Monday, October 02, 2006

Debra Di Blasi, with whom I read at the KGB bar in New York the week before last, has two books out, Drought & Say What You Like from New Directions, Prayers of an Accidental Nature from Coffee House Press, with a new book, The JirĂ­ Chronicles, forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2 – that is sort of the hat trick among post-avant fiction publishers.

Drought, which won the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, was also made into a prize-winning short film by Lisa Moncure with a script by Di Blasi. Reading the novella, which accounts for a little more than three-quarters of this 90-page book, you can see how the story translates without too much difficulty into a medium like film. Its short chapters virtually storyboard themselves as scenes. Here, in its entirety, is “Name”:

She turns into the light. To no one – not even herself – she says, “Kale.”

This takes up the whole of page 11 in this 68-page tale, which gives you some idea of just how quickly this story goes by. Only one chapter, the very last, goes beyond a single page. And it does so just by three paragraphs, two of which are composed of single sentences. And those sentences are just two words each.

This is a story set vaguely somewhere east of the Rockies & told with chapters so brief that you can’t help but think of Faulkner’s great As I Lay Dying as something of a model for the genre – spare to the point of Zen-like, albeit some goth version of Zen noir. Like Faulkner’s little masterpiece, this is the tale of a family, but whereas Faulkner’s family is large & multigenerational, each chapter given the name of the person who is “speaking” or perhaps “thinking” its words, Drought is done much more in the third person, and if there is a point of view, it belongs to Willa, the painter-illustrator trying to survive a loveless & still childless marriage to a writer, the aforenamed Kale, a couple that has returned to the family farm tho neither seems particularly suited to making their living at such a difficult, all consuming endeavor. Willa’s father makes a brief appearance early on & her brother Richard, the object of three letters, is the narrative framework for the last chapter. But mostly this is Willa & Kale, almost entirely from Willa’s point-of-view. Here, for example, is “Heron”:

The oar moves in slow deliberate strokes through the water, first on the left, then on the right. Within the ripples gathering on the surface is the distorted reflection of an arm, its muscles contracting with each downward sing of the oar.

At the far end of the point where the bank shifts from clay to buckbush, a diseased elm stands dying against the colorless sky. A single branch – skeletal, a dry gray bone – sways from the sudden weight of a great blue heron. The bird cocks its head to the side, listening, then forces a mournful call into the silence it discovers.

The oar stops. The muscles relax.

This is, tho it appears fairly early on, an important chapter and that first sentence in its second paragraph strikes me as capturing a great deal of what is going on in this story. It’s well crafted, especially up to the comma, but the key terms of the latter half – diseased, dying, colorless – overwhelm me. If I hadn’t picked up the subtext by now, skeletal & bone in the next sentence will drive it home two more times. Yet the last sentence in this paragraph is simply magnificent – it’s one of those sentences I wish I’d written – forces a mournful call into the silence it discovers is about as good as writing is allowed to get. Anyone who has spent much time watching great blue herons will know exactly what Di Blasi means.

Di Blasi’s economy of writing is so spare that there are moments when I think of chapters here as being not unlike Hemingway’s Nick Adam stories, his very best work. Or possibly influence by the work of Wright Morris, who more than anyone, found a style that wedded what was powerful about both Faulkner & Hemingway, and who also took that great plain that is Nebraska, Kansas & Missouri as his subject as well.

This is an interesting – and in some sense most radical – aspect of Di Blasi’s work. I often sense, for example, that when post-avant writers are visibly taking up influences from high modernism that there is a strain of nostalgia at play in the work – consider Ondaatje’s Hemingway in The English Patient, for example, or Walker’s Faulkner in The Color Purple, or Maso’s Beckett in Ava. Not so Di Blasi – my sense is that she is doing something closer to Jurgen Habermas called for in his great talk on postmodernity, going back to modernism to finish the project right this time. In this sense, Di Blasi’s own stance is probably closer to language poetry, whose own impulses as a collective activity always struck me as neo-modern in much the same way. (And in this sense, someone to read alongside Di Blasi might be Carla Harryman, the language writer with the deepest engagement in fictive structures.)

This feels even more true in Say What You Like, the second novella – really a short story in 39 chapters.¹ In Drought, the characters have names, back stories, a sense of place. In Say What You Like, character is reduced to gendered pronouns, there are no back stories, there is no “location.”

Gender relations are key to both tales & Di Blasi is not an optimist on relations between the sexes. While women are allowed here to feel aroused – and to act on it – force is seen as central to the dynamics of sex. That observation is something akin to a gyroscope here – it is what gives balance and motion to both of these tales.


¹ Printed here over 18 pages, tho it probably would have worked better to have run it, like Drought, one section to a page, one of those mind-boggling design decisions that New Directions sometimes makes, making you wonder even more why they would go out to get a great cover artist like Tim Davis & then scrimp on paper.