Writing nature: On Melanie Rae Thon’s “The Voice of the River”

Hilary Plum
May 12, 2012
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In a recent interview, novelist Lance Olsen describes one of the endeavors of his just-released Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing:

I spend one chapter talking about how conventional notions of characterization are essentially Freudian in nature in that they privilege the idea that past traumas account for present action. They also therefore assume a unified identity through time. And so on. I begin the next chapter, however, by asking if it is conceivable, and, if so, how, to invent paths into character formations (and deformations) that make us feel more like (and thus help us think more about how) we feel on this side of the age of uncertainty: i.e., mediated, remediated, illegible, dispersed? Something closer, by way of illustration, not to Freudian interpretation, but Baudrillardian: schizoid selves as pure screens, switching stations for all the data networks flowing within us and without? What would such a “character” look like on the page? What would the page on which “he” or “she” existed look like?  Would such a page necessarily be gendered?  Why? Why not?

At first this quote seems slightly incongruous in a discussion of Melanie Rae Thon’s beautiful The Voice of the River (FC2, 2011). Thon’s novel does offer characters, a plotline, fragments of stories assembled into a whole—a seventeen-year-old boy, Kai, tries to save his dog Talia when she breaks through the ice of a half-frozen river, and falls through himself. His family, his town—an entire community—gathers to search for the two of them, and their stories are offered in turn; the novel takes place over the course of the day, from the morning when he’s lost to that evening. Olsen’s/Baudrillard’s metaphor of “pure screens” might seem odd here, in a novel that is profoundly, extraordinarily attentive to the natural world. Here the natural world is not quite “given voice,” but—more subtly, I think—shares in the voice of the novel, so that the novel comprises both the human and the nonhuman, offers them as essentially connected rather than (the assumed stance of conventional narrative) essentially distinct. In this way, I think Thon’s endeavor meets Olsen’s description: through this assembly of stories, in which this community lives with one another and within a living place, she creates a more fluid and inclusive conception of character, character as web rather than point. Her characters do have histories, and bring them into the present moment—recalling their own moments of trauma or rescue, as they search for this lost child—but she’s pushing deeper than the Freudian ideas of linear identity. The contact these characters make with one another and the world around them is deep and decentralizing, so that as we read the novel we come to feel that these people and this place make one another up, that we are being told the story not of a handful of people but of a moment in which (we may see how) they comprise one another.

As I read and as I struggle to write something about this novel, I think of years spent reading Gary Snyder and other pioneers in the field of deep “nature writing”; I think of the guiding metaphor of Indra’s net. The descriptions of Thon’s novel that one can find online proposes calling her work an instance of the “eco avant-garde,” and that phrase lingers, useful. As one thinks about nature writing, its newer incarnations as eco-poetics, an eco avant-garde, of course the same demons appear: how to represent nature in language without anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism?* How to resist the tyranny of grammar, with its subject and object, seer and seen? Thon finds space to move in all this, deftly constructs her work as a unified whole so that on reading it I did feel, extraordinarily, as though I was having a real experience of interconnectedness, able to see both the natural and human world (how stupid but normal to phrase this as though the two were distinct) as I don’t usually, and that she had created this experience in that old-fashioned way, through language and narrative. So that I too would like to think of this as an act of the eco-avant-garde, and will keep thinking about and of this novel in the future.


* I owe my own recent meditations on this to a conversation with Danielle Rosen/Patricia Rose, of the Institute for Species Systemization, whose publications may be explored here.

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