Narrative as Provocation
MAY 18, 2016
DOUGLAS PICCINNINI’S Story Book: A Novella suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation. Story Book explores narratives of self-imposed amnesia, bloody encounters at home and on the road, Oedipal rage, suburban cocoons and the anxiety of marriage, male sexuality and therapy sessions gone awry, Catholic school and homosociality, confrontations with love, death, and surveillance, and of course, the purported cure-all of worst-case scenario guides. The “novella” is composed of a series of short stories which all begin with the title, “Chapter 1.” Each Chapter 1, laced with metatextuality, develops its own existential confusions before arriving at a moment of implosion or interruption.
Story Book is thus about a modern man, a modern artist, and a modern thinker disabled by language. The ghosts of Gertrude Stein, A. R. Ammons, and Samuel Beckett haunt Piccinnini’s prose as each chapter performs its role as self-confrontation or self-interview. Piccinnini’s power as a writer emerges when his disabled speaker learns how to articulate himself, and how to use the very language that hinders his understanding of himself, in order to climb out of existential dilemmas and tailspins.
The “novella” begins with a young man who finds himself alone in a public park. He is without keys, money, or identification, and he is completely disoriented. He cannot recall anything about his life: his reason for being alive, the nation he belongs to, or even the language he speaks. The details of his own narrative — the markers of his identity and socialization — slowly come back to him in opaque, half-understood forms as he attempts to perform and record his own story:
My recourse was to remember, to recite what I could. What I could from memory, aloud to hear how to perform. Then could if I tried …
Like beginning is speaking is beginning. I mean, as if I hadn’t said anything recently. The way you could spend all day thinking and not speaking, the mouth out of practice. The mouth disabled, persistently in the dull echo of swallowing …
I could begin if I could begin.
I recited one of the first things I remembered remembering.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic, for which it stands,
One nation, under God, indivisible
With liberty and justice for all.”
I felt confident, with hope that my recitation might build meaning to place. Place me somewhere, thinking.
I must live in the United States then.
I am in the United States. I am speaking and thinking in English like an American.
Like one does, I think.
Piccinnini’s training as a poet illuminates his work, the structure of his prose echoing the long-lines of Ammons and Walt Whitman. These rolling lines are less biting than Ginsberg’s, but through a Stein–like interplay of sense and nonsense, his diction evokes vulnerability and makes evident the emotional, psychological, and cultural stakes involved. In this space of confusion, syntax and grammar break down as the speaker attempts to reformulate his own expression and empower his own disabled tongue. As language learns to articulate itself, ready-made forms of cultural capital — such as the privilege of being an American or speaking in the neo-colonizing tongue of English — are challenged by the speaker’s very inability to give them significance or import. In this Chapter 1 and in others, the parameters of the speaker’s life, of his identity, and of his sexuality are called into question by the birth and death of language.
Another “Chapter 1” begins with the simple provocation: “What did I love?” In this chapter, the speaker sits alone at his computer trying to decipher the meaning of his relationships with women and his odd infatuation with words. He ponders the difficulty of writing an address, a story in which the perspectives of the “you” and “I” combine and trade places. He considers how easily days of productivity disappear as the writer attempts to get a sense of urgency on paper. He writes, “I feel the quotation of an afternoon, emptied — empty before me,” and then reveals:
This is the third time I’ve lived with a woman.
I’ve been in love before. I’ve been loved. I’ve also wanted to have sex with the same person over and over again but that is not love, I think.
Sex can be love. But love and sex are different, obviously. Is it obvious? Sometimes you’ll want to have sex with someone you don’t know and never want to know. You’ll find yourself destroying a complete stranger in some compromising position. It would seem to be some biological failure, love and how we live.
This is the first time I’ve been married. I love my wife. I read recently, “Love is a condition of understanding.” I’m quoting from memory. It sounds like something you might read anywhere.
A nagging sense of quotation, of living a life built on quotation marks haunts the novella. The speakers of his stories are troubled by the thought that their very human existence and their desires for creative expression have already been written and have found a home in someone else’s prose. The fear of living a life already recorded and already performed by literary archetypes creates a start-and-stop motion in Piccinnini’s prose.
Later in the same chapter, the speaker’s wife comes upon his empty desk and opens his computer. She begins to read what he has written on the screen, and thinks it’s pretty boring. But soon she becomes concerned with the line, “Love is a condition of understanding.” She considers whether her husband has been untrue and sits down to hunt on his computer. As soon as she does, though, she becomes easily distracted:
She is feeling badly about looking through his writing but it’s exciting, not the writing, but like looking through old photos, report cards, a piece of string that one time had some meaning that you’ve kept and can’t remember why.
