Selah Saterstrom - a riveting, visceral novel written in a style that elegantly unites poetic prose with historic photographs and texts. It is also a testament to the legacy that war, violence, abuse, and poverty have wrought upon the Deep South



Selah Saterstrom, Slab, Coffee House Press, 2015.

www.selahsaterstrom.org/


On a slab that's all Katrina left of her Mississippi home, Tiger tells her story, and it is as American as Horatio Alger, Schwab's Pharmacy, and a tent revival. She was a stripper, but is she now a performance artist and best-selling author, and it is really Barbara Walters she's narrating this tale to? We're too dazzled to know more than that this is about how a girl ends up in the backwash of decadence and sin and how out of the flotsam and jetsam she might construct a story of herself and the South to carry her to salvation.
Serial killers, preachers, and prison flower-arranging classes. Bikers, bad boyfriends, and a stripper who performed as a Trans Am. Tiger has seen it all and as she sits on her slab, identifying anecdotes as they go by, we witness Selah Saterstrom at her greatest—funny, bawdy, and steeped in the landscape and all the devastation it has created and absorbed.


Selah Saterstrom, The Meat and Spirit Plan. Coffee House Press, 2007.


“Like an experimentally inclined Annie Proulx, Saterstrom tersely renders the effects of social violence on individual lives . . . the effect is shattering and transcendent.”—Modern Times Bookstore newsletter

In lyric, diamond-cut prose, Selah Saterstrom revisits the mythic, dead-end Southern town of Beau Repose. This time, the story follows a strung-out American teenager influenced by heavy metal, inspired by Ginger Rogers, hell-bent on self-destruction, and more intelligent than anyone around her realizes. She is forced into rehab and private school, and her life, at least on the surface, changes course, eventually leading to theology studies in Scotland. But as the feverish St. Vitus’s dance of her adolescence morphs into slow-motion inertia abroad, an illness brings her home again—to face the legacy of pain she left behind and to find a way to become the lead in a dance of her own creation.
An heir to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, Saterstrom soars above the traditional boundaries of the American novel with “exquisite, cut-to-the-quick language” (Raleigh News & Observer) that makes her novels “impossible to put down.” Spare, raw, and transcendent, Saterstrom’s unflinching examination of modern-day Dixie and contemporary adolescence lights up the dark corners of the American experience.

 This dark first-person tale of youthful initiation by Mississippi-born Saterstrom follows a feisty narrator from public housing in a backward Southern town to the sodden grit of university life in Glasgow. The young, unnamed narrator of these detached vignettes falls into bad company as her drug-addict mother largely disappears and her older sister introduces her to sex and booze. The narrator loses her virginity early on during a drunken bout with a football player and subsequently hangs out with half-Vietnamese friend Heather and her doped-up loser pals. It’s not clear how, but after being sent to reform school, the narrator distinguishes herself in English, which opens the door to college in “Big City,” and later, to Scottish University, where she studies religion, delves into postmodern studies and hooks up with former “heroin freak” Ian. Her mother’s death brings her home just in time for gallstones to send her to the hospital for a long stay. Through banter with night nurse Charlie (who calls her Ginger Rogers), she establishes a connection in the face of rupture and loss. Saterstrom’s coming-of-age narrative is tough and unblinking, and the moments of clarity provide immense satisfaction. - Publishers Weekly


