Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015. 176 pages. $24.00
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Over the last twenty-odd years Noy Holland has written three collections of short fiction that demonstrate a remarkable ability to connect the syntactical potential of a sentence with the larger social and psychological implications of language. Holland began her career under the editorial tutelage of Gordon Lish, but whereas most of Lish’s former students (such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt) have emphasized the inward nature of sentence-level experimentation—the acoustic interplay of words and phrases, the way dissonant rhythms can claim a reader’s attention—Holland’s language turns outward, illuminating the interactions of her characters. In her work, the pressure to communicate deforms the sentence, as surely as the pressure of living takes its toll on the bodies of her characters. Her language is both physical and profoundly social; it forces us to confront the essential strangeness of human communication.
Consider, for example, the story “Luckies Like Us” from Holland’s 2012 collection Swim for the Little Ones First, which focuses on a family in which the young son has suffered a possibly fatal injury in a car accident and is now lying in a coma. Here the daughter is riding with her father to the ICU, where her mother, a doctor, is caring for her brother:
She rode in back behind her father with her family of dolls. Her father rolled up the window on an out-folded map so the daughter’s eyes wouldn’t and her doll’s eyes wouldn’t sting in the so-bright sun. When he got the map right, he kissed her. She said, “Kiss Mama, too,” and held up the doll who was the momma who was wearing the bacon gown.
The daughter’s cheeks were shiny with grease and she was wearing a lacy pajama top and her hair had not been combed. He bent to kiss her again, his head tipped back, her narrow face turned up to him, a miniature of her mother’s, and her daughter thrust her doll at him, saying, “Mama’s right here.”
“Cousin,” she said, addressing the doll. “Listen to me, cousin. I can show you. There’s a thing with just marbles and springs we can see, and ditches with pops and whistles. This ladder thing carries this ball up. Okay? That is not for sick kids. That is for luckies like us.”
The language is odd and thrilling, and yet we still recognize it within a larger social context: the daughter’s attempt to keep her place in the family, even as her brother’s sickness is endangering it. When Holland lets the syntax loosen, the breathless phrases bring us close to the daughter as she tries to impose a tautology on her “doll family”: “the doll who was the momma who was wearing the bacon gown.” The last paragraph is particularly painful because we recognize the combination of compressed pain and musical sing-song common in children. It gives those parts of our language back to us.
At the end of “Luckies Like Us,” as the daughter stands by her brother’s hospital bed, Holland demonstrates how such recursive, compressed language can reflect psychological context. “He wasn’t Henry yet,” the daughter thinks, looking at her unresponsive brother. “She wasn’t any Henry’s sister. She was a mother-girl with a bacon-doll with no little man to love.”
As the daughter’s protective logic breaks down, those last hyphenated phrases show the fissures in her frightened mind—and ours.
In her new novel Bird, Holland has built a classic Modernist scene: a single domestic day, troubled by the past. Our protagonist, Bird, lives with her husband and two children in a semi-rural, semi-suburban, altogether placid community. Her husband leaves for work early, and is mostly gone; her oldest boy is at school. Bird is alone with the baby. But a series of phone calls from her old friend Suzie, who still lives in the bohemia Bird abandoned, complicate the scene, bringing up reveries: memories of a long affair with a man named Mickey, with whom she drank and did drugs, loved violently, lost a child, and traveled across the country. This affair bleeds into the present, and both Bird and the narrative become consumed by the past.
Bird is an especially porous protagonist; emotions have a way of tunneling through her, letting other times leak through. She breast-feeds her baby, and it brings her back to Mickey:
She has a tooth already, this baby, a little headstone poking through. A little zing when she nurses. It hurts. If only it would hurt a little more, Bird thinks, maybe she would wake him. Take her man in her mouth and wake him, want him hard again. Gimme gimme.
She tries to want that, but what she finds to want is a mess of herself, the old dream that Suzie lives. Makes up, or lives, Bird cannot sort it. She cannot sort the news from the wistful, the actual from the dreamed-up muck of what Suzie fears, or Bird does, from what Suzie wants, or Bird does, or half the time what difference there is between wanting at all and fear.
She will turn a corner and find him there. She will never in her life again see him.
The form of the novel, rather than the short story, allows Holland more room for explanation and greater access to the depth of Bird’s mind: note how Suzie and Bird become confused through a succession of commas, and those last twinned thoughts are like scissors, snipping the thread.
