Self-Portrait with Chokehold: Joanna Howard’s Foreign Correspondent

Matthew Jakubowski

Denver, CO: Counterpath, 2013. 96 pages. $16.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Readers who enjoyed the ornate fables and finely turned prose of Joanna Howard’s debut story collection On the Winding Stair are in for something new with her latest book, the novella Foreign Correspondent. There are no specters, spies, dandies, or femme fatales with names like Elva and Fennis. Instead, Howard offers the real-world, first-person perspective of a young woman at a personal and professional crossroads.

The narrator is a young woman named Johnnie James, whose moniker comes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. The film mixes screwball comedy with politics as a knucklehead reporter named Johnny Jones falls into international intrigue, chases assassins and spies, and becomes world-famous.

Johnnie craves such excitement and luck. “I am a correspondent,” she says, though she’s actually a frustrated magazine writer. “My subjects are very particular, and usually domestic, frequently feminine in the most conventional sense of that word.” Fed up writing “dull reports on dull topics for dull ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “I admit that my thoughts of late turn to violent distant subjects. I dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, but breaking into this takes some doing.”

The book’s first pages are light-hearted yet sharp, with a wit and toughness that feel somewhat confessional. Johnnie’s story opens as she drives toward “the residences of the educated, liberal bourgeoisie” to spend a weekend with a great philosopher named Alphonso in his countryside mansion, replete with exotic animals and art treasures. Johnnie plans to write about Alphonso but she’s also “a devoted fan” and carries a photo of him in her wallet. (Notably, the book’s philosophical threads connect back to American philosopher Alphonso Lingis, whom Howard name-checks in the acknowledgments and an epigraph.) Johnnie says up front that while she admires Alphonso, she has doubts about the value of his wealth and success: “The content of contentment is stagnation. An unbreaking stasis, the dead sea. It is fertile, and therein blooms spleen. How can this have come to pass? And so begins my investigation.” This enjoyable balance of reflective thought and impatient need for action is hard to sustain, yet Howard does, creating what reads at stretches like a blend of Tove Jansson’s fiction and Hunter S. Thompson’s letters.

Howard never gives us Johnnie’s backstory, just a few hints, and she doesn’t name the setting, leaving events on ambiguous ground. The structure reinforces the slightly removed feel. One-page chapters are fired at us with titles and end-titles in all-caps font, like spam e-mail subject lines, “MACGUFFINS” and “ASKANCE YIELDS THE IMAGE.” This barrage of deliberately disorienting language gives the narrative a choppy surface.

Aside from her reporting work, Johnnie writes gushy, adoring letters to Scooter McIntosh, a retired, world-famous MMA cage fighter nicknamed the Bricktown Butcher. Often switching to epistolary form, Howard shows Johnnie throwing herself at Scooter, praising his tattoos and muscles, and challenges us to reconcile her contrasting attractions. If Alphonso’s intellect and wealth yield “stasis,” to Johnnie’s mind, what does Scooter the cage fighter represent?

Johnnie explores answers to this question in the many letters she writes about Scooter to her female best friend, Johni. The two friends never meet, exchanging letters often, and we learn as Johnnie does that Johni’s marriage to a musician is failing. Their friendship is based in part on their shared background. “I can’t quite pass myself off as a sophisticated lady,” Johnnie says. “Or, as Johni says when shop clerks sometimes ignore us, they can smell the rural on us, even though we’ve left it pretty far behind.” Johni may represent the married road not taken, without children, one that ends in divorce in Johni’s case. In terms of the women’s experience, this subplot forms part of Howard’s broader commentary on the options women have. Johnnie isn’t depicted as being aware of the pressures and inequality she faces, compared to men, in her personal life and career. But over time she does act under this pressure, trying to both break into a new line of work and impress men ranging from the likes of Alphonso to Scooter, as she reads letters detailing the slow end of her best friend’s marriage.

Johnnie’s quest to understand her motivations forms the bulk of the plot. Howard has Johnnie present herself as if she’s living, or feels as if she’s living, in a sort of thought-construct, an echo chamber of scenes and letters—most often directed at getting Scooter’s attention—evoking the chaos of a young person finding her way. The real Johnnie and her past are mentioned in very small detail, a half-sentence here about an unnamed friend getting electroshock treatment, a quick reference there to poverty and overdoses back in her hometown.

The biggest plot turn comes when Johnnie starts studying martial arts to impress Scooter. It’s one of many tactics Johnnie tries as her letters to Scooter eventually scare him off. “[Is] it so crazy that you might stand out in my mind as not only someone who is amazingly tough, but who seems to have a really quite complicated and wise relationship to his own toughness?” After he stops writing she laments the loss, defends herself, and changes course. “[I] have tried to give you many versions of myself—high-thinking political correspondent, carefree hip girl about town, brooding and nostalgic sensitive artistic soul, irreverent flirtatious one-of-the-boys gal pal—and nothing seems to play, so I’m going to try finally for brutal direct honesty.”

Admitting that her obsession with Scooter and desire to be a foreign correspondent have “disastrously failed,” she focuses on her growing love for grappling and jiu-jitsu. Howard studied the sport and shows Johnnie learning about armbars, guillotine escapes, and the true fear and pain that grapplers often face moment-to-moment in class. She makes at least one terrible friend there, who mocks her confusion over Scooter:

When talking about this with my friend, I asked, ‘Why do I spend so much time thinking about this fighter I don’t even know?’ he said, ‘I don’t know, is it because bitches are crazy?’ Is that really the bottom line, Scooter? Have I simply become unable to focus on work due to the bumbling pit of vanity, superficiality, and flightiness which is presumably at the core of all women, and despite considerable efforts of a century or two of feminist thought and action, designed to convince and correct such a misconception, am I sending my sex back to the dark ages?

This is the only moment of frustration expressed in feminist terms. Johnnie’s anger here hints at what could be her refusal to accept sexism as a fact, or a refusal to be deterred by it as she pursues a life among fighters. Howard uses such moments to show Johnnie’s determination to endure but not overlook the ugliness in that environment, which eventually yields a female role model.

Among the fighters, her jiu-jitsu instructor is blunt, but encourages her. “‘Johnnie, it is inspiring—inspiring—that you would want to take on this wonderful martial art,’ he says, ‘but you are going to get your ass handed to you over the next year so much. So much ass-handing, for so long.’ He puts his hand on my shoulder and lowers his head, I can tell he is not sure if I am up for the challenge.” This man’s girlfriend, also a fighter, confides her frustration to Johnnie at how “often men refused to roll with her” in classes. She displays a finger she once dislocated, but refused to rest and heal it, leaving it permanently crooked, “for which she seems—quite rightly—proud,” Johnnie says.

Johnnie’s turn to martial arts to alter her worldview—“I am on the path of the warrior goddess”—is not an original plot twist. But the choice has led her to a new place to study life, close to someone else:

[As] my fellow grappler teaches me how best to submit and be submitted, in the whispered exchanges taking place therein, that which has yet to be imagined will be revealed, on fair and even ground, in a single place we both inhabit, however momentarily, even in the advancement of our rolling bodies.

Johnnie’s sense that she can engage in an equal, philosophical dialogue during a fight is the denouement of the book’s spare plot. In this way, Howard’s experimental novella makes a strikingly different statement than, for example, the more traditional recent novel The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, narrated by a woman who tells us she knows herself and her life through and through, to the point where she feels she has become a sort of societal stock character. Johnnie resists such self-awareness, and exists mostly in isolation. She stands at an enviable, if removed, point in life, able to defy definition by society, taking a first step toward the brutal honesty she knows she must embrace to gain a truth meant only for her.

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