Selah Saterstrom's The Meat and Spirit Plan (Coffee House Press) and Corrina Wycoff's O Street (OV Books) both depict young women whose experience is partially determined by the unpleasant circumstances in which they are raised. Both are notably honest in their portrayal of the external influences that limit their protagonists' opportunities, but also just as honest in their implicit acknowledgement of the bad choices each has made. But ultimately they are quite different kinds of books both formally and stylistically, and, although I enjoyed reading both of them, that they are so dissimilar in method, only to stand finally as variations on a common theme and mode, seems to me their most noteworthy limitation as works of fiction.
The Meat and Spirit Plan presents us with the first-person narrative of the life of a young southern girl (unnamed) who floats through her school years in a kind of sexualized haze and ultimately winds up in a Scottish university studying in the "Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretive Uses" in the religion department. There she continues to exist in a fog of misdirected energy and generalized excess, culminating in a debilitating illness that forces her to return to the United States. She recovers, and the final pages of the novel suggest she might finally be getting her life into some kind of order.
The narrator's alienation from her enervating surroundings, from the monotonous drift of her own life, is profound if not often explicitly acknowledged. It is, however, unmistakable in the affectless but cumulatively affecting chunks of prose that serially approximate the aimless, one-thing-after-another succession of experiences that make up the narrator's life. These prose pieces ultimately acquire a kind of poetic intensity of effect in their bleak circumscription of the character's experience, although they avoid self-consciously "poetic" devices:
In a motel room across from the bed I am in is another bed just like it. In in Stripper Stephanie is on top of some guy then the guy I am with pulls me out of the bed we are in. He pushes me in the bathroom, into the shower, and closes the door. Once inside the bathroom he realizes the light is off and he opens the door, turns it on, then closes the door again. I like the lights on, he says. Do it, he says. Do what, I say. It, he says. I do not know what he means. Do it, he says. Standing in the shower I make a face like I'm a girl in a horror movie.
Unfortunately, the novel's ultimate attempt to integrate the narrator's dislocated experiences into a more coherent account of a life gone wrong then recovered, which is ham-handedly reinforced by the explicit revelation that the novel we have just read has literally been written by the narrator as a capstone to that recovery, robs it of some of its accumulated force. It becomes just another version of a bildungsroman, an opportunity for its female author/protagonist to "express" herself and her newly-found sense of direction. What had been a fairly provocative portrayal of dissolution, of a young American woman giving in to her impulses on her picaresque journey into adulthood, becomes a rather conventional story of a young lady learning her lesson.
The conclusion to O Street is equally frustrating, but in this case it is not due to a weakening of poetic concentration but a kind of loss of narrative will. The book is a sequence of short stories focusing on the life of Beth Dinard, who at the beginning of the book is an adult literally returning to her hometown in New Jersey at the news of her mother's death but who appears in other stories at various stages in her life. In effect, we return with Beth to revisit her past, which is recounted in a series of discrete stories (some focusing on her mother as well). One could call the book a novel-in-stories of the kind that has become increasingly popular over the last decade or so.
Most of the stories are conventional slices-of-life revealing something essential about Beth's upbringing by a drug-addicted, borderline mentally ill mother, her attempts to cope with the miserable circumstances in which she is forced to live, her escape from those circumstances and subsequent efforts to establish some sense of normalcy for herself, etc. They are generally well done, most culminating in a moment of subtle illumination of the book's predominant themes--the search for security, the persistence of memory, leaving and being left, etc. Only one of the stories, the title story, attempts something different, and it's probably the best in the book. In it, Wycoff effectively uses second-person narration to evoke a former schoolmate of Beth's, who had abandonded the "O Street Girl" as a friend but years later is moved to call Beth on the phone to explain herself. It's a well-executed story in it own right, and it lends the book as a whole a refreshing change of approach and perspective.
Unfortunately the last two stories in the book bring it to an overly safe and predictable conclusion. The final story in particular, about the immediate aftermath of the death of Beth's mother, attempts to explicitly gather the book's otherwise implicit narrative strands but succeeds only in burdening it with too many passages of forced exposition and awkward reflection:
After she learned of her mother's death--as Beth walked block after block in the oppressively hot Chicago night air--she kept looking in ruts beside curbs, half expecting to see her glasses. Thirteen years ago, she'd fallen into disrepair when she'd thought her mother was dead. Would she do that again? She was thirty-five now, too old to lose everything a second time. She'd been at her job for ten years; she'd finally managed to move back to one of Chicago's more decent neighborhoods where an abundance of grocery stores stayed open all night, and maybe, soon, she would meet a woman to love.
The reader has to wade through too much of this sort of "summing up," and the effect is to make us feel that the author did not have enough confidence in her narrative strategy--whereby the parts add up to a whole without all connections being made overt--or in her readers' ability to assimilate that strategy so that she could in effect leave it to fend for itself. In the effort to create a novel-in-stories, Wycoff has put too much emphasis on the novelistic, with its more direct demand for coherence and closure, and not enough on the inherent capacity of her individual stories to carry the needed narrative weight.
Both of these books, then, are compelling up to a point, but at that point essentially retreat into overly familiar exercises in composing a "life story." For me, fiction has to be more than an opportunity to recount one's experience with some literary license allowed, even if that experience is rooted in difficult or colorful or unfamiliar circumstances. It has to find an aesthetic strategy that elevates the "story"--which too often is just the same old story novelists have been telling for years, if not centuries--beyond mere narrative facility through formal ingenuity and/or stylistic resourcefulness. Each of these books demonstrates admirable facility--and Saterstrom shows real skill as a stylist--but each of them pulls up short of the necessary aesthetic inspiration.