Elisabeth Sheffield - A psychological and linguistic exploration of obsession and illicit love

Elisabeth Sheffield, Fort Da: A Report, FC2, 2009.
read it at Google Books

A psychological and linguistic exploration of obsession and illicit love.
While working at a sleep lab in northern Germany, Rosemarie Ramee, a 38-year-old American neurologist, falls in love with Aslan, an eleven-year-old Turkish Cypriot. To get closer to the boy, RR undertakes a "marriage of convenience" to the boy's uncle. But when the uncle suddenly disappears, Ramee, alone with Aslan, must take the boy to his relatives in northern Cyprus. A train journey ensues, chronicled in RR's psychological reports and neurological inquiries.
But what begins as an objective "report" breaks down as the story progresses: RR's voice, hitherto suppressed and analytical, emerges hesitantly and then erupts, splintering every conception of inner and outer lives, solipsistic reality, and the irrevocable past. Consistently surprising and unrelenting, Fort Da turns one woman's illicit affair into a riveting exploration of language and the mind.

"For to the degree that 'mother' is a word and a concept, it requires the annihilation of the individual existence of what it names. 'Mother' collapses and destroys the differences between actual mothers, and instead derives its meaning in relation to other words and concepts, such as “father” and “child” and “other.” The term has no secret life beyond language, no pre-linguistic power ..."
—Elisabeth Sheffield from “Genuine Ming or Fabulous Fake?: Deconstructions of Identity and Gender in Marianne Hauser’s The Talking Room”

"Sheffield deftly balances the southern gothic with her mordant wit."—Booklist

"Among the gifts of confidence and newly opened doors, feminism of the 60s and 70s left us with one terrible burden: the unshakable belief that the patriarchal world was at fault for all our losses and unfulfilled needs.  With abundantly playful, rich and lyrical language, Elisabeth Sheffield takes the politically incorrect risk of exploring this burden and the havoc it can play in a woman’s life.  In her complex story of a search for inheritance and legacy, and an unresolved relationship that struggles on in only one person’s mind, Sheffield challenges the woman-as-victim literary model that has been flown from flagpoles for decades.  Sheffield shows us that women, in fact, are more interesting, more complicated and mysterious, more inspiring and significant, when they are victims mostly of their own human fragility."—Cris Mazza

To an extent, it's a little surprising that Elisabeth Sheffield's Fort Da (FC2) has not received more attention. It is, after all, in part a fairly sensational story about what we now call a "sexual predator," in this case a reversal of Lolita in which the "offender" is a female scientist who becomes obsessed with an adolescent boy. Although to be sure the story is told (by the woman) in an unorthodox way, the narrative is explicit enough, and the representation of motive and psychology seems true enough, it would seem the novel might have caused a little bit of controversy, although the very fact the narrative is related through unorthodox means that to some extent distance us from the events portrayed and mute the potentially scandalous elements suggests that Sheffield certainly did not seek to court controversy.
What Sheffield seems to be after is a truthful account of the narrator's affliction (if that's what it is) and of her manner of coping with it. The narrator straightforwardly acknowledges her desire for Aslan, the adolescent boy, and painstakingly chronicles the events of their meeting, their eventually consummated relationship, and her final efforts to track him down when she is separated from him. But she is not quite able to tell us this story from a conventional first-person point of view, as if she can't finally bring herself to associate these events and her part in them with the "normal" self she still wants to preserve, as if she just can't acknowledge her own agency. Thus she adopts a cumbersomely "scientific" style emphasizing passive voice constructions. Addressing her "report" to her high school English teacher, Mrs, Wall, the narrator affirms
A true story that will faithfully present yours truly, without distortion or bias. To this end, a detached style has been adopted, one that will hopefully facilitate accurate reportage. The intent of this style is to step outside Rosemarie Ramee in order to more accurately observe her (and not, Strunk and White forbid, to annoy you with passive verb forms, which it is well remembered were a source of contention in high school). Yes, and maybe if the observations are presented with great care, with the greatest possible degree of honesty and precision, in the end empathy will be received.
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to send RR (as she frequently hereafter identifies herself) "empathy," but her tortured attempts to remain objective, attempts she maintains throughout the narrative with gradually diminishing success, are really both the aesthetic and the emotional focus of the novel.
Aesthetically the style seems an apt analogue of the narrator's state of mind--she can tell the story, but only if she is in a sense able to withdraw her own participation and attempt to view the events with a kind of clinical detachment. Paradoxically, this forced detachment only makes the reader more aware of RR's obsession in the effort to cloak it, and her emotional turmoil becomes only more visible. This does have a discomfiting effect on the reader: there is a fascination to witnessing the machinations to which RR is driven in order to tell the tale, while we also recognize her strategy is in effect an attempt to minimize her offense. At the same time, it is not at all clear that Aslan resists RRs advances, or that he has been harmed by them, although of course the long-term harm cannot be predicted and we cannot finally trust that RR's account is anything but self-serving. She indicates that she is addressing her "confession" to Mrs. Wall because of the latter's reputation for leading an unconventional lifestyle, suggesting she does hope her audience might extend her some sympathy.
If Fort Da could be said to be "experimental" (FC2 is one of the most prominent publishers of experimental fiction), it would have to be in this tonal discontinuity--how far can the reader extend his/her sympathy to such a character presenting herself in such a narrative voice relating a story about what today approaches being as taboo a subject as we have? While the "report" form is interesting enough, it is finally just another variation on the epistolary or diary forms first explored in novels like Pamela or Robinson Crusoe as the immediate context and justification for first-person narrative. The narrative itself is essentially linear, and though the narrator's language occasionally makes it necessary for the reader to check his/her bearings, it unfolds interrupted only by the by now rather familiar use of footnotes (although given the text's formal status as scientific "report," the footnotes don't seem out of place).
If RR, like Humbert Humbert, believes her desire for Aslan, like Humbert's for his "nymphet," is a genuine expression of love, she seems less comfortable than HH with this form of love. Although both Fort Da and Lolita could both be said to be comic novels, the comedy of Lolita is darker,arising from the audacity of HH's behavior. The humor of Fort Da arises from RR's own confusions and limited self-knowledge. This makes Fort Da a consistently compelling read--to call it entertaining would seem impertinent--but whether it has something to "say" about, for example, the nature of female desire vs male desire, or about the origins of sexual behavior in psychological trauma (RR herself appears to believe she may be reacting to the early death of her brother) is perhaps for the reader to determine, depending on whether one considers it important that a novel treading on sensitive ground should redeem itself by making a "serious" point about the subject. In my opinion, the greatness of Lolita consists, in part, in its refusal to countenance communicating such a point. By raising "issues" related to pedophilia, Fort Da suggests it wants to address those issues and thus doesn't really show quite the aesthetic courage we find in Nabokov's novel. - David Green

