today and yesterday), and provocative.

There are no false comforts or bromides to help us get by in any of these books. The act of reading them is akin to being in the grip of an idea extended to its limit, drenched in subtle and apparent allusions, and we’re unable to escape until well after the covers are closed, so convincingly and claustrophobically imagined are the worlds conjured. You might ask: Where’s the joy in that? First, we can take pleasure in the liveliness of her prose (because since that exists then surely there’s hope); second, we can delight in novels that speak intelligently, and have intelligent spokespeople; third, of course, we know this is fiction (though, as said, it may require a little time to recover that foothold). Of Polish and American background, for some time now a professor at York University in Ontario, Chrostowska brings Continental philosophy and international studies to her fiction, and Canadian literature, often parochial, is better for it.

A Cage for Every Child is a collection of two dozen short fictions (some only a page) that strike out in many unpredictable directions. (In this sense, as well as for its at times offbeat nature, it reminds me of Tim Conley’s fine collection of exploratory short stories, Collapsible [2019].) Fictions, not stories. The difference? Everything. Many writers of short stories alternate between a couple of styles, with an emphasis on realism (generally), the persistent use of the present tense (as if that makes thing truer), and, occasionally, the obvious foray into the far-out or experimental. (This leaves aside steadfast adventurers like Conley, Evelyn Hampton, and A. D. Jameson, for example, who are always sending specimens back from far-flung travels.) Stories make you think of arcs, setting, and character development. Chrostowska is not terribly interested in these things. She is conscious that there is opportunity for much more to be going on. (I may as well nail certain flags to the mast: I’ve read with Chrostowska, reviewed her books, interviewed her, and know her somewhat. Biases aired, I’ll continue.) Instead, the fictions on display are full of conceits, attitude, an at times dry, at times puckish, presentation of material, and on occasion it’s seemingly ludic.

The title calls up certain news events from the last four years, even before the contents are seen, and this may or may not be planned. The book’s epigraph, from Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794), sets things up: “Telling stories is making grotesques.” This underlines the non-accidental nature of Chrostowska’s fictions. That is not to say that she is schematic. On the contrary, she makes intelligible her visions, however they first arise within her, and she’ll go down paths that can be unexpected and unsettling, but also capacious. We are encouraged to make of her work what we will; we aren’t precisely left to our own devices, rather, we are left devices we can use as we see fit, and this entangles us in the creation of these grotesques, as we slowly perceive what is happening under our eyes. The epigraph nudges us to a vantage point above or to the side of what is about to be shown, to a distance that may be meant to show the author’s control, and probably to say, “Don’t get caught up in these things.” But we fail, we do get caught up.

Yet is the making of a grotesque the main thing? Or is it the telling, the activity, that we should focus on? Do we feel more or less invited by that interpretation than by the making? It’s like a warning label on an unfamiliar item. Are there horrors ahead? The table of contents offers possible clues, but are we going to pitch down in Lovecraft-land suddenly? Unlikely. Still, something is coming for us (just as we approach it). In Monstrous Possibility, Curtis White said: “The literature of postmodernism generally aspires to origin as rupture, break, mutation, and transformation. It prefers the discontinuous and the monstrous to the linear and archetypal.” Further: “The realist values the reassurance of the familiar; the excitable postmodernist—a curious bricoleur—values the beauty of the new and monstrous.” We turn the page with anticipation and our only assurance, if we’ve read Chrostowska’s other books, is that we’re in capable hands.

 

I

“A pack of dogs baying senseless in the distance: a hunting party cutting to the chase: firing—firing—firing, their madness fading away, gaining again, in bloodlust bred by innocent sport.” So begins the opening piece, “The Great Indoors,” in some ways a compressed collage of the rural and college novels. While it’s not the intent to go through every piece, it’s worth paying attention to the first lines of this book since they sound some of the themes: the animal world, viewed by the unnamed narrator (few, if any, are named), is “senseless,” when that only reveals that we’re stuck in the human perspective, for the dogs’ sense of smell is superior to ours. The narrator deprives them of this (and other) characteristics. Clearly, the brute world is below the human one. But then we see the hunting party is mad, overcome by their senses, and not at all innocent. (Chrostowska would know Bion’s aphorism that goes something like, “Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs die in earnest.”) The narrator, in a “Provençal village, both colony and museum,” is surrounded by aesthetes: “Resident art students filled it not as shadows but as apparitions, destroyed only by turning a corner and shaking out your head.” They talk about “American films,” among other things, recalling the curious use of the phrase “cutting to the chase.” Are we being presented with a real event, a filmed one, or something else? Only two paragraphs in and already Chrostowska has presented bloodlust, cultural mores (contrasting gun-toting hunters and art students), politics (“colony”), and studies, as well as called into question the accuracy of the narrator’s pronouncements. What is the great indoors? The “village hollow”? A person’s internal life? The last paragraph of the piece depicts “the little village children, those below the knee” who are “never still and quiet, their faces gay with discovery, their work immense.” We are unclear about some things, but we do know where the narrator started, in blood and senselessness, travelling through the supposedly more high-brow life of art students who, nevertheless, are lonely and who need to be “destroyed,” and ending with the very young whose “work”—what I take to be comprehending and residing within the present—is “immense,” as it is (theoretically) for every child when the entire world seems to promise everything and is not too frighteningly large to grasp. The grown-up narrator dwells (lives in as well as ponders) on the negatives, on there being “no peace” in which “to reflect.” Discontent is high and felt sharply.

