Preparing for Disaster: Encountering Cyclical Loss of Individualism in Julia Brennan’s “Hunting Season”
by Nicole Yurcaba
Hunting Season by Julia Brennan
Tarpaulin Sky Press
When readers first begin Julia Brennan’s 2020 novel Hunting Season published by Tarpaulin Sky Press, they first encounter a semi-erotic italicized narrator paralleling the biblical Eve in the Garden story. After finishing this narrative, which ends with the simple sentence “She called him Knowledge,” readers might hesitantly continue into the next narrative, where they again meet two characters, A and B, and discover that A bears the name Anna, but plot and character details are few, and once again, readers must choose whether they’ll continue pursuing the narrative or close the book. Some readers will deem the first few pages too strange and may close the book and choose another from whatever shelf, stack, etc. they’re facing. Others, however, thanks to Brennan’s deceptively ensnaring prose, will continue their journey into not just one season, but many, and readers will find the cyclical nature of personal seasons — birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood — portrayed via narratives, documentary portrayals, and diary entries only minor preparation for the larger conversations discussing how the cycle of violence influences one’s individualism.
In the novel’s section “Notes to the Foundation,” the narrator makes a haunting observation, one that perhaps nearly any individual alive has made — “When one has been damaged, one might hope to damage someone back.” Here, the narrator acknowledges a desire, one potentially motivated by power. This concept solidifies in the novel’s first titled section “The Mother Figure,” a section in which readers discover the narrator’s name (“Disaster”), and the narrator analyzes the erratic behavior of their mother, subjects they are featuring in documentaries, as well as their own relationship with an assistant named Maxwell. The narrator also establishes a perpetual, generationally passed down cycle of fear, stating “My mother never felt intense fear until the day I was born. After my birth, she felt it all the time.” As the mother enters the fear-cycle, she also loses her individualism due to her awareness that she must care for another human: “…and she was utterly aware of her body, her need to protect her body for me, this baby who needed it.” Later in the narrative, nonetheless, readers learn that Disaster’s mother has grown dependent on tobacco, despite her occupation as a cardiothoracic surgeon which undoubtedly makes her aware of such a habit’s consequences.
The cyclical loss of individualism occurs not only in the mother, but also Disaster. In the book’s second section, “The Hunter/The Artist,” (the title might provoke Kafka fans because of its syntactical similarity to Kafka’s short story “The Hunger Artist”) Disaster confesses a loss of self, admitting “I once loved a man and he is the ghost with the gun below the floorboards. He is looking up from a hole in the wood, shooting up at the pads of my feet.” Here, Disaster confesses vulnerability. Considering that the soles of the feet are not typically a target for hunters when they pursue prey, but that the soles of the feet are sensitive and also the primary source of balance, Disaster’s confession communicates how deeply traumatized she is by this unnamed man, yet the way she speaks of the man bears a tinge of Stockholm Syndrome. The fear, however, is implied rather than stated, and the magic of Brennan’s prose is how readers can interpret Disaster’s reflection about the man as either highly critical and fearful of him, or concernedly affectionate for him. This Stockholm Syndrome-like cycle continues throughout the novel as it depicts various women who have adopted the sport of deer hunting as a means of either forming a sense of confidence, spending time with husbands in order to repair a damaged marriage, or spending time with one’s father by practicing a long-standing tradition. The novel’s message about the loss of individualism by submitting to another’s power then waxes and wanes throughout the novel’s middle, and readers return to Disaster’s own traumas as the traumas continue cycling as Disaster struggles to regain her own individualism and sense of self: “Of course, he is not really here. He is the man running ground inside my head, setting off down a faded network of neural pathways, looping a marathon inside the space of my closed skull circuit. I’ve been searching for him.” Thus, Disaster acknowledges that she unfortunately still belongs to her captor, and a few readers might draw correlations to Disaster’s initial reflections about how her mother felt when Disaster was first born.
Where Disaster (whom readers have now come to also know as Anna) achieves the most individualism is in a section of “The Hanged Girl” titled “The Red-Polka Dotted Diary: Circa 2000.” Playing on the trope that most teenage girls keep, or perhaps kept, a diary (in these uber-technological times, teenagers are more likely to keep a blog, Twitter feed, or Snapchat story), the author reiterates the novel’s introspective, confessional nature, a nature strengthened in the section’s very first sentence: “I have never had any success with the opposite sex.” Throughout the diaries entries, readers encounter a young woman examining her self-worth in the context of the perceptions that others, including the opposite sex, have of her. Nonetheless, more than any character in the novel, Disaster’s self-awareness and self-development, her grasp of freedom and individualism, blare honestly: “When this imagery of a long past euphoria ceases to float through my brainwaves to clog those sacred places of rational thinking, I will slurp-kiss the heavens and with the choirs of angels exult: ‘I am free from this persistent bondage.’” Then, the Stockholm Syndrome-like tone returns, and Disaster’s acknowledgment of the cyclical nature of fear and oppression instilled by a patriarchal society gains universality: “This is the plight of the female: she claims she is a feminist, and she is one, she truly is one, but the male can so easily seduce her, trap her, ensnare her. He can turn her upside down and he might even delight in watching her hang.” The awareness apexes when, later in the entries, Disaster states “We push ourselves into petite boxes, lock our passions up, and pray we forget we had these gifts…It’s all about discovering yourself and letting your intellectual curiosity lead you to the people you will learn to love.”
As the novel shapeshifts into its end, readers watch Disaster and other characters encounter and engage with one oppressive force and situation after another. In the section “Not Nosferatu,” Disaster reveals “I want to climb outside of my body. I think I’ve found the metal rung. You live inside of yours and make do, shaping a curtain from the lining. I envy your ability to slow down.” She continues, “Sometimes I want to disappear like foam, only to re-form and return, riding the back of another wave, back into the time when you and I shared one space.” Some readers may interpret Disaster’s statements as an admission that in order to achieve full self-awareness, one must continually form and re-form themselves at multiple levels. Others, however, might interpret Disaster’s insights as a confession that she has lost her individualism and still bears affection for the captor who so deeply traumatized her in the past.
This concept of shaping and reshaping one’s self in order to achieve full self-awareness ultimately ends the novel. While readers are still witnessing Disaster’s development, while they are still watching her regain and re-establish her individualism, readers also observe Disaster’s fortitude and determination, her cognizance of her freewill. However, Disaster recognizes that this cognizance required submission to others, and therefore her development of self-awareness is not entirely independent: “My escape plan involved an exit through another man. I began to love another man to muster the audacity required to leave you.” Unfortunately, this particular confession acknowledges that even though, on many levels, Disaster has reached an even mature sense of self and individuality, an oppressive patriarchal system still remains as an overbearing determiner and oppressor.
In prose and with a structure reminiscent of Yelena Moskovich’s Virtuoso, Julia Brennan’s Hunting Season takes readers on a chaotic journey through emotional channels where violence and oppression reign supreme and act as the determining motivators for one’s actions, existence, behaviors, and personality. Hunting Season also tackles and questions the societal fascination with perpetrator-victim narratives, and it examines the hierarchy of power established by not only traditional values, but traditional roles. This book will both fascinate and repulse readers, and those who are brave enough to finish it will find themselves haunted enough by it to deem it worthy of a second reading.
Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as the Assistant Director to the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, is the recipient of a July 2020 Writing Residency at Gullkistan, Creative Center for the Arts in Iceland, and is a Tupelo Press June 2020 30 for 30 featured poet. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from the UK press Black Spring Eyewear Group in 2022.