Affinity Konar - Worth reading simply for the way she perverts and pummels her sentences, for the exuberance and eccentricity of her language

Affinity Konar, The Illustrated Version of Things (Fiction Collective 2, 2009)

"The Illustrated Version of Things is the tale of a young woman, raised in foster homes, juvenile halls, and a mental hospital, on a quest to reunite her disparate family and track down her missing mother. There are her grandparents, Holocaust survivors who reckon with history by staying in bed with their cowboy boots on; her father, a nurse who makes vitamins as a hobby; and her half-brother, an overachiever who doesn't know whether his name is Moses or Miguel, but is certain that his sister isn't capable of leading a steady life. More than these, she longs for her mother, and she embarks on a search that leads her into the company of pedophiles, vagrant gamblers, fortune tellers, and musical ghosts. Enchantment and conjured memories become her only hope for finding her mother, until she undertakes a last-chance gambit--voluntary incarceration in the jail that might hold her mother--that will either set her free or follow her for life. Konar's characters, incredible, tragic, and sympathetic, keep us in a state of deranged rapture, making The Illustrated Version of Things an original and irresistible fiction debut."

“Affinity Konar has invented a language. It’s sonorous, brilliant, and at least half insane; its word substitutions and trickery are both charming and maddening, reminding us of the thoughts we almost but never quite had. Like Samuel Beckett, this is literature for the superhuman: reading it makes us greater than we are.”—Lydia Millet

“Through sentences which gyre at the joints like flophouse fire-escapes and medical mannequins, Konar’s narrator shuttles through women’s prisons, nurses’ stations, foster homes, pedophiles’ apartments, principals’ offices, and magicians’ proprooms on her quest to reunite with her absent mother. Hers is an urgent errancy, an errant urgency; each vice meets its versa in the happy collisions and improvised relationships these sentences contrive.”

“Affinity Konar is a master of the most strange and seductive kind of deadpan exuberance. This novel wonderfully echoes some other great, funny writers (Elkin, Gombrowicz), but in the end it makes its own mark. The Illustrated Version of Things is a singular, and thrilling, debut.”—Sam Lipsyte

"Emotionally raw and curiously disjointed, this first novel follows the increasing alienation of a mentally unstable young woman in pursuit of her mother. The unnamed narrator and her younger half-brother, Miguel, were taken from their addict mother and grew up in numerous foster homes. Over the last year the narrator has been institutionalized, then placed with her dotty grandparents, while Miguel has been living with a more conventional family and attending high school. Though the narrator wants to be part of Miguel's clean-cut new life, her ill-fated attempts at fitting in-cheating, selling her meds-only embarrass him. For a while, she is reunited with her biological father, but she begins to wander from one bizarre adventure to another, in and out of jobs, then returns to the hospital, hoping to be readmitted. The search for her mother begins to consume her, perilously, as she turns delusional, all the while grasping for scraps of information that win her more derision than sympathy. Konar's daffy coming-of-age novel isn't entirely convincing, but the moments of bold, vivid prose show promise." - Publishers Weekly

"In her startling first novel, Affinity Konar melds equal parts beat poetry and classical quest into something fresh and charming. Released from an institution at the age of majority, Konar's unnamed heroine is just one member of a motley crew of mentally ill whores and whoresons, johns, and Holocaust survivors brought together by the accident of being a family. Single-minded, undeveloped, and central to every scene, the protagonist nonetheless affords the reader a fascinating prism through which to view the world as she flails and fails through every human interaction in an attempt to find and reunite a family scattered. Though she gives us a twisted tour of the margins populated by pimps, nurses, prostitutes, gym teachers, and pedophiles—in short, a crew that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel—Konar writes in a detached style more reminiscent of Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String, but more pinkly human. We experience this girl’s journey through hazy alogical exchanges and madcap wordplay, but mad as she may be, this girl is no Hatter. Instead of honest-to-goodness nonsense, we’re left with an ultimately pleasing series of achingly articulated literary poses and the ragged shattered-crystal experience of the deeply strange that we prize and expect from FC2. Rather than focusing on anything real, each of Konar’s characters seems to be transfixed by some vision of normality that is just out of sight. And, while her plot is nothing new, Konar deserves high marks for these darkly poetic portraits of distress and disease, and for her characters’ painful striving." - Jeff Waxman

"The plucky unnamed street urchin who narrates Affinity Konar’s vivid and disturbing first novel, The Illustrated Version of Things, is seemingly sprung from a Carson McCullers novel. A high school version of Jodie Foster’s knock-kneed nymph in Taxi Driver, she possesses an almost beatific naïveté that is decidedly Dargeresque, despite being a survivor of the streets and the foster-care system and recently released from a mental hospital.