A fragmented novel that lurches through the life of the unnamed narrator from girlhood through adolescence to rocky young adulthood.
Early on we sense the narrator’s desperation to construct a meaningful life, but contemporary culture—especially in the Southern backwater of Beau Repose—gives her almost nothing to work with. She grows up (if that’s the term) in a world with no periphery, where amidst the questionable “pleasures” of drugs and adolescent sex (the mysterious “world of doing it”), she drifts from one empty experience to another. She ends up in reform school, which enforces mandatory activities like basket weaving and square dancing. Eventually, her sharp mind enables her to go to college, and she makes high scores on a placement test for British universities, which leads her to study in Glasgow, city of rain and fog (and more drugs and sex). Her course of study is “The Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretative Uses,” in which students create “postmodern happenings in honor of Jacques Derrida,” but this intellectualism also understandably fails to nourish the narrator, who becomes ill in both body and mind, the “meat and spirit plan” showing definite deficiencies. At the end of the novel, she insightfully realizes that there’s a third choice beyond light and darkness, one that “includes light and dark but is not limited to either.” The novel is divided into paragraphs, though Saterstrom orders these paragraphs into a loose narrative framework organized by fragments from heavy-metal bands like Metallica, Anthrax and Judas Priest (“Rock Hard, Ride Free”). Perhaps an even more basic unit of structural organization found here is the image, for image patterns (of Ginger Rogers, of butchering, of The Seventh Seal, of The Blue Lagoon) weave through both the reality and the dreams of the narrator.
The narrator observes that one of the characters “uses language like an exacto blade”—the same can be said of Saterstrom (The Pink Institution, 2004). - Kirkus Reviews
Selah Saterstom’s latest work, The Meat and Spirit Plan, gives new meaning to the word dysfunction. The title isn’t the most alluring thing about this book; in fact each page the eye digests keeps the reader hungry for more. Here the prose emerges from an alphabet soup of the author’s choice. It’s what Saterstrom does best. Stories that are good must be told and this one tells its way right into your subconscious and stays there until you fall asleep, haunting you with words and images -- people you can’t forget. Quirky characters and visual stimuli aren’t all that lurk in these 240 pages. The poetry here finds its own voice through the straightforward style that pours out of Saterstrom.
Picking up where the Pink Institution left off, The Meat and Spirit Plan is set in the south where many of the same curses are still in full force. In Beau Repose, it’s tough to keep the adolescents occupied with anything but drugs, sex and rock and roll when there’s nothing to do but have sex, do drugs and listen to rock and roll. Our main character endures all the typical trials and tribulations of being a teenager, and then some. After being on a physical and emotional rollercoaster for the majority of our narrator’s young life, she rebounds from traumatic events (rape, miscarriage, drug addiction, and illness). Being raised without a real mother or a father, the main character looks to her sister for direction on how to live her life and to men and women for solace and security. As we jump from reform school to grad school our character really gets the opportunity to blossom into something bigger and better than a dead-beat southern girl who’s made a number of bad decisions.
The town of Beau Repose is a place that molds our narrator into who she’ll become in her later years as she runs through adolescence, doing everything her sister does, rebelling against everything in her way and realizing that she’s bound to repeat her mother’s past. While moving away helps the narrator gain distance from her drug-addicted mother, the influence of her sister, her past and poor choices, she remains the same person with equal baggage as an adult, only with a sense of humor. And somewhere in the midst of reform school, she finds a desire to pursue higher education.
As the narrator journeys abroad to study religion and postmodern studies at the Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretative Uses, our character meets up with Ian (heroin-user) and Ruth, both of whom she spends her time sleeping with and eating bad food with while attending school. Life was bleak back in the south and here, Scotland’s landscape doesn’t present a brighter mood for our main character. Setting aside, Saterstrom can entertain the reader with dry humor while intoxicating us with her subtle style, her brand of prose, if you will. She’s the kind of writer whose lack of punctuation and fragmentation of sentences keeps us in tune with the character’s mood. The lack of pretension and the movement of words here remind us of the melancholy of the life the narrator continues to lead. The plot is not replete with twists or turns -- it’s the choice of words and emphasis on syntax that makes this work refreshing. Detail is what the author does best. Whether it’s describing the insertion of a tampon, the reader always has mental images that innocent tongues cannot replicate. “At the onset of pain before bread followed by Pepto then puke, I insert a tampon. The cotton batting absorbs the lower sonar frequencies of refraction which illuminate the blackened interior in bright hair-thin constellations.”
The Meat and Spirit Plan doesn’t try to be funny or deep, but by wit alone manages to be both of those things. Our narrator muses at one point in the book “If he (Tolstoy) were a car, he’d be a Cadillac” and contemplates the purpose of bicycle-eating man 
Think of it, eating an entire bicycle. A Schwinn Shimano 3-speed with a Stingray Gripper Slik back, an iridescent blue aluminum frame, liner-pull pedals, brakes perched like doves in the crook of curved handlebars, vinyl grip-taped. Some parts of the bicycle could be swallowed as plunking a penny in a well. But others like the chain wheel would have to be let. Lowered through upward rippling esophagus, sprockets snatching linings, eviscerating the passages, until cavities jam, then fist knocked, in. Other parts like the alloy kickstand would require the entire body for acceptance, a slow-motion robot dance He didn’t eat it all at once. That would be crazy. He ate through time. . . Did he eat a bicycle so we wouldn’t have to? Maybe God sent a man who eats bicycles. He was probably mentally ill but is mental illness a disqualifier in the realm of men sent from God? We don’t know that it is.
Salvador Plascencia writes about El Monte and how real the surreal is becomes in his work, The People of Paper, all with a solid eye for style and experimental prose. Saterstrom’s narrator manages to do some of the same while blurring what may be reality or daydreams at different moments throughout this story. Sometimes the daydreams seems to be reality and reality is, usually an ugly reality but we the reader are left to ponder, much as the main character ponders about things abstract and real.
Selah Saterstrom has written a literary work that deserves the same amount of attention that she gives to each word on the page. Here we see what it’s like to disconnect with reality in order to connect with our imagined realities. It’s important to expose human frailties and the way we chose, as individuals, to cope with our fractured pasts while addressing the here and now. The Meat and Spirit Plan is a book that does exactly that. - Angela Stubbs

