Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I think that I expected Selah Saterstrom to be ten, maybe 20 years, older than she actually is. That was my first thought when I met her for the first time last Saturday in Chapel Hill, a couple of hours before we read together in the Desert City Reading Series there. Both her content & her ability to handle it suggest, to me at least, someone considerably older than 30. I know that I didn’t possess the wherewithal to really confront subjects like rape, incest, alcoholism, the whole family dysfunction package, until I was much older – and, frankly, I was lucky, most of that was on the peripheries of my own story. Some folks don’t get that luxury.

Imagine, if you will, As I Lay Dying as told by Dodie Bellamy – that might give you some sense of what reading The Pink Institution, Saterstrom’s first novel, might be like as an experience. Like the Faulkner classic, The Pink Institution is not simply the telling of a story of a family totally out of control, with a strong Southern flavor – Saterstrom comes from Mississippi herself, tho from Natchez on the Louisiana border line, quite a bit further south than Faulkner’s Oxford – but it is also the telling of multiple generations in a very spare book. One might think of this novel as a Southern Gothic, but handled in just over 130 pages, most of which have more than a little white space, several of which have either photos or section titles or epigrams like “These songs could be heard in the ears of dogs.” Here is a chapter called “Stationery”:

Azalea discovered scratches on Ginger’s face. Ginger said two nuns had done it. Several days later Azalea went out shopping. The old woman who watched the children saw two nuns pulling Ginger toward the garden gate. She began a child tug-of-war with the nuns. The nuns said Ginger was a naughty child who escaped from the orphanage. The old woman began praying in tongues. haw    skimy     malahi        jeezzuz         cr       eye                st. The nuns ran away. Ginger acquired an expensive piece of stationery on which she recorded the family’s sins and annoyed them all. There was no convent. There was in 1870, but it had burned.

Ginger, as it happens, is the narrator’s aunt, a detail we don’t learn for another 35 pages, when the narrator herself first appears.

The Pink Institution seems always to be two things at once, as if Saterstrom set out deliberately to create the impossible: post-avant Southern gothic, spare – even beautiful – bildungsroman, a dense, heavy experience that is also often quite cheerful, humorous & a “quick read” – I completed it in one day, quite a contrast from Don Quixote which I’ve been working my way through for six months now, with at least five left to go yet. If The Pink Institution’s not perfectly successful – I felt like the sections in which the narrator appears toward the end were less sharply defined, as if this were the one portion of the tale Saterstrom herself couldn’t quite imagine – it’s an imperfection that reveals just how absent of flaws the rest of this volume actually is.

I’d read bits & pieces of this book on the web, part of my homework preparing for my visit to Chapel Hill. But I don’t think that’s the way to read this book at all. You really ought to immerse yourself in it for a day to pull up all of its rewards. It will make you stop & contemplate whatever parallels might exist in the histories of your own family. This book would also, as I think the passage above clearly suggests, make for a great audio CD or, better yet, a marathon reading by the author, cover to cover in a single evening or day. But should that ever happen, you may be surprised, I think, by the sunny young person who shows up as its author.