Konar’s novel is set in the realms of the wacky if not the unreal; it’s a weirdo adventure story in which the narrator is ostensibly searching for her mother, who has been mysteriously incarcerated. The book’s other characters, who, it seems, exist to abet her search or to act as alternate family members, are gothic grotesques—her mother’s former pimp; the narrator’s biological father, a male nurse who makes vitamins; a pedophile who wears his mother’s hair as a wig; a bag lady the narrator directs to act like her brother. Then there is her actual brother, alternately named Miguel and Moses, who has been placed with a new foster family during the narrator’s time in the mental ward. He acts as a saner and skeptical Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote. Throughout the novel, the girl misfit gets into a series of violent altercations out of boredom or some unexplained impulse. Eventually, she gets herself locked up in a women’s prison in order to meet her imprisoned mother, who, the reader discovers, has escaped or been released and has now become a magician’s assistant, in a scene that resembles a kiddie version of Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio.
The Illustrated Version of Things calls to mind Deborah Levy’s marvelously lunatic Billy and Girl, although Levy’s tale—also about a brother and sister hoping to find their birth mother—is a tightly choreographed series of explosions, whereas Konar’s is a sprawling misadventure. One also thinks of J. T. Leroy’s truck-stop victim lit and Stanley Elkin’s sick and twisted carnivalesque universe. There is a madness and violence to Konar’s narrator, and this emerges through the language, unfamiliar and strange, the pace building at times to a glorious insanity in passages surreal and associative, seemingly written on an all-night hallucinogen bender. When the narrator apologizes to a blind foster child, nicknamed Mustache, for stabbing him with her fork, it occurs to her “that showing him my regret might be better, so I push my most contrite and athletic drumstick in his direction. He still fails to accept my apology, and this is when I realize that nothing I could do would ever be enough. I could bite my tongue for him. I could light candles, scatter seed, bring him the head of foam from some dark beer. Walk on hot clocks. Wear mosquitoes in my hair. I could shed three drops of blood from my eyes. Hail a taxi. Wave palm fronds. And Mustache would just sit there in his barbeque stains. He would not be moved.
If there is a larger theme in Konar’s work—a meditation on misfits and vagabonds, for instance—it is hidden by her pyrotechnic style. It is difficult to tell whether she views her characters with empathy or as tragedies or merely as wacky objects. But the novel is worth reading simply for the way Konar perverts and pummels her sentences, for the exuberance and eccentricity of her language, its lurid energy and rhythms." - Kate Zambreno

"Affinity Konar’s debut novel opens with a mentally-unbalanced young woman being released from an institution because she has just turned eighteen. She moves back in with her aged grandparents and, desperate for a normal life, quickly sets about reassembling her scattered family, starting with her half-brother and her father. She then undertakes a lengthy search for her runaway mother, although her attention soon enough wavers, causing the tenuous quest narrative to drift in and out. (The middlemost chapters more or less drop the plot and read instead like a string of short stories, although this is hardly a complaint: they’re good short stories.)
The overall missing-family arc, however, is of secondary importance. What really drives Konar’s novel is unrelenting wordplay: her restless narrator just can’t leave language alone. Her descriptions and expositions collage diverse types of illogic and jokey rhetoric: surrealistic word salad, parataxis, nonsense poetry, absurdist reductions, malapropisms, metonymy, twee riddles, cartoonish depictions of appalling behavior—and, occasionally, pitch-perfect imitations of Groucho Marx: “The magazine leads me to a neighborhood where people glare over their rosebushes for recreation.