Not enough has been written about how punctuation creates a mood, a style. Or perhaps the lack of punctuation: eschewing certain marks can force the writer to sustain a mood. She might fail to use quotation marks when a character speaks and then decide she likes it that way. Absence is a useful constraint.
Selah Saterstrom’s second novel begins with the word Listen, in roman, and ends with Listen, italics. We listen. We listen to the nameless narrator tell us about her misspent youth, bad boys and really bad boys, dead-end kids in the American South: “We are trying to have a picnic but no one knows how.” Our narrator goes to reform school, college, Scotland, somehow for a degree in religion, despair and freedom tangled throughout. Then back to the States for hallucinations or perhaps lucid dreaming.
No semicolons. No quotation marks. A handful of dashes toward the end but otherwise no dashes. The most intense episodes are carved in the most patient prose.
We turn the pages, each paragraph with its own little cordon sanitaire: the white of the line space helps cut through the teenage grime, bad vibes. It sharpens our sense of the beauty in a sentence such as “Everyone is passed out in the hallway or in the Kitchen Slash Den.”
Lyrics from metal songs float away from their sources to serve as chapter headings.
“I offer him flowers. I provide him with flowers. I provide one with flowers,” run the lyrics to the narrator’s favorite song. She learned it in a class and thinks it perfectly captures her love for Jack, with whom she “hooked up over orientation weekend.” The teacher tells her it’s a song the Aztecs sang to their gods before conducting human sacrifice.
No exclamation points till the end.
I am writing this on an old manual typewriter. It has a period key and a question mark key but no exclamation point key. To form one you can hit the stiff apostrophe, which has the shift position above the 8, and then backspace and punch in a period underneath, a snug fit, legible enough.
But who has the time? The exclamation point needs to happen in a burst, spontaneous. The exclamation point, I once read, is a slenderizing of the word Io, for joy.
Joy is not the point of The Meat and Spirit Plan.
In the penultimate chapter the narrator is in the hospital, imagining or perhaps actually talking to an unauthorized visitor, possibly the hospital janitor, who addresses her as Ginger Rogers.
The Meat and Spirit Plan ends with the word Listen, which takes us back to the beginning like the snake swallowing its tail, and then six grainy paintings depicting the scene from Top Hat’s climax, “Cheek to Cheek.” You remember: Fred and Ginger ascending from a bustling nightclub to some private paradise of urns and hedges (“I’m in heaven…”), a number that snaps from rapt swoons to jaunty tap. Ginger wears the dress with the ostrich feathers, like she has turned into some magnificent alien creature. Her skin has sprouted a thousand intelligent tendrils, which wave and intensify the electric field between the two.
But what is the “meat and spirit plan,” exactly? Saterstrom never says. But we’ve moved from the miseries of the flesh to wordless rapture, ending on Ginger’s whirling hem. A wave about to crash or the last relic of someone floating to heaven. Ed Park