Elisabeth Sheffield, Helen Keller Really Lived, FC2, 2014. 

What does it mean to really live? Or not?
Set in eastern, upstate New York, Helen Keller Really Lived features a fortyish former barfly and grifter who must make a living in the wake of her wealthy husband’s death, and who finds work in a clinic helping women seeking reproductive assistance. The other main character is the grifter’s dead ex-husband, a Ukrainian hooker-to-healer success story, who prior to his demise was a gynecologist and after, an amateur folklorist, or ghostlorist, who collected and provided scholarly commentary on the stories of his fellow “revenants.”
Their intertwined stories explore the mistakes, miscarriages, inadequacies, and defeats that may have led to their divorce, including his failure (according to her) to “fully live.”
As it investigates the theme of what it means to “really live” or not, Elisabeth Sheffield’sbrilliant new novel is also an exploration of virtual reality in the sense of the experience provided by literature. It is a novel awash in a multitude of voices, from the obscenity-laced, Nabokovian soliloquys of the dead Ukrainian doctor, to the trade-school / midcentury-romance-novel-constrained style of his dead mother-in-law.


“Elisabeth Sheffield's new novel is multilayered, smart, beautifully written, and funny. I was taken in by the first paragraph and held firmly through the roller coaster of a ride. The depth of the novel was evidenced by the constantly shifting meaning of the title itself. In fact, the entire work never changes its meaning, but somehow, seamlessly, simply means more. This is a rare and memorable piece of work.” —Percival Everett

“One is immediately then persistently struck in considering Elisabeth Sheffield's new novel by the sheer brilliance of the writing, by the marvelous, ferocious energy of the sentences, by the deadly serious playfulness of the intricate design. Sheffield already has first-rate novels under her belt, but Helen Keller Really Lived pushes even farther, punches even more deeply. It is her finest work to date.”—Laird Hunt

Stories within stories and lives and afterlives make up Sheffield’s (Fort Da: A Report, 2009, etc.) third novel—a metafictional experiment that's as much about the author's literary decisions as it is about her characters.  
Selina Van Staal is a middle-aged woman whose story is interspersed throughout the book in chapters titled “Not Okay: A True Crime Story,” which seems to be her confession. She recalls meeting Lyndon, the ditzy wife of a doctor who works at a fertility clinic. Lyndon wants to get pregnant and needs Selina’s help. Selina calls herself a Reiki Master after getting certified over the Internet; she performs reiki on Lyndon and then Lyndon helps her get a job at her husband’s clinic. It’s there that we meet Fritzi, Lyndon’s husband's ex-wife. Selina moves in with her and becomes involved in a scheme to hold eggs intended for IVF hostage so Fritzi can get revenge on her ex. Selina’s ex-husband is the other main voice in the book. There’s one thing, though: He’s dead, and he’s angry. His caustic monologues from beyond the grave are tiresome and misogynistic; his life story—he started as a hooker and become a gynecologist—rather forced. Sheffield’s clever thoughts on creation and destruction, both real and imagined, make up some of the better parts of the book. “If you think about what you are reading, you will often end up thinking about death, the ultimate failure. Or about lesser ones.”
A complex but ultimately disjointed novel that fails to live up to the intriguing premise. - Kirkus Reviews