Compounding the narrator’s own verbal evasiveness is the fact the characters around her speak only in obstructions, constantly arguing and stonewalling by means of one-ups and puns. When the narrator tries (for reasons that never become all too clear) to forcibly enter the suburban home of a pedophile, her pants leg starts smoldering, having caught some sparks from an unidentified something that is “burning on the doorstep”:
“Can I come in?”
“Maybe when you’re not so much on fire,” he says.
“Not even to use the sink?”
“Look,” he says, and his thumb indicates the clutter of a lair behind him. “I’ve got a lot of valuables in there. I don’t need them getting scorched. Or looked at.”
The next day, the narrator returns to try to help the sex-offender (whom she designates “Mr. Smudge”) to bury an opossum that’s passed away on the same eventful doorstep: “It’s my house,” Mr. Smudge says. “And I don’t like you touching my things. That possum grew up here, just like me. We have something in common that you don’t. He’s mine.”
And so, faced with such taxing adult obstinacy, it makes perfect sense when the narrator returns midway through her story to the institution she’s been kicked out of—wanting, we can see, for familiar surroundings, and fellow inmates whom she can at least pretend are her friends. But even there she’s refused admission and honest human contact (and thereby an identity):
I see parties of families going in. They seem happy to be there. The head nurse writes their names out on nametags so they can become visitors, there, on the other side of the door, but to begin with they’re family. They cross themselves, surrender sharp objects, bear fruit.
“Is it because I didn’t bring anything?” I ask. “Is that why you won’t let me in?”
“That could be a reason if I was looking for a reason,” the nurse says. “But I don’t need another reason. Now, am I right or am I right?”
After repeatedly being denied admittance by the Kafkaesque head nurse, the narrator settles for recalling a time on the inside when she sold her urine, which was clean and therefore “coveted.” Then, coming to her senses, she resolves to cut her hair—to become someone else, and to start anew. But the next chapter sees her adrift at a string of locales—a roller rink, a beach, a fortune teller’s, a therapist’s, a church...—all of which promise the possibility of a normal self, but then fail to deliver. None of them, in fact, seems any more coherent or rational than the forbidden mental institution (which is, at least, an institution).
While some of the novel’s chapters read, perhaps, as being more necessary than others, the overall text quickly becomes addictive. Konar’s high-concept style never disappoints, and multiple sections coalesce into heartbreaking sequences, such as a particularly gorgeous subplot in which the narrator’s father repeatedly sends his daughter away, ordering her first not to look like her estranged mother, then not to sound like her, then not to smell like her, etc. Finally, the father insists that his daughter tell him only lies, triggering this response:
'I explain that I don’t want to lie to him. Not on purpose at least. I come from a line of honest mistakes, things said without thinking, words that popped out of people who were just getting by. They really thought they’d have the rent by Sunday. They really believed they couldn’t get people pregnant.'
Konar’s greatest achievement throughout is that her unyielding verbal gymnastics never come across as calculated, but rather demonstrate a genuinely believable bewilderment over language. The layered puns and the fractured meanings, the fitful half-starts and stops and redundant U-turns, the nonsense and the shamefully revealing over-significations—they all steadily build up into a touchingly confused voice, the sweetly hopeful confession of a very troubled character. The unnamed narrator at the center of The Illustrated Version of Things speaks the way she does not to be clever, not to parade her wit before family and friends and ultimately the reader, but because she knows no other way to speak. Language routinely fails her; she flails, desperate not to lie again, but with each word she’s betrayed once more, once again caught lying. Her heroic attempt to make it all make sense, to provide a definitively transparent illustration, goes repeatedly awry, time and again obscured and deflected and confounded—but remains illuminating, and moving. Her choked-up version of the things that comprise her twisted life is ever artful." - A D Jameson

"I will not start by mentioning that Affinity Konar’s The Illustrated Version of Things [sic] is a ‘first’ novel. The story is so adeptly written that I feel confident that there is nothing ‘first’ about it—surely there is a drawer in her file cabinet filled with progressively better unpublished novels. (May they rest in peace.)