Late in Selah Saterstrom’s second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, the unnamed narrator describes a movie she would like to make. She’s rebuffed: “That is a terrible idea for a movie. . . . It isn’t entertaining.” This follows: 
Why does it have to be entertaining? I ask. You can’t expect people to pay 10 bucks for something that is going to make them feel weird or awful, Ron says. What we need, Ron says, is light. We need light in this world, not more darkness.
And yet, though The Meat and Spirit Plan has an abundance of darkness, it’s an extraordinarily moving and entertaining novel.
Saterstrom’s first novel, The Pink Institution, was an impressionistic, poetic look at several generations of women in the American South. The Meat and Spirit Plan is a thematic continuation: it’s the tale of a girl growing up in a barbaric little Southern town where the schools have been desegregated and Baptists run the movie theaters, ensuring that “no good movies were ever shown.” The girl later studies abroad in Scotland at the Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretive Uses, and during all of this she makes and loses friends, drinks, uses drugs, sleeps with men and women. Throughout, she bears witness with a wit so dry it’s almost not even wit; it’s as if what she experiences is so banal its banality isn’t even worth commenting on.
What Saterstrom achieves here is really rare: it’s moving, entertaining, challenging, serious, and deeply, almost unbearably funny. The situations in which the narrator finds herself aren’t fantastical or slapstick-y or adventurish but commonplace and so concretely grounded in youthful bad decisions that it’s delightful despite the subject matter. It would seem to appeal to a wide range of readers: for those who read for plot and character, the little that “happens” here is dark, unbelievable, and gripping, and the narrator is one of the more engaging and endearing characters in recent memory; for those who read for style, Saterstrom’s terse, staccato sentences, which never elevate any one sentence over any other, are a perfect syntactical mirror for the dulled experience and wholly under-excited nature of the narrator. On the whole, The Meat and Spirit Plan is well-written, utterly deceptive, and subtle. There’re no show-offy passages or extraneous writing or missteps.
Saterstrom’s attention to detail is key: seemingly throwaway remarks actually reference the narrator’s very skewed experience of the outside world. In one instance she says, “I wear a gray sweatsuit resembling Ken’s I got from a charity shop that sold stuff to save Africa,” and at another point, describing old photographs she buys at a market, “For Ruth’s birthday I give her one of a baby dressed like a pope. On the back it says: Birdie’s Last Easter.” What’s striking is how the emotionally destructive implications of both of these sentences isn’t explored by the narrator: she’s been through so much at this point (rape, miscarriage, sickness, alcoholism, absent mother, kicked out of reform school, etc.) that her worldview has equated anything outside of herself (and in herself, really) as dull, removed, blank.
But much like Gilbert Sorrentino, Saterstrom writes about the bleakest material with vicious humor—an understanding that even the most serious topics can indeed be funny, and are usually most effective when they are. Take, for instance, this quotation from when the narrator survives a violent, alcoholic adolescence only to arrive at college, where nothing seems to be changing for the better: 
My roommate is Susan who has severe arthritis in her knees and must walk with a cane. One day I return from class and Susan has moved out. On mint green stationery she wrote that she needed to move to a room on the ground level (arthritis, etc). She hopes I have a great semester! May God bless me.
Every sentence, every paragraph in this book does much work, hinting at further, deeper understandings of every other facet. Moreover, the novel contains a sincerity and raw sort of sweetness that are deceptive in light of its content, which, despite misanthropy and hopelessness, is never really mean-spirited or actively miserable. Without any linguistic acrobatics, Saterstrom shows us a disconnected psyche afraid to probe too deeply into the meaning of things; notably, the effect of this is that the reader then begins to explore these depths, quite unwillingly. Unlike, say, a Michael Haneke film, which aggressively confronts the viewer, leaving her with no escape options, The Meat and Spirit Plan is almost polite in its confrontations, like “it’s okay if you don’t want to think about these things, it’s human not to want to, but they’re here for you if you do.” -



Selah Saterstrom, Pink Institution, Coffee House Press, 2004.

Beautiful and violent, spare and ominous, this wholly original novel explodes mythologies of Southern femininity.
In a multigenerational family saga that captures the rich beauty and passionate despair of the land and its inhabitants, The Pink Institution is a riveting, visceral novel written in a style that elegantly unites poetic prose with historic photographs and texts. It is also a testament to the legacy that war, violence, abuse, and poverty have wrought upon the Deep South. As we follow four generations of determined and relentless Mississippi women from their run-down, post-Civil War plantations to their modern-day trailer parks, the impoverished decay of the Deep South expresses itself through their bloodlines in a haunting reenactment of the past.

