Reviewed by Tania Hershman
The ideal reader of Alexandra Chasin's wonderful - and wonder-full - debut collection of "innovative fictions", Kissed By, is no slouch. He has work to do. She can't pass over a single word in a Chasin story, for to skip or skim would be to miss something vital. And yet at the same time, Chasin's reader has to approach many of her fictions in a similar way to a viewer looking at a Magic Eye picture: you have to relax focus so that the image will appear before you in all its glory. This sounds complicated. It's not. Just pay attention. If you do, you will be well rewarded.
Chasin's stories are the sort to have terms like "experimental" or "meta-fiction" thrown at them, but I would rather not do that so as not to put anyone off. This is not "worthy" fiction that you "must read" because of the fact that it is "innovative". Let's just talk about the stories, of which there are 18 in this book published by FC2, the Fiction Collective 2, "an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction".
In the first story, Kissed By, Chasin immediately signals that we are in non-traditional territory. The main character, it seems, is a figure in a painting, who is rather angry that the painter hasn't given him/her a face, and longs to be kissed. The opening paragraph is unsettling: "I began, as we all do, by wanting something. I began by wanting somebody, everybody, nobody, to know that I wanted something, but I hardly knew which."
Chasin often seems to be telling a story and, at the same time, talking about the telling of the story; neither interfere with the other. This, I think, is why it is necessary to pay attention and to relax focus simultaneously. If you think too hard about it all, this could have disastrous consequences. For example, in The Mystery of Which Mystery, the author is wondering about the kind of mystery the story needs, while bringing us the very story that needs the mystery, the love story of Leo and Lise. The added layer makes this fairly pedestrian plot more compelling, maybe more so to a writer who enjoys access to an author's machinations or pseudo-machinations!
As with Lise Erdrich's collection, Night Train, there is a story here that could be seen as purporting to explain the writer and her process. In Composer and I, the narrator is a writer who is plagued by the Composer inside her head who wants to write all the time: "This is the bane of my existence. Since I was a teenager I have been afflicted with a narrator who offers - no, imposes - a running commentary on everything I hear, smell, touch, taste, feel, or do. This irrepressible composer mediates every last experience - fights with my Dad in the great backyard, cityscapes in the dusk, hot sex, backgammon victories, losses in love, brushing my teeth, endlessly driving on roads, and cetera, ad infinitum."
Maybe it is Chasin's own Composer who, in stories such as The Mystery of Which Mystery, insists not only on writing the story but on writing about the writing of the story. And after reading the whole collection, it appeared to me that perhaps the attempt to silence - or, at least, to distract - Composer for a while, might lie behind some of the most wacky of the fictions here. Such as They Come From Mars. An extract (in the same font as the original):
Then they walk pour flow ooze down town rows upon rows flow
This is most definitely innovative, and requires much concentration, but the effect is not to simply hear about but to feel the rows of Martians marching, bearing down on you as you read, messing with your brain. It's more a sort of sensory bombardment than a short story.
There are some fictions whose innovation were wasted on this reader, such as ELENA=AGAIN. I am a frequent solver of cryptic crosswords, but after spending much time on this fiction, I failed to crack it. When it was originally published in DIAGRAM it was accompanied by a note: "As a rule, readers create a text in the moment that they read it; readers render a text meaningful in the very act of reading, regardless of the form of the text. This cryptogram is a formal experiment in pushing this axiom to its logical limit. It is an inquiry into readerly activity, whose results its putative writer will never know...paradoxically."
Toward Grammar of Guilt requires turning the page to read words written sideways down branches of a sort of family-tree-like structure. Clever. Yes. Also Kant Get Enough was basically just puns on philosopher's names, which was amusing but not much more.
As someone who enjoys non-traditional fiction, I was surprised that the stories that I was taken with the most in this book are the ones that are probably the closest to traditional, with just small twists in their fabric. In B., G., and I the narrator is torn between two lovers, one male and one female, B. and G., and is forced by them to decide on just one. Composer and I is also a straightforwardly-told tale.
What comes through very clearly in this collection is an author who feels wondrously free from constraints, be they linguistic, grammatical, temporal, spatial. Chasin also seems to feel free not to be innovative, which to me is the greatest aspect of this collection: she does what she believes serves the story she is telling. And by doing so, she enriches our concepts of narrative. I look forward to reading much more of her work.
Read one of the stories from this collection on Elimae.
Publisher: FC2/University of Alabama Press
Publication Date: 2007
First collection?: Yes
Author bio: Alexandra Chasin received her PhD in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University in 1993, and went on to teach literary and cultural studies at Boston College, Yale University, the University of Geneva, and Columbia University. Chasin's first book was a work of nonfiction called Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. Kissed By is her first book of fiction. Chasin's creative work has been published in print in Denver Quarterly, AGNI, Chain, sleepingfish, West Branch, Phoebe, and The Capilano Review, and online in Exquisite Corpse, DIAGRAM, and elimae. She now teaches in the Writing Department at Lang College, The New School.
Read an interview with Alexandra Chasin
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If you liked this book you might also like....
Roy Kesey "All Over"
Lise Erdrich "Night Train"
Aimee Bender "Willful Creatures"
Diane Williams "Excitability: Selected Stories".
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