I don’t ask a lot from fiction — just make every word in every sentence count. And please no fuss about backstory, at least no more than what’s going on in the front of the store. Susan Barnes’s debut goes 18 pages — more than a quarter of the way through –– before mentioning that the events of her incomparably lonely early childhood happened in Alaska.
The generator shed made strange noises. My father warned us to stay away from it. The kennel room where my father operated on animals was also out-of-bounds, and so were the top and bottom drawers of my parents’ dresser. It all made complete sense. I knew exactly where to go to shut down the electricity, to make an incision, to get a gun, and to take money.
She’s seven, maybe.
She has a gift for the laconic: “Reindeer have incredibly large nostrils.” This gift may or may not be connected to a difficulty expressing emotion that puts her so far over on the show end of the spectrum she comes back to tell. The constant violence she witnesses on the boundary between the human and animal worlds may also have something to do with this quiet tone she commands.
The cat screamed in the air. My sister and I had never seen a cat in air. It was all claws and eyes. “Watch!” Pam said, shoving up her jacket sleeves. The cat sank between concentric circles and emerged after a long time somewhere else. It was trying to get over the place where water met air, but it was not swimming. It was as if the cat were constantly stepping onto a table that was not there.
The awe she feels for her vet father she transfers to his dogs: “In the wilderness they could make you feel important just by walking beside you. I had seen them chase bears away and form themselves into a ring.”
The word once at the start of a sentence exerts power: “Once we were invited over after school.” “Once, on a particularly warm day, we saw the lake was thick and black when we arrived. It had been thickened with tadpoles. Linda and I went in anyway with our inner tubes, but it wasn’t water so we got out.” “Once we were out shooting targets with .22s” (still seven or so). “Once my sister Linda decided she wanted to drive. The pickup started with a push button. She ended up in the river. My father had to get another truck to pull her out. Other things about the river frightened my parents. Once our youngest sister disappeared.” “Once my mother had given us gum from town.”
Even the dependent clauses open on unexpected extremity (and a little prolepsis): “Once, while I was collecting leeches off my boots, I saw a bullfrog on a rock open his mouth and pull a mosquito in with a stone-white tongue.” It does not end well for the frog.
The cuisines of some cultures use everything available out of curiosity; most places people cook what they find to survive. Nearly every word Barnes introduces comes back within a paragraph or two, like a character: oars, orange, grizzly. Her lyrical asides are as durable as any American’s since Sarah Orne Jewett: “My father attracted wounded animals.” “In the distance I could hear the invisible women, held inside the glacier, singing their high soprano songs.” “It wasn’t going to get dark tonight, and I lost track of time.” “After they healed, we could tell them apart by the sounds of their various limps at night on the linoleum floors.”
You might expect a book based on near-wordless communication to stall, but Barnes’s magnetic attention, her native compression, and the steady stream of revelation all propel the narrative, which shifts to Massachusetts with the parents’ inevitable divorce. If not actually more social than Alaska, Massachusetts at least offers Barnes more traces of a human world to observe and reject:
It would seem you could stand on a porch and with only a slightly raised voice have a conversation with a neighbor to the left, the right, or across the street. Not so. Every time I went to the porch with the excuse to feed Chipper, my grandmother’s squirrel, who was kept in an earwig-infested cage out there, no one else was around…. [I]t seemed peculiar not to wave if I spied another person there. Miss Mooney, who wore a bun and worked for an oil company, lived on one side. On the other was Mrs. Libby, whose overweight miniature collie ended up biting my grandmother’s leg. They eventually began to wave back. “But,” my grandmother told me, “it makes no difference.” We could not go exploring their front yards and backyards, and we had to be invited to see the insides of their houses.
It does, for a change, end well for Chipper. Other changes come, eventually; a stepmother, a chimpanzee, an afterschool job at an ice cream plant. The older sister brings literature into the mix: “She read to me parts of Portnoy’s Complaint and Candy to disgust me, then she gave me D.H. Lawrence and J.D. Salinger to cheer me up.” If the writing grows (slightly) more diffuse as the narrator ages, it has more to do with the awkward fit of her solitary habits and her haphazard development much more than any literary nonsense. Besides, two or three of the names listed above can only have had a positive influence on Barnes. And Roth at least published a few short books.
They may be out of Alaska but Alaska is hardly out of them, and before long they live in the country again: “The family who had lived there before us took off because they were in some kind of trouble, and my father found guns all over.” Motherless, the narrator scouts the boundaries of public and private property, policy and everyday life, indifference and affection. In pitch meetings I’m told they call this the fish-out-of-water approach; in poetryland we subsume it under the category of enstrangement, an anglicization of Shklovsky’s term for making the familiar world new. He was talking about Tolstoy. It applies here, too, in stark contrasts. Compare Barnes’s notes on a coastline shrine and the Museum of Fine Arts:
There was such a big difference between where the water was when the tide was out and where it was when it was in, that the shrine, built on the edge of the sea, was underwater half the time. So when we made our way over the slippery stones of the spiral staircase, we found Jesus, hanging on a cross covered with starfish, which made him look surprised.
We were then asked to hold up a thumb so it obscured the face. By doing this, the deep space around the sitter changed to paint. Flat, airless, impenetrable. It was just various shades of brushed-on black.
Earthquake makes every word count. Less a story than a narrative poem in stone, this book gets better with each rereading. If your bookstore doesn’t appear to have it, check the poetry section; not every book will be worth going back to, but the ones that are often end up there.