The mid-twentieth-century German writer Walter Benjamin said: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one: they are, in other words, special cases.” As we lurch into the twenty-first century, one thing that surely connects us to the most change-defined century in human history is invention through the blending of distinctions. Hybridization is not just for rose bushes anymore.
As exciting as this phenomenon may be, it should not be indulged in for its own sake. Certain oeuvres definitely require walls and fences in order to believe in themselves – before they can themselves be believed. (Think of performance art: it either says something shockingly, refreshingly new, or dies trying.)
Alisha Piercy’s reversible book, Auricle/Icebreaker, is audacious for its format alone. After reading one novella, the reader must flip it over for the other. This sounds more like a graphic novel or zine – with which this duo of novellas, although completely lacking in illustration, could easily be shelved, thanks to a markedly post-adolescent tone.The actual dissolution of genre comes with the writing itself. In many places, Piercy’s prose is so stylistic, so densely poetic, it could be prose poetry. Since the accent is on pithiness and prosody, forget about any kind of plot. A little dramatic tension propels the reader forward (or not, as the case may be).
Mother goes out alone one night after being alone all day. The night air makes her drunk feel like clarity. By walking in this night she can’t write to him. What she needs is to sustain an interior vision that still supports a possibility. She exhales into air which is thick with the beloved.
The accompanying novella follows the same style, but the overall writing is far less lapidary. Repeated use of “lays” instead of “lies,” to cite one sign of lapsed copy-editing, makes it lazier writing as well.
In Icebreaker, a young woman named Alice finds herself working at a B&B in a docked icebreaker for the summer. A love interest, simply called G., turns up. They conduct their relationship in linen closets and tiny cabins, creating islands of self-containment in the larger self-containment of the ship (rather like all relationships in their early stages, it could be said). Piercy lets the characters wander without any apparent direction, and the tale – such as it is – ends on an off note, with Alice taking up with a new man.
What if she stopped him, shored the small boat, or better yet, let the two of them drift off in any direction. Alice looks at Zeno’s body, and while he daydreams the sped-up kind she now realizes as euphoria, Alice wonders what harm touching him right now would do. She scans left and right for a place to dock, but there is no land in any and every direction. So there it is; there will be no one, and most of all not G., to witness this.
If these paired novellas comprise an experiment, it’s hard to say how they should be judged. Perhaps it would be best for Piercy to boil down her well-turned sentences even further, call herself a poet, and proceed from there. On the other hand, maybe this duo signifies the beginning of a new trend in fiction, adjusted to suit the devolving human attention span. mRb