Nor will I try to ‘out-Konar’ her odd sentences and word games, as other reviewers have (unfortunately) been tempted to attempt. Words take surprising, often delightful, turns in this story.
Set in the present, and intentionally ‘experimental’—the book is a curious throwback to a Dickens novel insofar as it deals with society’s losers, particularly the narrator, an unnamed 18 year old girl, recently discharged from a mental institution. She was raised in foster homes, hardly attended school, was sexually abused by her mother’s pimp, turned tricks for quarters, was sent to reform school and afterwards to a mental hospital. She sometimes appears to have the mental age of a 12 year old (and at other times to have earned an MFA at Columbia.) She is addicted to, or afflicted by, drugs, both legal and illegal.
Despite her unhappy back-story, there is no Dickensian sentimentality, no direct appeal for the reader’s sympathy, nothing smarmy in her narration. Her expressionless telling illustrates the deadening impact of her past. There are no tears, no whimpers, no rage, but oddly, no apathy or cynicism. Instead, she exhibits a nutty optimism that once she finds her mother (who seems to be in prison) everything will be O.K. This quest supplies what little plot the novel contains, and is sufficient to keep us wondering “What happens next?”
But it is not the story that holds our attention The fascination lies in Konar’s use of language, and her way of imagining an impaired human being. Mostly, it works—the narrator appears to be genuinely confused—her insights plausibly upside-down. For example, offering a cheerleader to her mother’s ex-pimp:
“I brought you something,” I tell my tutor. … I bring out his watch and wave it before her eyes. [to hypnotize the cheerleader, as the pimp/tutor hypnotized narrator in her childhood] It’s not so much that I want to control her. It’s just that I want her to do as I say…
At a racetrack with her father:
'…Everywhere it’s a sure thing. There’s a perfecta of horses, a payoff of saddles, gangs of white backsides hoisting themselves into the air… they’re all hoping here, and for that reason they’re the happiest people I’ve ever seen. I tell Dad so.
“You just wait and see,” he says.'
As the race is run:
'… The hoping crowd is no longer so hopeful. Some get happier, they whistle and high their fives. Others hide in their hats…'
Her father tries to teach her not to gamble by making her gamble to excess. She has backed ‘Patriarch” (a loser) while her father has backed ‘Love of My Life’:
'Dad gets excited. Veins mount his forehead.
“Love of My Life.” He shouts, “don’t let me down now.”
…my father yells, “you owe me. You owe me big… You took all my money. I guess it doesn’t matter. You left me lonely and childless. I guess you had your reasons. You made a joke of me, Love of My Life. I guess I’ll live.”
And then Dad turns to me, just as the end is near.
“I’ve had enough,” he says.'
His horse wins. He spends his winnings teaching the narrator not to drink by making her drink to excess.
They also try learning not to lie, by making up stupendous untruths. Her father breaks down when he hears her story of how she and her mother came to leave him:
'And I explain to him that sometimes we have to do things in excess in order to never do them again’
“Sob faster,” I say.'
The presence of the author, as the Wizard behind a curtain, is sometimes jarring—but as with a puppet show, it is possible to enjoy both seeing it work and seeing how it works.
The final chapters, leading to a reunion with her mother, are increasingly surreal (and maybe symbolic—I don’t know much about symbols.) An interesting book, a bit outside the mainstream. It may be more interesting still to read her next book—assuming the lords of publishing grant her a second experiment." - Anthony Barker

"The Illustrated Version of Things, Affinity Konar’s debut novel, chronicles an unnamed narrator’s attempts to piece herself into an adult world almost indecipherable to her because of a tortured childhood. Her human landscape has been sculpted by the pimps and addicts her mother depended on, by the cruel and complicated series of foster parents she and her younger brother were forced to live with when their mother was sent to prison, by fellow incarcerated children at juvenile facilities, and by the nurses and patients in the psychiatric ward in which she spent her seventeenth year. The book begins when the narrator is expelled from a mental institution at eighteen.