Interweaving visceral, atmospheric prose with historical photographs, images and texts, The Pink Institution
traces four generations of Mississippi women from their run-down, post-Civil War plantations to the modern-day trailer parks that house the youngest generations. As the impoverished decay of the Deep South expresses itself through their bloodlines, a new impression of Southern history and heritage emerges. The lyrical gravity and singular style of this unforgettable debut novel will transform the reader in its wake.



The Pink Institution is a book to be savored like a feast in the middle of nowhere—rich, strange, fragmentary and yet utterly compelling. Selah Saterstrom has managed to gather influences from visual art, photography, music, captions, footnotes, directories, family histories and weave them into a book of marvels and mysteries. Reader, go slow. This is a dream.” —Michael Klein

Saterstrom's harrowing but gorgeous debut chronicles four generations of women in a tragically haunted Mississippi family. Divided into five sections and including old photographs and excerpts from the Confederate Ball Program Guide 1938, the book reveals decades of poverty, abuse and alcoholism. In the fractured first section, Saterstrom introduces Abella and her daughter, Azalea, in staccato, spare sentences; the moments described feel crucial but ransacked, since Saterstrom leaves large spaces between words that may have swallowed integral bits of information. Abella, "a woman [who] enjoyed socializing and thinking about restoration projects," is married to the abusive, alcoholic policeman Micajah. His beatings and likely sexual abuse (never fully revealed but strongly suggested) take their toll on their daughter, Azalea; she turns to the bottle and marries Willie, a lawyer distressingly like her father who later becomes a district judge. In section two, succinctly titled passages like "Vitamins," "Bracelets" and "Hitchhiker" convey in taut, unaffected language the horror Willie and Azalea's four daughters witness throughout their childhood. The girls narrowly survive their violent upbringing and have children themselves. Aza, who repeatedly attempted suicide as a child, begets the unnamed narrator of section four whose spooked but sensitive voice steers the book through some of its richest, most devastating passages. Brutal but also deeply lyrical, Saterstrom's beautiful novel paints a portrait of a family wracked by its own dysfunction and held fast by a place that has never fully recovered since the day the Civil War beganâ€"the day known, as the book tellingly reminds us, as "Ruination Day." - Publishers Weekly

There is a land simultaneously outside and within the South’s most epochal places and symbols: Atlanta and its dull sprawl, Mobile’s tony white sands, Graceland’s rock-and-roll shrine, and New Orleans’s weekly excuses to party. What sometimes seems like a projection flickering on the southeast part of the nation has another side not so brochure-ready. Grubby, wild-eyed children play on tires. Yards are speckled with a rusted symphony’s worth of shapes.
Selah Saterstrom evokes this land and life in The Pink Institution, letting gusts of fresh, tart air blow into the old halls of Southern Gothic. Rustic and resourceful, The Pink Institution uses a different structure for each of its five sections. The first is fractured by excerpts from found texts; the second organized in object blocks; “Psalter: (Birth Interim),” the third and only section to be titled, is a small group of prose poems centered around a prayer; the fourth features prose passages occasionally mediated by semi-colons; while the fifth fittingly unravels into “Scene” and “Gesticulations.” This structural costume-changing is pursued with just the right combination of play, gravity, and restraint. Photographs of a little girl’s poofy-dressed back and two blurry figures by a house, unattributed quotes like “The day the war began is known as Ruination Day”—all compellingly test this rotted tableau of four generations of Mississippi women. - Margaret Wappler

