Sunday, March 27, 2016

"River of Names" (1988)

Read story by Dorothy Allison online.

This story feels less like a conventional story and more like a conventional, if allusive and powerful, overture to a memoir. The title is not misleading, as the first-person narrator broods and remembers, recalling isolated incidents and people from her family of origin. There are a lot of names here. Impoverished white Southerners, they are—Allison reportedly was motivated to this and the larger work it's part of, a collection of stories called Trash, by disparaging remarks she found in a review of a book by a writer she admired. They are telling tales from lives of horror stories: incest, abuse, drunkenness, and way too many children. We know these elements well, not least in part because of work such as this, which stood up and insisted on the existence of reality. That was necessary once—it's always necessary, but was much more urgent even 30 years ago (though in this election year, it must be said, it could once again become urgent). Another element in this story, which was first drafted many years before it was published in 1988, is Allison declaring her lesbian sexuality, which is accomplished by shifts in the narrative to an ongoing intimate conversation with her partner Jesse about her past. Jesse has enjoyed a more privileged life, and is just slightly callous about the narrator's experience. The narrator is never named, which also contributes to the feeling of a memoir, where such information is a given (and not a device). The open declaration of her sexuality feels a little dated too. We know better, not well enough yet but better, that these things happen: both the abuses, and the grappling with sexuality. In the '80s, they were still very nearly taboo topics, so Allison's story was doing other work, attempting to break down barriers that have to be broken down. More than anything the story makes me sad, for the events and vulnerabilities disclosed in the narrative, and for the necessity of such a blunt approach. You can feel Allison, the writer, struggling to redeem herself through the shame of her experience. The shame is what's felt most viscerally here. The experiences were horrible and had to be horrible to live through—that's there in the severity and multiplicity of the horrible events she recounts, or refers to, and all those many names. Allison is glancing and flitting across the surface of a vast ocean of pain. And there's so much surface to it, stretching all the way to the horizon, the myriads of detail, she's not even concerned much yet with the depths that must lie below. It's a fathomless story this set of fragments implies, a place that can drown you.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Trash by Dorothy Allison

No comments:

Post a Comment