Sharpness is a familiar feature in these fictions. “Opferlingen,” the second piece, and one of the most intriguing pieces, is an immersive experience so peculiar as to sound like a truthful account of a long-lost civilization. Briefly, the prince of an unnamed nation, in order to assume office, must be exposed to the crowd, and not simply at a podium: “The confirmation ceremony extends over many days and takes a most bizarre form: tactile accolade. A tangible connection is sought by each and every member of the polity… Even stranger than this primitive business of rubbing the body of the prince is the way the multitude goes about it. There is no procession, no filing in and taking of turns. They press forward in the most confused fashion, stripped to the waist on account of the heat.” (Something like an Irish wake, then.) This crowd, never singled out as a person but fragmented, as if out of Empedocles, as a representation of an early form of humankind’s first origins—“A lock here, a grip there, the combat of calves, the tension of jaw and sinew. Limbs sliding and slapping, weight bearing down relentlessly.”—can easily wear the prince out with their attentions. If he dies during this ceremony, which appears to occur often enough, another successor is chosen to go through the same ritual. The epigraph is from Machiavelli and speaks about the multitude judging by eyes, not by touch. Chrostowska asks what would happen if this were not the case. The reporter in the story, the narrator, who comes from another country, terms what occurs a “senseless orgy”—senseless again, when sense is everything, as we are provided with many visual details, the sounds from the crowd are described as “soft moaning,” and one can imagine the smells due to the heat and the press of so much humanity—where “no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene.” Touching brings the prince down to the level of the citizenry (pause for a moment to consider real-world applications of this custom) and he, and the crowd, understand that the “art of governing requires the whole man.” Both put off and sensually drawn to the spectacle, the reporter’s stance wavers. Instead of filing this as a news item, something not allowed, it will be related to friends by the narrator as a “nightmare.” Truth becomes fiction, and then is further falsified as a bad dream.

Each reader of A Cage for Every Child will prefer certain pieces over others. Some titles stand out for their cleverness: “Message to a Prophet, General Delivery” and “Of Worms and Men.” Apart from “Opferlingen,” I think three other outstanding pieces deserve attention and illustrate what Chrostowska is doing. The first is “The Writing on the Wall,” where, in yet another almost-believable state (like someplace out of Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms), and during the reign of Graphus I, speech is “abolished” and replaced with writing: “Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness.” Writing “done by hand” under the rule of Cryptus I eventually allows for ambiguity and “the art of reading by insinuation spread,” throwing the state into confusion. “Arrests followed of those held responsible for the promotion of ambiguity.” Cryptus II outlaws writing entirely. The result is predictable: “And then they fell silent.” The absurdity of this notion is made less so by how Chrostowska builds up a real picture we know to be false through tiny adjustments to what we believe could occur. The narrative’s what-if quality aligns with a sure grounding in Eastern European 20th century history and the confident exercise of counterfactual thinking. We can recall any number of historical instances where what we might have expected to occur did not and the most unlikely episodes did. (Such as in Washington, D. C., from November 2020 through January 20th, 2021.)

“His Road Lies”—the source of the quotation at the top of this review—is headed by two epigraphs, one from Henry David Thoreau, one from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, on genius and the road it makes one who has it travel. Genius is a “spiritual valet” in its own eyes but a “parasitic demon” in the eyes of the one possessed by it, and each narrates its own point of view to a listening narrator. Chrostowska once again upends a seemingly good thing. No, there’s nothing good about genius, it’s a curse, or a roadshow of entertainers. “The only way to keep such a monster as this—my demon, my ‘geniuskin’—is on a short leash,” concludes the possessed after much misery.

Though I can’t say anything human or spiritual or demonic is truly present, yet I, almost despite myself and surprisingly myself, feel evil rising from the pages. Not that I’m highly suggestible, but immersed in these fictions, each another piece of evidence against complacency, marinated in quiet pessimism (Chrostowska has said: “I am not quite an optimist when I write against the grain of the cacophonous decline of criticism as métier and vocation, where what passes for social critique is short-sighted, misinformed knee-jerk indignation that plays to various prejudices; I am still a pessimist, just a better one. Better as in less defeatist, less attached to pessimism, disabused of the value of pessimistic posturing.”), I can’t help but feel disabused of certainties.

