Stacey Levine's The Girl With Brown Fur (Starcherone Books) is yet another example of the way in which a certain strain of current "experimental" fiction has become tied to surrealism as the apparent alternative to conventional practice--presumably understood as itself committed to "realism," to which the new surrealism is the appropriate challenge. The most notable (and popular) harbinger of this mode of literary antithesis is perhaps the fiction of Aimee Bender, but it is now arguably the dominant approach among younger writers and in the fiction published by "indie" journals and presses.
Which, of course, means it's now no longer even vaguely "experimental," even if it ever was. (It wasn't.) It seems to be the default strategy of a rising generation of writers who otherwise regard themselves as unconventional. It is becoming, in other words, the new, unexamined convention. Levine is older (her first book was published in 1993), so perhaps her work could be regarded as a precursor of sorts, less subject to the charge of trendiness, even as it does continue to participate in practices that are fast becoming dull and commonplace.
"Dull" is precisely the word I would use to describe The Girl With Brown Fur. Not only are the individual stories tedious to read, but the relentless sameness of the stories (with some alternation of shorter with longer ones) makes reading the collection as a whole an oppressive experience. If the stories were more boisterously absurdist, or even just more straightforwardly whimsical, the book might be at least passably entertaining, but instead they proceed through their mostly amorphous narratives in the same affectless tone, reciting their mostly desultory actions and events in the same robotic way. Although writers such as Kafka and Borges, to whose work Levine's is sometimes compared, relate strange, ultimately inexplicable occurrences in a deadpan manner, as if such occurrences were perfectly normal, Levine's stories convey no particular impression at all. Her characters--and these stories are character-centric--have no presence, as if just giving them a name and assigning them weird things to do and say is enough to make them interesting.
The very first story in the book, "Uppsala," exemplifies all of these problems. Although it is one of the briefer stories, its welcome begins to wear with the initial scene-setting:
We come from a bad family and we are disgraced.
"What time do we get there?" asks Brother.
"Stop cluttering your mind with those kinds of thoughts," answers Mother. It is Brother's nineteenth birthday, and we are driving off to the cabin.
We think she is terrible.
The true source of our family remains unknown, though it effectively has prevented speech and compassion for the speechless.
The remainder of the story advances very little beyond what we learn in this passage, to the extent what we are told is comprehensible in the first place. The family arrives at the cabin, where we learn that indeed her children fear her. It is a "bad family" that dares not speak around her due to her "terrible" unhappiness. Unfortunately, these basic facts are then repeated again and again, in different words: "Our nights are static and lonely as ice gathers around the perimeter of this family kitchen"; "Our family is sad and does not live in a verdant place"; "But we are bound in a community of tension and stupendous threat the name of which only Mother knows." The burden of the story's additional narrative movement is carried by similar narrational declarations: "Because of our wounds, we each have grown permeable and have for example consoled one another at twilight"; "That winter we leaned the snow incited our games and the desire to freeze away our mother's sickness and we grew angry."
The "poetic" flourishes--"Amidst the piercing whiteness. . .our wishes that combine to produce friction of desperate severity"-- that decorate this and other stories can't rescue them from monotony and affectation. Although in the longer stories more of the narrative action is conventionally dramatized, they still, as Kristy Eldredge approvingly puts it, proceed "allusively, in an allegorical code," one that in my opinion condenses sense too densely in the name of superficial oddity and "quirk." And while in a story such as "Uppsala" the characters aren't meant to be developed extensively enough that the allegorical names they are given--Brother, Father, Mother--don't yet descend fully into mannerism, the other characters in the book play similarly one-dimensional roles. The effect of most of the stories is the same as in "Uppsala": the surface oddity substitutes for both character development and plot, and neither the language nor the imagery nor the mostly muted humor can rescue them from tedium.
Eldredge further maintains that Levine's approach "always feels down-to-earth and revealing of very real pockets in the human psyche." Some such claim, that the characters are recognizable even as they fail to be distinctive, that Levine is probing the primordial psyche, seems to accompany many of the generally admiring reviews and discussions of Levine's work, but even if I thought these claims had merit, I would not consider them significant accomplishments. The last thing we need is a continuation of the privileging of "psychological realism" through other, more superficially disguised means, reinforcing the notion that the appropriate goal of fiction is to probe and reveal the "human psyche," as if fiction were just an adjunct of psychotherapy. Going after the "deep pockets" (what is "revealed" usually amounts to platitudes and commonplaces, as in the generic "unhappiness" of Uppsala") through reversing the methods of realism is no more enlightening than it is in realism proper, and equally specious.
There is nothing formally challenging about The Girl With Brown Fur. The conventions of exposition, scenic construction, and dialogue go undisturbed. Character and plot are not abandoned, merely flattened out into lifelessness. The stories' uniform style does nothing to redress this lifelessness, aside from the usual sort of figurative language. The only conceivably unorthodox strategy in these stories is the reversal of realism, and at some point this becomes merely a repetitive gesture and ultimately only reinforces the protocols of realism by constantly reminding us of their deliberate absence. If Stacey Levine cannot be accused of helping to reduce surrealism to cliche by jumping on its current bandwagon, her fiction does nothing to avoid that fate.