Childhood memories are choppy and questionable. Do we really know what we know? Some experts believe that childhood memories are really memories of memories, parts of dreams and things we've been told. Entire family histories are built on such snippets of treasured or tortured experiences -- be they fact, fiction or mostly in-between.
To tell the story of the doomed family at the heart of her debut novel, "The Pink Institution," Mississippi native Selah Saterstrom not only acknowledges this choppiness of memory and its fallibility as family record; she embraces it as a narrative form.
Saterstrom's work stretches the definition of how a novel should look and read. An assemblage of prose paragraphs, abstract poetry, lists, excerpts from real or imagined documents and old photos sublimely builds to create the undercurrent of a miserable family story. Like the woozy fuzziness of earliest recall, the beginning of "The Pink Institution" is the most abstract.
Some pages contain only a handful of words. As the apparent years pass and the book focuses on more recent generations, the text becomes fuller, more descriptive and closer to standard prose. But the ethereal mood has already been set.
Saterstrom's subject matter is not new to contemporary literature -- rot, drunkenness, incest and violence in the Deep South -- but her innovative method makes all the heat, the bad sex and the stale booze-breath seem startlingly alive. "The Pink Institution" includes a patriarch masturbating on the front porch, drunken parents swinging with the neighbors and repeated suicide attempts. Some images are so fanciful that Saterstrom must clearly mean them to be false childhood memories:
"One night after the family had gone to bed, there was a racket in the living room. It sounded like a stampede. After it subsided, Willie went into the living room. He said loudly, 'I think ya'll need to take a look at this.' The family gathered in the living room. They saw what appeared to be muddy footprints of a large man going across the ceiling. It looked like the man had been running."
Passages such as this unhinge the veracity of the other images, an effect that serves to replicate the mystery of human memory.
Experimentation of this style can be alternately exhilarating and irritating. Readers might marvel at how a page of jumbled words and sentence fragments can transmit mood and meaning:
". . . Yellow vitamin pills yellow vitamin pills iron claw-foot bathtub water iron claw-foot bathtub water a paring knife a paring knife thirteen bottles of liquor thirteen bottles of liquor a .44 a .44 requested strangulation requested strangulation pyre on fire pyre on fire starvation starvation self willed car accident with small child self willed car accident with small child jumping jumping tumor tumor vomit (possibly accidental) vomit (possibly accidental) severe electrolyte imbalance severe electrolyte imbalance in a swamp, alone in a swamp, alone an insane husband an insane husband an insane husband an insane husband splay ladder. A manicured menstrual cotton square, broken shells, a gray hair. I'm too exhausted to kill myself tonight, Dear, so just hush."
But those same readers might find themselves flipping back and forth to try to ascertain who did what to whom and when it all supposedly happened. And the material is unrelentingly grim.- Cherie Parker


I can’t thank Mathias Svalina enough for introducing me to Selah Saterstrom. Her first novel, The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press, 2004), offers up such stark, spare language as to mimic the fragmented, but forever life-altering, moments in the lives of her (many generations of) women, not one of whom escapes her own special brand of suffering. 
“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, “That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?” to which they replied, “Yes sir.”
The chapter — yes, chapter — above is the first in the section “Maidenhood Objects,” which follows the section “Childhood Objects.” Perhaps the following is the most representative chapter from “Childhood Objects”: 
“Azalea sent Aza to Toomsata to see if Willie was there. Aza walked into the house. She asked Dunbar if her father was there. Dunbar said, ‘He’s in the bed, you jealous little bitch.’ On several occasions the children watched Dunbar masturbate their drunk father while their mother, also drunk, slobbered on herself sitting in the corner.”
This is a painful novel, but it is beautiful and reminds me of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life, and Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold and The Complete Tales of Merry Gold. Buy it, check it out (check out all of them) from your library, and get reading at once.
Thanks again, Mathias. I owe you one. -
 
