Structural Risks: On Mona Houghton’s ‘Frottage & Even As We Speak’

In the wake of disasters, Houghton’s novellas illustrate how to cope: accept that the world today is not how you left it yesterday.

Mona Houghton
Novellas | 172 Pages | 6” x 9” | Reviewed: Paperback
978–0984578221 | First Edition | $14.00
What Books Press | Los Angeles | BUY HERE

Image: What Books Press.

After the First World War ripped the continent to shreds, the artist Wassily Kandinsky made what many consider to be his most important works: his Kleine Welten, or “little worlds.” I’ve looked at a few of these in person, scattered as they are among the museums of the globe; they’re something to see. These prints are so named for Kandinsky’s belief that art depicted self-contained worlds, expressions of the cosmos in miniature. The prints themselves are beautiful and, of course, small: strokes of black, stipples of blue, abstract symbols that your mind easily arranges into oxygen, carbon, tree, animal, landscape. So much complexity, messy on the surface but with an undeniable internal logic. All in a print the size of your palm.

Mona Houghton’s two novellas, Frottage and Even as We Speak, work a similar magic. Though ostensibly taking place in the real world, both leave no doubt that the laws of that reality are skewed. Traumatic abuse, sudden tragedy, and insidious addictions have rendered these characters incapable of living in the world as we know it. They navigate these brave new realities with careful steps, their kleine Welten illustrated in rich, complex interiority.

Frottage is an epistolary novella in which the narrator, Claire, corresponds with her therapist, Paul, in a series of letters that are at once hilarious, unsettling, and revealing. Claire struggles with sex addiction. Though it’s the driver of the story, her husband is rarely present in the narrative. Her life exists in a state of suspended animation brought on by years of sexual abuse by her oldest brother, Richard. He died from epilepsy around the age of 14, before Claire was able to receive intervention or counseling, and so she deals with the after-effects of both the abuse and the traumatic loss on her own as an adult. Much of the story revolves around her adult relationship with her living brother, George, who also suffered from this abuse, and the way they attempt to navigate a world they were taught the wrong rules for:

“When I dream about the future I do not see John and me growing old together, I see me and George, gray and wrinkled, helping each other up the stairs, cooking each other soft-boiled eggs, changing each other’s hearing aide batteries, driving each other to heart specialists (the ventricles, the valves), kidney doctors, rheumatologists. By then, of course, I won’t need a psychiatrist. We will have a small vegetable garden, a chaise lounge each on our patch of green, Georgie will pickle himself each day in alcohol and me, I’ll take care of him, nag him about his drinking, make sure he gets to bed without cracking his head open, take him on walks around the block. Neighbors who know us will know we are siblings and the ones who don’t will think we are an old married couple, and everybody will be right.”

Claire doesn’t make the argument that she was somehow complicit in her own abuse, but she does admit something that, as she puts it, almost makes her vomit on the “pretty blue carpet” of her therapist’s office: she was groomed to like it, and she did like it, and she wanted it to continue, and Richard’s untimely death left a gaping lack in her life. Claire’s intense isolation combined with her sharp, crackling voice is perfect for this one-sided dialogue.

“Dear Paul,
Please, pretty please, don’t be being reductive here. Attention. Acceptance. So clean. So easy to define and say and look at. Words that start with the clearest simplest sounds. Baby noises.
And I know what you’re trying to do, doctor. I know you think you can demystify this sex thing for me, uncomplicate it, uncontaminate it, pull it out into the day time and take away its power.
it. Let’s look at it. It is the glue, all that murky hurt, a thick flannel blanket I love to wrap myself up in […]”

Claire lets us in at all the right times. Her letters to her therapist are each a self-contained idea, poem, rant. Claire’s narrative voice oozes tangible female anger, accusatory and knowing. Her struggle is that she is seeking intimacy, of the sort she’ll never find again, because the kind she is seeking is what she was taught to seek by the damaging actions of her sick older brother. Her desire is steeped in a transgression she can’t approach as an adult. The epistolary format never feels manipulative; what Claire wants is not to lie further, but to tell the truth in such a way as to pull someone else into her kleiner Welt.

The second novella, Even as We Speak, takes another structural risk. Here, a handful of interconnected stories shows us characters taking grand actions or suffering through great changes. In one, an environmental activist kidnaps his daughter as his wife pursues a divorce. In another, a straight-A student finds herself orphaned by a love triangle beyond her understanding. The stories loosely weave together as the characters try to understand the internal logic of the strange, lonely new realities they find themselves inhabiting.

Most striking about the threads in Even as We Speak is how deep the isolation runs. Not that these characters never interact with others, but the interiority is written so richly and evocatively in each. The primary character fills our vision. We can’t see much that they can’t see or think much that they can’t think. Often we complain about not seeing around strange or idiosyncratic narrators, but here it is an evocative blindspot. Much like in Frottage, the grip on reality is tenuous. They know the center cannot hold; it is only a matter of time before someone tracks them down. After Kendra’s parents die in a dual murder of passion, she ignores all offers of care and support to drive through the American Southwest. She is unmoored. In the wake of her tragedy,

“[…] it’s hard to feel like an astronaut making a space walk without that umbilical-like cord connected to the space ship. But still Kendra gives the lawyer nothing, won’t tell him where she is or where she’s going.”

For her and many of these characters, isolation is the only place that makes sense.

These characters can appear to fit into neat stereotypes on the surface. Suzie’s thread, for example, starts out as that of a middle-aged housewife married to a drunk. However, she has a rich backstory that unfolds over the course of the novella. Her present moment is wonderfully bizarre: Suzie is searching for the edge of the finite universe. The writing of this thread is especially gorgeous, a highlight of the work.

“Suzie notices the edges around what Suzie knows is Suzie and knows there is the part of Suzie that isn’t a body part (feelings, moods, intuitions), and she knows from other issues of Science News that these pieces of her that are not concrete and singular — the word “mother” makes 95% of the imaged brains turn blue in exactly the same area and men incarcerated for violent crimes, 95% of the time, have the same glowy red color lurking in the right frontal lobe — are as significant, as meaningful as any liver or heart or ovary. Suzie wants to re-find those pieces, the parts that must connect her, must connect each person, to this universe that is now finite.

Houghton’s work doesn’t leave you bereft. In both pieces, our characters are more or less content with their new alone status in the world; indeed, many of them immerse themselves further and further into their isolated worlds rather than attempt to swim to shore. They may struggle, but eventually indulge. This girl pushes harder. This man digs deeper. Suzie, the gambling addict, lays all her cards on the table and gets ready to double down. In the wake of a lifetime’s worth of disasters, Houghton illustrates what is sometimes the best way to cope: accept the fact that the world today is not how you left it yesterday. Get in your car, point it west, and drive.

LAURA CITINO is a fiction writer and essayist from Michigan, who received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including Passages North, Sou’wester, Gigantic Sequins, and Cream City Review. She is Fiction Editor for Sundog Lit and currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This piece was previously published on The Spark on 5/15/16.