The plot centers around her peculiar but diligent efforts to compose a family from the shards of relatives immediately available to her. She starts with her paternal grandparents, holocaust survivors that sleep in their boots in case they need to flee. Next she reconnects with her younger, seemingly better-adjusted brother, Moses, who has tried in her absence to reinvent himself—ethnicity and all—by forgetting his past and changing his name to Miguel. Then she works in her father, a nurse she hasn’t seen since childhood, whose well-intentioned and inept attempts to nurture her arrive too late. The specter of her missing mother, and the narrator’s growing resolution to actively seek her out, hovers throughout the book.
The plot, however, is hardly what propels this novel forward. The book was published by the Fiction Collective 2, a nonprofit dedicated to experimental, artistically daring works—and here the experimentation is partially the novel’s voice. Largely because of the jumbled and illogical associations created by its mentally and emotionally challenged narrator, the text is surreal in almost every aspect: on the level of sentence and paragraph, scene and chapter.
This means that all the reader can predict is that something unpredictable will happen. When the narrator becomes jealous of her brother’s relationship with her father, for example, she demotes him to the role of ex-brother and decides to “trap a new brother by sunup”—which she accomplishes by catching a homeless woman with a wishbone. The narrator sneaks the woman to her father’s house, soaks away the layers of refuse covering her, and informs her she is to replace Moses. The woman protests, suggesting she would rather be a mother. Soon the woman’s confusion and insanity prove to be even greater than the narrator’s, who caves in to the woman’s wishes. “I can’t leave,” she tells her ex-brother when he discovers the disintegrating woman his sister has brought home, “She’s like a mother to me now.”
This fast-paced succession of outlandish turns is echoed on the sentence level, to a sparkling effect—but of course, a sparkling more like the flickers of neon beer signs on roadside puddles than of stars on a lake’s surface. A random sampling of sentences: “When I don’t respond favorably to the cats’ offers of brotherhood, they circle the trap and mew. They begin to multiply themselves in vengeance.” And: “My grandmother takes my hand. She likes to take things that belong to me because it makes her feel nearer my father…” And: “A woman calls, she says that my grandfather just walked in the door with a sharp instrument saluting from his chest.” And, from a memory of her mother: “We had sores all over ourselves, we opened them up with our fingers and the blood ran out, but then it ran right back in again and sealed the holes shut. She was so glad to see us, she said.”
Because of the dreaminess of voice and form, at points this novel is a tug-of-war between Kathy Acker and Tom Waits. At its strongest, it makes the reader feel as though the accepted adult world makes no real rational sense; the tone reverberates with those first, earliest memories of childhood. Although convoluted, there is usually a comprehensible sensibility to the narrator’s storytelling style, and it can be rewarding to sort it out.
The use of sideshow freaks—of vagrants, pedophiles, and pimps, of girl gang leaders and deformed children, of victims and bullies—alternately distracts or invigorates the narrator by complicating her views about what constitutes a family. For the most part, the narrator refuses to judge these outsiders (even if she resents them) and she often enlists their help. Even when the results are disastrous, as when she’s turned into a man’s human stool, she takes these experiences for the best of their worth.
The strengths of this novel are, predictably, also its weaknesses. There is no denying the beauty and surprise of Konar’s language. At the same time, the collage of separately breathtaking images, characters, and scenes pile up on each other so relentlessly that they begin canceling each other out. This produces the sensation that if you have read one or two pages, you have read the book. And so while the language propels, it also sucks away tension and mystery. There can be no danger when anything can happen.