Deep within Selah Saterstrom’s first novel, The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press 2004) we are silently greeted by a distant little girl who appears to be just over one hundred years old. In a reproduction of an ovular old photograph, this little girl stands with her back to us in a crisp white dress with puffed sleeves, her small slippered feet and her long hair in shadow. There is a hush around this image, and a dark invocation of history. We develop an immediate if rather hesitant relationship with the girl. Her position suggests that she is unaware of being looked at, her size that she is vulnerable, the age of her photograph that she is a memory to which we must pay attention. Her presence is a whispering from long ago. Her presence is a beckoning, an invitation.
The reader who accepts the invitation to enter The Pink Institution should do so with care. She should enter with her wits intact. She should enter with her courage summoned. She should enter with her skirts lifted and with her intellect polished shiny as a “sterling tea service predating the Civil War.” The reader should take along her smelling salts. In Saterstrom’s first novel, a surreal southern gentility dangles from each delicately placed word. Suspiciously polite attention laces every deftly crafted phrase. Around each relentless image, gracious regard grows like a voracious weed, and layers of charm and hospitality flake away like dead skin to reveal what lives behind, beneath and within four generations of a Mississippi family. What lives there is made of heat, history, ghosts, and gin, and seems to emerge by a sort of black magic from an orchestration of image, sound and empty space.
The photograph of the little girl and other photographic images throughout the book function not as decoration or addenda, but as integral, revelatory moments in the unfolding atmosphere of the story. There is something both magnetizing and spooky about very old photographs. We do not understand the photographic subjects’ blank, staid expressions. We do not understand their clothes. We do not understand their stiff postures or their houses or the way they touch each other or do not. And, perhaps most painfully, we do not understand how it can be that we are looking at the image of something that was once alive and that is now, and for a long time, dead. But we want to understand. This is, perhaps, why we look. And here in The Pink Institution, looking is doctrine. We look again and again and again. We look even when looking is difficult or shocking or possibly grotesque. We keep on looking.
Saterstrom has, at moments in the book, done us the eerily gracious favor of categorizing what we look at. The three smaller sections within section ii of the book are introduced with long, narrow lists of single words. These lists are entitled “childhood objects,” “maidenhood objects,” and “motherhood objects.” The lists serve as a sort of collection of poems or as an offering of images, though they also function as tables of contents for the sections and as markers of passing time.
From childhood objects:

The brevity of the pieces in section ii suggests a quick and fragmented compilation of memory. As soon as we are through with one story, it is time to move on to the next. We are never allowed to relax. The mini-stories in this section are shaped like building blocks, a visual emblem of their function. In furious bursts, we collect from the mosaic of stories a wider picture of the household and a larger sense of its atmosphere. Saterstrom’s language here is even and unflinching while its content is intimately revealing. What we glean is something fragrant and rancid, wrapped in airtight, sterile packaging.
From maidenhood objects:

The empty space remaining around the blocks of text in section ii speaks perhaps almost as loudly as the text itself. In a vast field of whiteness, the text in its tight square appears crowded and clenched. This visual tension augments the tension created by Saterstrom’s polished, direct sentences, by the staccato nature of the series of mini-stories, and by, of course, the very telling of this family’s bruised and brutal history.
As the story marches forward in time, it drags along its own past like a heavy, necessary and inescapable chain. Saterstrom’s words become feverish and fantastical as sound and image work together to approach and finally uncover, a heated and at times nightmarish present. This present lifts slowly from its past the way a photograph submerged in a chemical bath floats from the material to which it has been, for decades, mounted.
From PSALTER: (Birth Interim):


These are some of the sounds by which we are escorted through the transition of birth and into the haunted world of the living. The arrangement of words, space and breath in this section of the book creates a sensory, almost hallucinatory experience. The literal information we receive is necessary to proceed into the final sections of the novel, but this information is delivered secondarily to sensuality and atmosphere. We receive the literal information almost without our awareness. We are extremely aware, instead, of the surreal dreamscape that Saterstrom has created through her cleanly designed chaos of utterance and prayer.
Selah Saterstrom’s distinct composition of image, sound, silence, and vacant spaces creates a song that comes from a searching place of isolation, mourning, and a whispered hope for redemption. The story is delivered, however, with no hint of sentimentality and with no indulgence in tragedy or martyrdom. It asks nothing of us. Humbly conjured and gracefully composed, the story moves consistently forward into an increasing homage to sound. In this book, language is not placed on top of story. Story, instead, is born of language. Ultimately, one does not feel as if she has read The Pink Institution. Instead, one feels in its aftermath, as if she may have dreamt it.
...
   
- JULIANNA SPALLHOLZ


Excerpt:
She found it in the corner. She picked it up. Brought it close. This happened at a time when her head was unusually large. She loved games. Two favorites being “Cleaning Out Shoes” and “Feeling Old People’s Skin.” In “Cleaning Out Shoes” she would take a bobby pin and run it through the grooves on the bottoms of people’s shoes, removing and examining minute grit, color of raisins. In “Feeling Old People’s Skin” she would move her hand down the arms of old people with her eyes closed. These were not the same as finding something. She found an eraser. In the corner, a pink beat-up novelty eraser in the shape of a robot based on a cartoon character called “Transformer.” The eraser had been used. She held it between two gummy fingers in front of her large head.

