Indianapolis, IN: Engine Books, 2012. 204 pages. $14.95.
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In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner stated that what writers most needed to remember was “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Echolocation, the debut novel by Montreal-born writer Myfanwy Collins, not only holds up to Faulkner’s credo but leaps into the realm of greatness. Collins has amassed a long and noteworthy list of short fiction publications; her work has twice been included in DZANC Books Best of the Web anthologies. The novel is a deceptively slim page-turner, for Echolocation retains the taut explosiveness of the best short fiction without compromising the resonance demanded of the longer form.
Echolocation opens with a horrific accident that forever changes Geneva, one of the main characters, as she loses her arm to a chainsaw. Lyricism and the unusual, poignant image rule the narrative, its tension imbued in succinct, sometimes clipped, prose. “She got out of that truck and she ran like hell down the road, trailing pools and splatters of blood. She remembered thinking that the blood was an odd color on the pavement—iridescent, like the tail of a My Little Pony. She marveled at her own blood as she ran. The leprechaun color of it, granting wishes.” And later, “She was imperfect, unlovable. A burr, a burr, stuck to you that you couldn’t get off. Not something you actually sought out and attached to yourself.” Her disfigurement is the final blow to Geneva’s rocky marriage to Clint, her philandering young husband, driving her back to run her Aunt Marie’s gas station, and to care for the old woman, dying of cancer. Aunt Marie, her foster parent, is Geneva’s only kin besides her estranged foster sister, Cheri, who fled after high school, jealous and unable to cope with Geneva’s marriage to Clint.
Set in a desolate upstate New York border town, hardship and lack of opportunity fuel the characters’ struggles: “There was no living here, but death and decay and traditions and church and guilt and sadness.” Geneva yearns to be whole again, desired; she wants a home and family. Cheri, absent for four years, returns to Aunt Marie’s deathbed barely in time to say goodbye, let alone make amends or provide care. In the aftermath of their aunt’s death, Cheri’s heavy drinking and reckless sex fuel the tension between the foster sisters as they struggle to maintain the property and gas station, and bridge the gulf between them. Renee, Cheri’s mother who left her as a child, finds her way back to them through the odd occurrence of a baby who falls into her care, reawakening a long-dormant yearning for home. The mysterious abandoned baby and the dark intentions of Renee’s boyfriend, Rick, regarding what to do about it, add a crime-thriller element to disparate threads, proving that riveting plotlines can thrive with vivid prose.
Collins doesn’t shirk from the violent and ugly. More important, she knows how to parcel out the gritty, whether depicting two men performing a sex act for cash in a public restroom, run-ins with chainsaws and guns, or death, whether the demise is natural, like Aunt Marie’s, or intentional, as with Rick’s murder, carried out by Geneva and the slow-witted Terry Plonker. The grotesque as a facet of the bleak rural landscape, the physically deformed and mentally deficient inhabiting it, is reminiscent of O’Connor, McCullers, and Faulkner. But Collins’ grotesque, the empathy and disdain we ultimately feel for her characters, doesn’t contain the dark humor or morality of authors such as O’Connor; here, the grotesque makes way for the redemptive, if not the beautiful, by remaining embedded in the visceral. Consider this passage, recounted by Cheri:
When she’d helped clean up her Aunt Marie . . . it was horrible and yet oddly exhilarating seeing her aged aunt naked for the first time—this woman who had pretty much raised her from scratch. The torso and chest lumpy and purpled with tumors was nearly unbearable to view. But worst was the sparse patch of white hair between her auntie’s legs.
Cheri recalled rubbing her washcloth over the area, feeling the coarseness of the hair beneath. Instead of disdain, the moment left her feeling connected, rooted.
Throughout the novel, action springs from deep within the psyches Collins renders on the page. Through an omniscient narrator, we’re pulled inside those who are often unlikeable or secondary, like Rick, con artist and heroin addict; Terry Plonker, the ATV-riding local who saves Geneva’s life; and Iris, his reclusive, unhinged wife. These individuals are as real in their empathic desires and obsessions as the three women the novel centers upon. After the accident, Plonker becomes fixated on Geneva:
And there had been plenty of others . . . some he cared for and many he didn’t, but he had never felt like this about a woman before—that he would do anything for her. And he didn’t even need to screw her. He wanted to be near her and watch how her one hand fiddled with her silky hair.
The novel satisfies largely due to Collins’ approach to her characters, their fixations, whether the role they play is major or minor.
If Collins never forgets a character she’s introduced, she also doesn’t forget imagery or theme, and Echolocation is an apt title for a story which navigates by means of these recurrent elements. Bats, babies, headlights, Cheri’s ring, and a church bus gather steam through their reappearances, and pay off by the novel’s end. Of all the loaded images and places, none is more haunting and pivotal than the quarry, the “secret spot” where Cheri and Geneva played in their youth, site of teenage deflowering and forbidden freedoms: “They said that the quarry was bottomless. That it had been abandoned when they hit a vein of water and the thing filled up and never stopped filling.” How fitting that the novel’s most morally complex acts occur there, all the way to its climax.
Collins accomplishes so much in just over two hundred pages—an enthralling plot; fully believable, deeply flawed characters; hefty thematic resonance, while not compromising the lyrical quality of her prose. The novel opens with Geneva as well as closes with her, in a moment of hope and reinvention which amplifies the notes Collins has played throughout. As Iris, Plonker’s wife, ponders earlier, “In the end there is no one there to guide you or keep you warm. There is only you.”