Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
It’s been about four decades since the now mythologized Merwin incident at Naropa, chronicled by Tom Clark in a Cadmus Edition titled The Great Naropa Poetry Wars. In many respects, the incident is now like an epitaph for very different kinds of writing, the very charged, passionate and declamatory style in the tradition of, say, Ginsberg and the emergence of “naked poetry,” and the very restrained and well-clothed Western formalism of W. S. Merwin.
I recall in the late 1960s and into the 1970s the “cult-like” following of Ginsberg and Brautigan, their association with the West Coast youth movement, and the tendency to see them as a bridge between the 1950s Beat Generation and 1960s Counter-Culture, sacrificing nuance for shamanism, the poem becoming nothing more/nothing less than a cascading hum of thoughts.
As for Brautigan, it took a bit of time to characterize his writing as “New Fiction,” an off-beat cavorting with the divine idiocy of such characters as the kool-aid wino with the rupture who “exist” on that line between what is terribly real and what is terribly uncanny, awkwardly comic and tragic, a simultané compote.
And for that we owe thanks to Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim, or so it goes.
The “New Fiction” is minimalist, experimental, and the work of an army of successful new novelists for whom not to be new these days is to be nothing.
Slab is a novel by Selah Saterstrom, who directs the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. The book owns a certificate for novelty and disarray.
That would seem to be harsh criticism, but what we call “narrative” has over time manifested itself and adapted itself to changing times and conditions. Such a piece of work can be ferocious and dazzling. One opens a box and inside is another box and then another challenging our notion of direct narrative.
Begin here, more or less:
The “slab” in the novel, the introduction to the narrative pathway, is a concrete slab, all that’s left of Tiger’s home after Hurricane Katrina. But, if one cuts to the quick, it could just as well be an imagistic what’s-left-over after Hiroshima’s bomb blast, another poignant reminder of “what’s left over” and which might include for a devout Southerner what’s left over after the late unpleasantness, the War of Northern Aggression, less aptly named the Civil War.
What to do?
Bargain with God? Simply accept it? Feel floatingly numb? Make friends on Facebook? Read everything Freud wrote? Become a Girl Scout leader?
Or listen to the preacher who says in Act II of this novel that at a crossroads one can ask for something but one also has to give something and in giving one surrenders. Getting saved is falling off the edge. “Have you ever been thirsty?” the Preacher asks; “I mean thirsty . . . . Do you know where the people can get some water? If you can answer that question, then the Kingdom of Heaven is truly yours.”
Consider the facts, he preaches, “Every crossroads has a keeper.” The true story of Cain and Abel goes like this: “Cain never liked a suit. Abel loved a suit with a matching hat.”
Or tell the story of Tiger, a fourth-generation post-War Between the States child, in a way often called avant-garde, or Post-Modern, a forward looking literal reconfiguring of the “way” in which we speak of loss. And, rather than patterning the “way” in the manner of restrained formalism, Saterstrom reconfigures genre by allowing the space on the page to become rooted in a much less traditional if not utilitarian texture, but not in such a radical way as to lose the formal-minded reader.
The novel’s chapters are re-configured as Acts with scenes in which actors give compelling physical turns—the novel as possible theater or theater as a possible novel.
Tiger is a young woman whose life begins in the south in a southern family we understand as dysfunctional. Tiger, though, does not tell her story to a Canadian roommate during one long night in a Harvard dormitory room. This “multi-media” novel offers the reader a character who, to survive, becomes a stripper (whose best routine is based on the life of Helen Keller) who becomes a performance artist who becomes a best-selling author who finds her way out of the backwash of sin and decadence to construct the story of herself. She navigates the world around her with guile and intelligence, and each act or chapter adds facet-like depth and meaning. Intersperse this simultané compote with recipes, poems, interviews, pictures and drawings, and a southern history that includes pathological serial killers, and the result is grotesquely fascinating and grotesquely disarming.
So, then, who is Barbara Walters and why should we care?
The story has to be told to someone. The playing with form here is a playing with past and present tense. When Tiger is thus interviewed in scenic interstices by Barbara Walters it’s up to the reader to determine whether these comically awkward present tense moments reveal a character, a Tiger, who is or is not better off at the end.
It might be best for her to marry her apartment house manager (slash) janitor who, noting her “ballet-like litheness,” addresses her as Dolly Floats Across The Room. The scene is not in the novel but such a free-floating anecdote would fit.
As Slab makes clear: in this world which daily hoists abuse and crisis and deprivation on our souls, there’s still room for saving grace and experimental books that are a pleasure to read.
One can find it on the last page of the novel: a photograph of a home that has been shifted from its slab, a dogwood blooming in front, and on the side of that hurricane-shifted house, someone in graffiti-like letters has spray-painted…