Konar herself predicts this possibility when the narrator asks the demi-brother/homeless woman if there’s anything she wants. The woman responds in a long ramble that she wishes people knew “how it might feel to be a woman who once had a job but lost it, who had a house but misplaced it, who had an explanation for her illness but couldn’t remember it…” The woman goes on and on with a haunting catalogue of her life, and the narrator reasons: “I can’t understand what the old woman’s trying to get at, so I do the only reasonable thing you can do in a situation like this, which is to act like you never heard anything at all.” The Illustrated Version of Things risks this fate for the casual reader. It is a difficult book that relies on the beauty of the language to compel readers who might wonder if the effort is worth it. It is a book that requires two reads and few distractions.
Ultimately, the book is worth the effort. A first book to be proud of, about the kind of girl who might throw a baby in the trash bin, or might rescue a baby from the clutches of an uncaring mother, depending on the fluctuations of the day. Her emotions are both deeply engrained and detatched, and this makes for her strange and compelling point of view.
Perhaps the best reason to read this book is that contrary to how it might sound, this is not a novel about victimization. “Plot by plot, the cemetery flowers fake an interest in being bright,” the narrator notes midway through, when she has run away and spends the night in a graveyard. “But I won’t lie down with the graves, no matter how cheery the epitaphs or settled the dirt. Instead, I throw my coat on the bench and put my book beneath my head. I try to sleep. My roommates are loud. They like to stay up all night and moan. But these dead don’t seem to have it so bad. And I tell them so.”
The narrator’s determination to hush the dead rather than fear or ignore them, to make the best of what she’s been given, and to choose the best for herself even when one choice seems just incrementally better than the other—bench over ground—is consistently remarkable in this book. It is what sets the narrator apart from the other characters and what leads her on her ultimate journey to find her mother." - Miah Arnold

"In a bookstore, one might find The Illustrated Version of Things shelved under coming-of-age fiction. From time to time while reading it, I spared a thought for some classics of the genre – one in which growing up usually does a young protagonist a bittersweet bit of good. Less usually, a bleak childhood will be seen as a lost paradise by a narrator who has crossed over - if only he’d known. Whatever happens, poignant is the watchword. If to have that note sounded is why you would read about kids, then this is probably not the book for you. Sam Lipsyte has a word for the experience of reading it: “singular.” Ben Marcus, a phrase: “the far limits of sorrow and isolation.” I don’t disagree, but it’s worth adding that it’s also a very funny book.

Though the brother and sister in the novel are extreme cases, I got an uncanny sense as I read of how provisional every childhood is. That it's kind of amazing that any of us makes it through - assuming adulthood is the point. A children's advocate I know says that adulthood is not really the point, only the result of childhood.
- I see it as provisional as well, and have always been tempted to view individuals who surface from horrific childhoods—not only intact, but functional beyond all understanding–as unusually talented people. It’s as if they have an extra muscle in their bodies, or a passport that allows travel between worlds with disparate laws of maturity and justice.
Do those laws bind fictional characters? The brother and sister in your novel?
- I’d hoped that the brother character would dilute the notion that their childhood experiences were solely responsible for the narrator’s failures. Her language and perspective were the more pressing issues to me, and I’m still unsettled as to whether or not she’s actually interested in making her life livable.
Readers will notice we don't talk about your narrator by name -- they should know we're not being vague. She gives almost every sign of not having a name. Tritely, I'm wondering about your first name. To me, it sounds straight out of a novel by Goethe. Or certainly like something to do with chemistry. And it's refreshing to be asking someone else about her unusual name rather than defending my own.
- It's an odd relief to speak to someone else who is eccentrically named, too--I know I should plead Goethe or chemistry, but I just turned around and asked my mother about it, and she says it was a purely aesthetic choice, that she wanted something very feminine, so... It was a good move in any case though, because it sort of encouraged an affection for words that are somewhat off the beaten path. And provides for a lot of funny interactions.
Mm, tell me about it. But this isn't just gossip. Your having a highly unusual name, and your protagonist being positively handle-challenged, might be unrelated facts but they are not going unremarked on. Names like ours have their good points, but - would you name a daughter Affinity?
- No, I wouldn't, even thought it's been entertaining for me -- and a lot of other people. I suspect sometimes that my name led to my shyness. Every time a stranger meets me I want to interject and tell them that it's okay to laugh, I know that it's funny too, and I still, after all these years, can't believe that that's what I'm known as.