She could see the gray sheen of sensitive recollected pencil in buffered streaks. The robot eraser had many details, just like a real robot would have had. It had robot-style legs and feet and arms and hands. Its head was a robotic nub. Robots had small heads. She found that if she took her finger and gently rubbed the soft gray and used areas, she could remove the pencil from the eraser so that her fingerprints absorbed the shiny graphite. She found this action had the effect of polishing the robot eraser. Shortly thereafter, she decided the eraser was God. After, there was no questioning the divine status of the eraser. She put Him in her pocket and returned to her desk. Everything had changed but at the same time, not.

The eraser was God which meant it was no longer an eraser. She told herself that she did not want to take God’s body with a firm grip and move Him back and forth so that He heated up and created eraser curlicues and sometimes a horrible, dreadful, appalling noise as He was rubbed across another texture so contrary to His own nature. No one ever saw God. She was careful with Him but it seemed remarkable that no one happened to look up and see what they would have perceived to be an eraser. Every day she polished Him with her fingertips. God was achieving a high buff.

She would take God out of her pocket during class in intervals and look at Him. She would also allow herself this privilege when recess began and before it ended. She would go to the bathroom, enter a stall, close the stall’s door, slide the lock in place, take Him out of her pocket, and look at Him.

The longer she was the custodian to God, the more she became aware of his nuances, the robot shapes that formed His little robot body. She began to develop a heightened sensibility about the preciousness of God. He required a particular maintenance. This is why He could not be used in a typical eraser fashion. The enemy of God was paper and looking at God she knew where the vulnerable areas were. God’s head was such an area.

She told herself to leave God’s head alone, but she could not help examining it. The head had suffered a slight severing from the body. A clean incision about halfway through the neck, so if one were not careful it would be easy to remove the head completely. There were various phases with God, and this was the “playing with God’s head phase.”

After His vulnerability exceeded a certain risk level, she could think of nothing else. She wished to be done with her class subjects so she could pull Him out of her pocket and finger His robot head. She would insert her fingertip into the side of the pith that bore the incision and raise the nub slightly. When she did this she could briefly see the inside of God which was pink, much more pink than the outside, and not smooth, but nettled. There was a comforting sensation that accompanied lifting up God’s head. Like letting cool air into a steaming wound, and there was a wholesome clop sound when the head would again land in its proper place. These actions with their comforting sensations were followed by feelings of guilt.

After days of head aggravation, she had gone too far. It was the likely conclusion based on her patterns of behavior. God’s head was hanging by a thread. It was a matter of time or of timing. The important thing was to be present when it happened. After three more days passed it rained, and when it rained the children had recess in the back of the classroom. She did not get up from her desk with the other children at recess time.

She took God out of her pocket. She looked at Him in the palm of her hand. It was going to come off. She knew this. The best thing to do was to put His head in her mouth and eat it. She placed God’s head in her mouth.

God’s head snapped quick. It surprised her. Bearing down on the head with the enamel of her teeth unexpectedly bloated the moment into an ecstatic loose-fitting density. He instantaneously made her tongue go dry, sucking the moisture from the inner sanctum of her mouth. As her teeth initially tested the outer skein of God, there was a subtle bounce. Grinding His head gave way to the grainy innards, like small insubstantial pearls sliding down her throat. She could taste the bitter fingerprints.

She looked at the decapitated body of God. It was ugly. She got up from her desk and walked to the back of the classroom where she originally found God. She kneeled and placed the decapitated robot eraser of God’s body in the corner. She stood up and turned around. She entered the crowd of noisy children and pretended to play. -  thefeministwire.com/2014/01/an-excerpt-from-the-pink-institution-by-selah-saterstrom/


Tiger Goes to the Dogs

Tiger Goes to the Dogs, Nor By Press. 2013.

A seriously joyous prose piece, printed on Canson and Strathmore papers, then hand-stitched, marble-tissued, and dog-faced with a letter-pressed cover. This chapbook is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Slab, from Coffee House Press.

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