Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Katie Chase. Her debut short story collection, Man and Wife, is out this week from A Strange Object. In these funny and subversive stories, marriages are arranged over tea, blood feuds simmer beneath football games, and cities burn while their characters struggle between holding on to their families and seeking out new ways to live and love. Publishers Weekly calls Man and Wife “a consistently provocative debut collection.” Chase’s fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised outside Detroit, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon. Here she shares her love of Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping.
As a writer of short stories, I’m addicted to the sprint, to the puzzle. That out-of-breath hurtling toward an ending always in hazy sight, that picture-perfect sensation of clicking in the final pieces in revision (both fleeting: hence the addiction). I can’t be the only one constantly scouting for ways to cheat at novel-making: Do others have favorite novels that seem to have stumbled upon shortcuts to the finish? “Seem” being the operative word, for even the novella, even the novel-in-stories, necessarily has moves utterly distinct from those of the short story.
Let me take you back to a pre-VIDA Count 2004. This was the year that the National Book Award shortlist was scandalous and scrutinized for being composed entirely of women—little known women; women who had all written difficult, little books; women all living in New York, no less (as though we should picture them together at brunch, scoffing at the very Middle America in which I lived, plotting the takeover of just such a list). What is the purpose, went the debate, of such awards, and had the committee, led by known experimentalist Rick Moody, failed in their task? Writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Laura Miller calls Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping “novel-ish,” one of the “two weakest” on the list: “Neither book merits a spot…let alone deserves the award itself.” Yet, I am grateful for this uproar, and to this list for doing what one might think it should: helping into a reader’s hands a book she loved. I’m grateful even for Miller’s diss, as it puts a finger on what it is about this book that I love best, that it is novel-ish, that it just sneaks beneath the ribbon cordoning off that category.
Written in short, titled chapters—some only a sentence, none longer than a couple pages—Madeleine Is Sleeping conjures a familiar nineteenth century-ish world of corsets and castrati, and then melds it with the tropes of familiar fairy tales, from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Bluebeard” to Ludwig Bemelmans’s twentieth-century Madeline. The result is something far less familiar. As Madeleine sleeps, tucked into bed at her mother’s house in rural France, we enter her dreams. We’re introduced, piece by piece, to a cast of misfits and oddities: a hirsute woman resembling a viol; M. Pujol, aka Le Petomane, a “flatulist” sharing the name of an actual entertainer in nineteenth-century France. But are we in Madeleine’s subconscious, or in a reality tangential to her sleep? Soon it becomes clear that the pattern is not simply one of alternation between the real and the dreamed; the two will converge even as they diverge. On page four, a village woman described as “grotesquely fat” sprouts wings and raises herself to the sky. We are in her point of view. Later this same woman lands on the family’s roof and exchanges words with the mother.
Many of these short chapters seemingly could stand alone, stories in themselves. The language is detailed and lush; images recur, are repurposed; and in this way, many chapters—as with the short story—have more to do with the poem than the so-called novel. But before long, this misfit cast meets up, as Madeleine embarks with a “gypsy” troupe on an adventure that has her practicing as a contortionist, posing for pornographic photography, and falling in love. Yet even as the novel’s momentum begins to rely less on the mystery of its structure and more on the energy of a plot, its pieces remain parts to a puzzle: the truth behind why Madeleine sleeps and sleeps, why the fingers on her hands have melded together, deforming them into “paddles.” I will refrain from spoiling, but let’s just say that, as in a short story, there is much left off the page.
During this summary, you may have been plucking phrases for evidence that this book is not for you: “bearing resemblance to a viol,” “sprouts wings,” “’gypsy’ troupe.” Let me assure you that I too felt wary, at first, in the face of such quirkiness. Yet I am a lover of style in art to the extent that it’s possible I overvalue it. Never at the expense of substance, but the best stories, to me, are those in which the two are inextricable: How they’re told has everything to do with what they want to say. And ultimately, this book is so much more than clever acrobatics. It’s a profound portrait of adolescence, a subtle examination of the mores and undercurrents of society, and a celebration of and lament for the body, in all its beauty, grotesquerie, and attendant shame. Beneath an unconventional structure and a “voyage and return” plot, is a story fully under the sway of its own interior logic, laid line by line. Its ending holds such magic that it truly no longer matters what is dreamed and what is real.
In Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has on display all I want to read in a book, all I hope to write in one: lyrical writing with a sense of humor, metaphor and rhythm, subversive intentions, and a wide and generous imagination. It may not be a book for everyone, or even for a national award meant to stimulate book sales as much as honor good writing. But it belongs to a tradition that is, to me, much more illustrious, one of odd, difficult little books by women. Books judged for being little because they are short, as though unassuming, when among their aims and accomplishments is to shoot cracks through the ground that traditions stand on. I’d put among them Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Joy Williams’s The Changeling.
I love this book for its inventiveness, its audacity, its utter originality, and most of all, for its answer to the question, What can a novel be?
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