It's definitely led to trouble in naming characters, and I can't say that the protagonist's handle-difficulties aren't related...
I am wondering how being unnamed helps the protagonist more fluidly toggle from identity to identity Whether this may underline her shape-shifting, putting it on a nearly mythological level, where, in the end, it seems unabashedly -- rather, necessarily -- to be. Never to be called by name is to remain unclaimed in some essential sense -- not by the writer of the fiction, but by the other characters.
- I was hesitant to leave her unnamed, but it was also impossible to name her. I couldn't imagine her answering to any one name--and thought that yes, she'd prefer to have the gift of flitting from identity to identity, given that some of her circumstances offer little wriggling room. While it's never spelled out, there's one moment of extreme duress where she calls attention to its written form--there's always been a great difference to me, in the spoken word and the written one. I can handle my name somewhat on a page, but it's a whole different beast if I have to hear someone else say it, let alone myself. There's something so final and limiting about it that's oddly physical to me.
Well, I'm not telling what it is! Words have such different presences in different forms for writers, but you're talking about something bigger than that...
- My parents taught me to read by placing signs with the names of objects all over the house and I'm not sure if it assisted my progress whatsoever, but words have always been strangely tactile to me, and names especially so. Making her anonymous made her untouchable in a sense, and I wanted to offer her at least that illusion of comfort.
Well, she needs it. I've read a lot of fiction about late adolescence and its hideous pains, but never before one in which a kid turns bars of soap filthy with her touch - twice! That really is awful - you should be congratulated. I was convinced she only saw herself as that unclean, and her soap probably looked as good or bad as anyone else's. But the world of the novel is one in which there's a lot of blood and filth and injury. With the narrator - not quite literally -- clawing her way through a cloacal passage, laboring under a curse. Why shouldn't it show on her soap? People haven't accused you of being a particularly naturalistic writer, have they?
- I love that you think that her soap was as clean or as unclean as anyone else's!
I can't say that I'm often accused of being naturalistic. I actually began the novel when a mentor challenged me to write a story as realistically as I possibly could, and in the least opaque language that I could manage. I thought it was a pretty useless task at the time, and was offended as only a young person whose adolescent survival was highly dependent on surrealist word games could be, but that attempt to skew as closely to what other people perceived as natural clued me in to how I might be able to articulate a certain outsider's point of view, one that is constantly in a process of translating itself into acceptability, while having very little idea of what acceptability is. So that assignment became the opening chapter, and while I was in the thick of writing the rest of it I wasn't preoccupied so much with where it fell along the naturalism spectrum.
Your protagonist is probably the least acceptable kid I've ever met reading. Totally unacceptable, although endearing in how wrong she is for everything, and in how low her sights are set. I kept wanting to put the book down and talk her out of it, and then would realize there was no way to reach her but to keep reading -- which I had other reasons for wanting to do. People should be careful talking about the mother. But the mother, even off-stage, is a bad mother of the epiphanial class. It was the father I kept needing to hit, however. There's one scene in which he appears wearing only a beach towel. I thought how much fun to reach in and pull it off. To make him to face himself naked as a nurse who made vitamins for a hobby and spliced up at the sight of the suffering he caused.
- Your very physical impulses towards the father are so welcome to me, because I often hear people bemoan the mother exclusively. The fact that she tends to be singled out as the only party responsible for the protagonist's stunted nature has made me more sympathetic to her than I believed myself capable of being while writing the book, and it's given her another life in my mind that I wish I had been able to incorporate. It seems unfair that the narrator's disproportionately extreme longing for the mother serves to indict her as the more ghastly half of the parental unit, but there's also something of a tribute in it, I think--it's difficult to envision her having such extreme swings in affection for the father, whose inertia and passivity are often perceived as more forgivable.