Image result for Elisabeth Sheffield, Gone
Elisabeth Sheffield, Gone, FC2, 2003.

Gone plays a hide and seek game between desire and loss in the hills of upstate New York. The narrative alternates between the first person, sometimes stream-of-consciousness voice of Stella Vanderzee, a California freeway flyer with an unfinished dissertation on Sylvia Plath, and letters written by Judith (Juju) Vanderzee, Stella’s aunt and the one-time lover of Stella’s mother. Stella receives these letters from an old family friend early on in the novel and then loses them before she has a chance to read them.

The plot centers on Stella’s search for an inheritance, a Homer painting supposedly left to her by her rich paternal grandfather, a legacy that never existed. Unaware that the painting is gone before her search begins, Stella sees it as compensation for the loss not only of her idyllic childhood in small town America, but also of her mother, the one-eyed multi-media artist Barbara Salzmann, who, Stella believes, committed suicide.

As Stella, accompanied by her lover and former student, the beautiful opiated Skip, resolutely seeks what she believes is hers, her beliefs and assumptions, about her grandfather’s mistreatment of her mother and her mother’s failure as an artist, about sexuality and desire, are juxtaposed with the history recounted in her aunt’s unsent, unread letters. What Stella sees/doesn’t see becomes intertwined with the alternative version of her artist mother presented in Juju’s “communications,” as well as questions about art, perception and possession. Gone is an attempt to give form to what has been lost—the pastoral past, the feminine body—even as that attempt is inevitably the undoing of what it retrieves.

"Interspersed with Stella's drink-and-drug-fueled monologues are letters from her Aunt Judith—usually to people Judish knew at best peripherally. The letters, which are given to Stella, who almost immediately loses them, are the best part of the book. Judith's voice is entirely convincing ..." —Review of Contemporary Fiction

"Gone contains the most compelling cast of cows in current fiction, and its featured humans are also tasty to ruminate over....Sheffield’s novel explodes the possibility of recovering, or even understanding, the past despite the still-tender ache of its wounds.  Gone is a wickedly funny, beautifully intricate, and unexpectedly moving journey into the unknowns of any and every life."Greg Bills

"There's more here than just a comparison of memories--this is no upstate Rashomon-lite. Sheffield's loser protagonist--searching for an inheritance that was gone before she arrived, losing her boyfriend, her job, her aunt's letters, even her hotel room--is the archetypal lost person searching for home." Review of Contemporary Fiction

"Sheffield deftly balances the southern gothic with her mordant wit; her distinct and spiky characters are sure to intrigue readers and win her new fans."—Booklist

Gone daddy gone…I don't know why you suggested that I come here. OK. You're right. You didn't suggest anything. You can't. There's nothing behind those deepset hooded eyes but the void yet the mouth mumbles as if saying a rosary while the fingers fumble with the edge of the sheet counting invisible beads… But you were an atheist, weren't you? Forgive me. Your mouth mumbles as if it isn't saying anything your lips expanding and contracting as rhythmically as the oral cavity of a fish. Is that better? Less judgmental more objective and scientific? I hope so because of course you're no more culpable than the carp trapped beneath the ice of the Otsego no more accountable than the sleet that smears the windows of the Lakeview Lodge for the Aged as I sit here by your bed.

Still I can't help feeling that you owe me something. You're my granddaddy after all the Big Fish who spawned us all with a sweep of his mighty tail. And so it stands that I'd swallow Juju's hook and line if not the sinker about how your grandfather has something he wants to pass on to you before he dies…Remember the old painting that used to hang in his study, the one of the young girl watching over a herd of cows in a field dotted with buttercups? Why shouldn't I believe her why shouldn't it be a Winslow Homer an early American gem to make up for the one I lost when you banished us to LaLa Land? Fair is fair or at least square cuz that painting's got to be worth a mint. So give me a home where the Mohicans once roamed where Abner Doubleday invented a pastime where mapletree sap flows thick and sweet where boys and girls play in the woods until the owl gives a hoot and Mommy hollers time to hit the hay. And if I can't have that I'll take a check.

Interview with Elisabeth Sheffield