“Cave Hominem” is a chilling work. The inventor of, and the invention of, an expandable cage for animals attracts the narrator who had been waiting for someone to come along with a better mousetrap (so to speak):

Imagine you are locked up with no prospect of escape. As the realization dawns on you, and confinement becomes unbearable, you start revolting the only way you know how: by senselessly hurling yourself against the walls of your prison. But rather than give, the bars stiffen. You do this over and over, you tire, you give up, you adopt the poses of defeat, of indifference, punctuated by occasional bursts of impotent rage. You mark on endless rounds the factual confines of your life, obeying the invincible law of steel, when chance—slumping against the side of your cage, reliable in its solidity—unlocks a whole new world of experience. Instead of the expected support, the bars yield to your weight. From implacable, unbending ensigns of man’s domination over beast they are transformed into lines of negotiation. All at once, they become bars you can live with… The animal learns to take only as much freedom as it needs in moments of tranquility, not to say reasoned reflection. In practice, of course, the cage has a finite capacity for expansion. But no animal lives long enough to see it stretched to its limit. We habitually think of animals as wild without limit and overestimate the freedom of movement actually required for their well-being. But the freedom needed to live comfortably, even to thrive, is small indeed—and the minimum needed for survival is unbelievably little!

(For passages like this, found throughout the collection and in her other books, Chrostowska’s prose calls to be read aloud.)

Once again, as in “The Great Indoors,” a human pretends to know non-human animals better than they know themselves and what is best for them. Quite removed from, say, this sentiment found in Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not about Love (1923; Dalkey, 2001): “Naturally, the ape languishes without his forest. People seem like evil spirits to him. All day long, this wretched foreigner languishes in his indoor zoo.” So yesteryear! What needs a forest, a jungle, to live in, and from there a lake, river, or ocean? Surely an expanding aquarium has its attractions. It is a small step to think of incarceration of people, beginning with the most vulnerable:

The fate of his design, attractive to globally minded men with world-improving ideas, concerned him not a whit; it was already out of his hands, out of anyone’s hands. He had, he said, learned his limits the hard way. A patent for the human edition is apparently pending. A powerful lobby is pushing to make the cage mandatory in every public school: A Cage for Every Child takes the view that physical confinement acts on the imagination to check boundless vagabondage in the digital commons.

Suddenly the book’s title has added resonance. In a few pages we are taken from the search for refined confinement to an enslavement of those “little village children, those below the knee” from “The Great Indoors” who are “never still and quiet, their faces gay with discovery, their work immense.” How can there be immensity within an enclosure (or, an enclosure within a carceral1One of Chrostowska’s favorite words. setting)? Let’s set out to ruin their lives and get philanthropists to fund it through foundations. Distance is required to regard these concepts as concepts only and to banish the old-fashioned belief in the existence of evil. (In Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005, he quotes a remark Bellow made after hearing some professor say that “To a rational mind, nothing really bad ever happens.” Bellow’s rejoinder: “‘Oh? Do you mean that every gas chamber has a silver lining?’”) As in other pieces, Chrostowska shows the potential consequences such distancing can have while not denying its necessity. Nothing is ever simple.

 

III

On a separate aesthetic level, we might consider these fictions as cages, capturing ideas that, given time, can expand the space they occupy in our minds. The label “short-story collection” is even less adequate than before. A Cage for Every Child contains parables, myths (a particularly delightful one, “Pillars,” has the pillar of Salt and the pillar of Fire in dialogue, and they also discuss mutual acquaintances), faux histories of faux places, Biblical tales, reportage, pastiches, folklore studies, and futurist and ecological tales. The word that encapsulates A Cage for Every Child is an old one: chrestomathy, defined as an “anthology…of passages in prose or verse (or both); particularly one to be used for learning a language.”2* Cuddon., J. A., and C. E. Preston, Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory (London: Penguin, 1999), 134. Though the latter quality doesn’t apply to A Cage for Every Child, the word does suit what Chrostowska is doing, in that this set of fictions that disturb our convictions exhibits various styles, showcasing her ability to move from one old genre to another, updating and revitalizing them along the way.

The last piece, “The Voice-Over,” contains these lines: “Analog lives like nothing happened. Keep the past and the past keeps.” I read this is as a summation of the book, a summation provided by a literary anthropologist who has spent time among half-forgotten or remote genres to see how they’re doing after being left relatively undisturbed for a time. The ventriloquism required to inhabit and revitalize what might be called archaic styles, put to use in conjuring some horrific, as well as quotidian, scenarios, takes effort, and Chrostowska pulls it off. That literary interest is tied to an examination of societies and types more than people, a description of various narrators’ views on the circumstances or situations at hand. Narrators exhibit dissociation, mild to monstrous egoism, eccentricities, detachment, and pain while contemplating the truncated hopes and dismal futures of others or themselves. We may never know what S. D. Chrostowska’s truly held beliefs are in A Cage for Every Child, but the distance she uses, and so effectively—while also aware that what she writes can be affecting—helps to create indelible works.

 

Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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