The father's impulse to give aid and comfort to everyone but his children is devastating. And funny. I knew a mom like that -- no, I am not her daughter. I kept thinking of that Bunuel classic, The Phantom of Liberty, wherein the "missing" little girl in the powder blue coat is seen to be found by everyone except her deeply concerned parents, on whom her reappearance does not register. She tugs at their sleeves in the police station, but they can't be distracted from their absorption in the loss of her. The father is blind like that. I felt the mother needed to be missing, artistically, so I was not necessarily expecting her. (Anyway, certainly not the way she -- never mind!) I felt she needed to be immanent. But positioning your baby under a leak in the roof, the better to obtain nourishment for it, nourishment that was otherwise withheld, deserves a niche in the Bad Mother Pantheon. I guess you can't write about kids whose parents carry on so without writing a coming-of-age fiction. Are you artistically comfortable locating The Illustrated Version of Things there?
- So many of my favorite books rest along the coming-of-age spectrum, and I'm always too happy to hear it classified along those lines; I suspect that a portrayal of the narrator at any age though, would fall into the same category.
I made a living writing educational scripts for a children's cartoon brand during the whole process, and it's funny to think how much of that informed the novel--I had to make pitches concerned with teaching kids about coping mechanisms and behavioral skills through these super-saturated, pop-culture characters with catchphrases and anagrams, and I can't say that my personal diagrams of maturity weren't frequently corrected by the editors.
So that was one inspiration! What were some others?
- Twain’s Huck never really left me. He kicked off my obsession with the supposedly unlovable figures, derelicts, outsiders, underachievers—it’s a love that won’t resolve itself, though I thought it was close to closure after reading "Red the Fiend" by Gilbert Sorrentino, which pulls you through scenes whose horror is matched only by playful, often gymnastic language. I also thought a lot about Gary Lutz and Ben Marcus stories, the sad and comic ways that they bend words, the lines you only have to read once to remember always. And I ended up returning Grace Paley for conversation, Rimbaud for the synesthesia, Witold Gombrowicz for nearly everything, and Beckett for just as much, sometimes more. Lydia Millet’s "My Happy Life" put aside my doubts about creating characters that are at a great disadvantage in the world, but it’s so much more than that, and I wind up wordless just thinking about it.
It's hard to talk about the end of the novel without uncorking it. And, while I think people should read it to be reading it, they should also read it for the way it ends. I will say that while reading - and after - one feels caught up in something tremendous, not in a story about quirky kids. There's a filmic aspect to the book, too. Are there films that have made a difference to you as a writer?
- Sam Lipsyte referenced My Best Fiend in a workshop once, and spoke about how Klaus Kinski habitually entered a scene with his body at a lean, half-hidden, evasive angle, just lurching into the frame. And he talked about how a writer could enter a story in the same way, at a slant, with an evasive sentence leading to a more revealing sentence. Thinking that way--in terms of physical gestures as applied to language—was really striking to me, and it became a sort of game to play with the narrator and my favorite actors. As in—here she’s in Buster Keaton mode, completely deadpan, or here she is, doing a teenage Jodie Foster, all narrowed eyes and swagger. I have difficulty thinking visually sometimes, and it was strangely helpful to think of writing as a sort of performance.
Although people in an excellent position to judge have written about your use of language - and it is striking and beautiful and original - I considered that asking you to talk about that was like collaring a weaver of the Unicorn Tapestries to make her talk about stitches. Instead, tell me a little about publishing with Fiction Collective Two. I am not so sure most mainstream publishing houses are excited when they hear a writer's use of language is extraordinary.
- The prospect of publishing—even though that was supposedly what I’d set out to do—made me feel more uncomfortable and disembodied than I’d thought possible, and abandoning it was a genuine, ever-lurking temptation. Much of the content of the book had been inspired by my mother’s childhood, and what was written as a personal tribute to her suddenly felt too limited, too final. Brenda Mills, my editor at Fiction Collective Two, pulled a magic trick and drained a lot of the fear out of the experience, but my knees still knock with awe at the fact that my book was accepted by FC2, since it has a history of publishing great work on the fringe of what’s commonly perceived of as publishable." - Interview with Elatia Harris


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