I like that part, she thinks, about “the details look as though they’ve been dropped onto a sheet of gray construction paper.” That is ok.
She starts thinking about being a child and making collages on construction paper. How she used plastic scissors with rounded tips. Voices of childhood friends start sliding around in her head. They, she, they’ve talked about it — want to have a baby but not right now. There just isn’t enough money right now. She understands, she thinks, why this — why is it not possible. Does he want to leave me?
In Piccinnini’s stories, the emotional, psychological, and even financial tolls of being a creator, a writer of one’s own life story, are examined with brutal honesty. This chapter pivots on the question of love, as the speaker constructs his narrative by drawing the reader’s eye to the slippage between “you” and “I.” He then goes on to narrate how he saw a dead man once fished out from the Delaware River, and then later, when he lived in Brooklyn, how a neighbor would stand nude in front of his apartment window, flexing, after work. In between these memories are the attempts by the speaker to identify himself. He notes that he’s an Aries and married. As he reads his horoscope for the day (November 7, 2013), the point of view shifts to “you.” But through these mental exercises, what does the speaker love? As he tries to record his memories, his prose begins to take on a fantastic and fictional element. He imagines his wife reading his prose and reacting to it. And later in the chapter, she actually does. Here the narrative shifts again, seamlessly from the I/you hybrid of the speaker’s thinking voice to the internal monologue and anxieties associated with the wife’s third-person limited point of view. The wife’s perspective reveals what’s at stake for both of them: money, fidelity, stagnation. After the wife “gets up from his desk,” a horoscope follows: “March 12th, 2014: Aries: You may be feeling you are overwhelmed by all the work you have to do … As long as you don’t panic, and you stay focused and consistent, you will have a clean slate by the time Friday rolls around.” Time and the story literally jump: this time four months into the future. And the speaker who begins the story is never heard from again. The narrative returns, instead, to the figure of the wife, whose actions this time around speak of finality: “She got up from his desk.” This last line of the story closes the chapter’s rumination on love and meaning.
In many of Piccinnini’s stories, the reader assumes the role of a confidant or that of a priest at a confessional. But there is something subversive and uncanny in these stories as well. As a reader, you feel like you are trespassing into the ultra-personal, peeking at the moment when personhood is formed or destroyed, where characters just begin to crystallize at the moment of arrival.
Another “Chapter 1” focuses on a cross-country trucker. He begins his confession with, “On the last part of the drive, when I could tell I was close, the land in front of me opened up. It was like a feeling dissolving. Almost like winning and losing at the same time.” A sense of dissolving is echoed in the very construction of this chapter, as parts of the driver’s narrative are literally erased from the story and supplemented with the words “[TEXT MISSING].” The “burden of arriving” and erasure haunt the driver who finds himself alone at a “fucking Waffle House” for dinner and then a lonely motel room for a night’s sleep. To occupy himself, he flips through the “pay-per-view Adult section” on TV, and then he starts “thinking about all the guys that could’ve been in those same rooms looking through the Adult section with their cocks in their hands and the remote in the other, and that made me turn off the TV and wash my hands for a good while.” But on another day of driving, the speaker’s moral indignation gives way to a quick moment of relief with the program Lusty Ladies. The next morning, he continues his vagabond’s journey:
I stopped at McDonald’s to take a shit somewhere — an hour past KC, MO — and when I was walking through the parking lot, some kids yelled, “Hey you FAGGOT” out of the window of their car as they pulled on the highway from the drive-through.
The sun was just up over the road and in five minutes those boys would find themselves — their Chevy Beretta — swerving into the median at 70 plus miles an hour.
When I passed them in my car they still had a few minutes to live.
I waved at them.
Life, death, emotional and psychic integrity, and honesty mix together with a healthy dose of schadenfreude, absurdity, and distress in Piccinnini’s collection of beginnings. One never knows what to expect of these narratives, which seem to simultaneously create and destroy their own conceits. These are narratives aware of their own self-performance, repetitions, and attempts at union. High on provocation, they easily seduce and discomfort the reader. You arrive as a reader “to destroy yourself.” This is a text concerned not just with the possibilities of having fulfilling or meaningful “futures,” but rather with taking a hard look at the possibilities and worth of the present, because the only way to escape existential angst, Story Book suggests, is through the very act of creation, of writing, of repetition, of collage, and of meditation. Or as Piccinnini dares his speaker and reader: “Place me somewhere, thinking.”
Rita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. She teaches on modernism, South Asian literature, and art house film at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany.
Originally published at lareviewofbooks.org.