Bird’s consciousness is finely drawn, and we follow her spiraling thoughts with alternating pleasure and concern. She takes a walk with her baby and considers the degradation of the world in flashes: “I’m sorry, is what she means to say. Sorry, sweetheart, about the elephants. About the sea turtles with their heads lopped off, and the friendly machine-gunned whales.”
And yet Holland mostly denies this deeper level of consciousness to the character of Bird that appears in the past; her experiences appear in visceral flashes, without clear motivation or explanation. This gap between consciousness and lived experience reflects Bird’s complicated relationship to her past self—but it also denies the reader some of the interplay of linguistic play and social signification that distinguishes Holland’s short fiction.
By denying the reader access to Bird’s past consciousness, however, Holland forces us into a more visceral register. This makes the impressionistic manner through which Holland presents the relationship between Bird and Mickey particularly powerful. Mickey is a physical force; when the book opens he is tying Bird to the cold floor of their New York apartment, naked and blindfolded, before leaving for the day. When he returns he feeds her, still blindfolded. Their sex is rendered as violence: “Mickey jabbed Bird with the honey spout, drew a bead along her belly, up, like a suture that has risen and healed.” At one point, Mickey asks when Bird will let him kill her. Holland makes us live in the territory between consent and abuse, and Bird’s passivity—as well as the essential unknowability of her intentions—provide the narrative with intense friction.
But consent isn’t the only murky aspect of the territory in which Bird and Mickey live. They rarely work, and they live in a New York City that seems oddly small; as Holland writes, “[t]heir world had shrunk by then to become them,” a series of bars and riverside gravel beds through which they stumble. “They were killing each other,” Holland writes. “She could see that. She would have to save herself and go.” And yet we don’t really understand what about Bird drives Mickey’s anger. “I have a narrowing sense of joy and somehow I blame you,” Mickey says, and the somehow sticks.
Bird gets pregnant, has a miscarriage. Their beloved dog dies; the funeral is conducted by the two of them, alone. We can see them howling, ministering to each other in love and hate, but their cries don’t quite penetrate our reality, except as echoes.
So it comes as some relief when halfway through the book Bird and Mickey hit the road, and Holland opens up into a quick succession of specific scenes. Here Bird is watching a young boy with one leg playing with his sister:
He was coming off the swing. Cripple boy. The log was tipped; the stub of his leg was off it. He hung against the rope holding on with his hands and the rope, unwound, wound up again, according to the laws of motion. The rope thickened with his hair. It wound up with the rope until he hung by his hair, a carnival act …
“He stepped on a fishing hook,” Bird said.
“It broke off in his heel. He didn’t tell his folks, he was afraid to. He told his sister because nobody listens to her, not even the mother,” Bird said.
“There’s no mother,” Bird said.
Holland weaves her language into the narrative’s larger questions, and the thread pulls taut. We feel the child Bird lost with Mickey and the babies she loves in the present—all through the physicality of this boy’s movement with the rope. Here Holland adds a deeper level of consciousness to Bird’s past self, and in doing so she bridges the gap she previously dramatized, between the Bird who remembers and the Bird who feels. In these scenes in the country, there seems to be less of a disconnect, a more unified sense of language as an embodied force.
The journey makes Bird less of a stranger to herself, but it makes Mickey more of one. He grows more violent, and yet his violence seems increasingly arbitrary. “I don’t think he meant to kill me, Mother,” she writes, near the end of the book, in one of many letters to her dead mother. “I just think he didn’t know”—and finding out what, exactly, Mickey didn’t know reveals itself as the goal of Bird’s endless reimagining. The fact that by the end of the book we feel no closer to answering the question might be frustrating, but it is also in keeping with Bird’s character. Mickey is the fissure separating past and present, keeping her from feeling whole.
By subtly manipulating the interplay between past and present, Holland provides the reader the bridge between both worlds that Bird herself lacks. The interactions between Bird and her older son, in particular: he returns at the end of the novel, fresh from the school bus, and his presence almost ties together the loose strands of time that make up a life. It is a testament to Holland’s careful work that the reader sees how Bird’s son is figured through her memories of the lost child and of Mickey—only a more tender Mickey, the Mickey she might have saved. If we don’t understand Mickey, by the end of the book we see the hole he left in Bird’s life, the scooped-out hollow that other things came to fill. In moments like this one—as Bird greets her son as he comes off the bus, and past and present blur—we see Bird in all eras simultaneously. By the end of the novel, our understanding of her is kaleidoscopic: tied to the bedroom floor; worried about the ruin of the world; carrying her son home. We do not always see her clearly, but we are always transfixed.