The Seas , by Samantha Hunt. MacAdam/Cage, 196 pages, $23.
A new aphorism for the over-30 set: Don’t trust anyone who claims to be objective about experimental fiction. Subjectivity is part and parcel of the experience, and quite gloriously so, it seems to me. I cheerfully admit that a lot of what passes for experimentalism leaves a bad taste in my mouth, the leftover tang of my undergraduate tutelage at the hands of a famously provocative avant-gardist who was quoted, back in the day, on the first page of The New York Times Book Review claiming that “plot and character are the enemies of fiction.” Heady stuff to the confused and impressionable 20-year-old under his wing, especially when head was more or less what the great man was doggedly trying to solicit from my girlfriend.
For this and other personal reasons, I’ve little patience for the 70’s experimental heyday, which in retrospect seems less pretentiously pioneering than merely priapic. All that minimalist prose with maximalist ego, pared down in every department but the penis. Disguising clever mischief in gloomy garb hardly seems worth the bother. And it always felt emotionally stingy, thin gruel that left you feeling empty-bellied and vaguely defiled. So much noodling around, so little to show for itself, as if its proponents actually believed that twaddle about plot and character. How droll.
Which is why I’m pleased when an author makes me rethink my prejudice. Maybe it helps if it’s a woman. Samantha Hunt’s rookie novel, The Seas , reads as though Gordon Lish had undergone a magic-realist implant, John Hawkes had sprouted Marquezian wings, Raymond Carver had lived to see Prozac proliferate. She has some of their tics, for sure-but they’re palatable when tinged with the fabulous.
At first glance, this tale, set in a dumpy northern seaport, about a downhearted chambermaid who believes she’s a mermaid, flaunts much of experimentalism’s creepier trademarks. Check: The studied countrified cadence-“He drank a lot, so did my grandparents, both sets of them, so does most everyone who lives this far north” (one suspects the cowpoke iambs didn’t come by way of the corral but from some grim graduate writing program). Check: The grotesque is relished-Ms. Hunt goes on about a disembodied hand for the same reason a depressed person might: because it lends them a fleeting energy. In fact, depression is the obligatory prevailing mood, the faux bumpkin mopeyness designed to stamp out any ember of light-heartedness so effectively that everyone’s despair feels forced (witness the character who “is not very old but her cigarettes help her to feel like she is”). Baudelaire may have cultivated his neuroses with “delight and terror,” as he once claimed, but what’s most often cultivated by writers of this ilk is middle-class ennui, their hothouse demons lovingly nurtured so they can have something-anything-to write about.
It’s Twin Peaks meets Northern Exposure . Through the frigid air, we can almost hear the reverb of the soundtrack’s bass notes. (Ominously plangent or merely irritating?)
The narrator-the mermaid manqué -lists quite a pedigree. She has eyes “no more colorful than ice with a little blue in there”; considers herself “the town’s bad seed”; senses rot in everything she touches; gets called “retard” by stuttering classmates; and looks forward to further global warming so all the world’s ugliness will be underwater. Mostly (check and checkmate) she has too much time on her hands-time enough to notice the way scuffed-up road sand “makes the rubber soles of my shoes vibrate in a way that runs a tickle up the inside of my leg.” Isn’t there a local aquarium or branch library where she could be a little constructive?
The supporting cast is suitably skanky. The townspeople suffer such nameless yearning dread that they are given to howling like wolves. Jude, the boyfriend (if he can be called that, since he’s selected our narrator to be one of the few women in town he won’t sleep with), sports “gill scars” on his chest and wrestles with memories of soldiering in Iraq, which stands for everything that is the opposite of this place: dry instead of wet, somewhere life and death are immutable instead of so damn porous all the time.
Geography itself functions as the main supporting player, beginning with the omnipresent ocean, which is variously described as “mean and beautiful,” “full of everything except mercy,” “a one-of-a-kind thing, like there is nothing else similar to it in the entire world and so the ocean feels no love, no mother, no father or husband, like … an extremely nasty and greedy thing, like an only child.” The town it oppresses boasts the highest rate of alcoholism in the country, features dining rooms stacked with empty picture frames, toothbrushes so old they pre-date the narrator’s birth, and kitchens that reek of “bacon fat [poured] on the carpet … just like it was a dirt floor.”
Well, you might say, serves ’em right for carpeting their kitchens. And I wouldn’t disagree with you. Except that this landscape-saving grace-is so superlatively dreary it makes fantasy inevitable. A street is capable of “dreaming it was the silver asphalt of fish scales.” A grandfather, working as a typesetter in a press so noisy that the workers communicate by using plates of reverse-order letters to write notes to each other, woos his wife “in backwards words.” Indeed, this old codger has a grand argument with words that approaches the magical. Perusing an outdated Russian-English dictionary one evening, he obsesses about the word razbliuto :
“We don’t have a word to match it but we should,” he says. “We should develop it tonight because the word means ‘the feelings one retains for someone he once loved.'” After discarding “hate” and “betrayal,” he considers “disamoured” and, with a smile, “evol.” “[ Razbliuto ] is the little house love moved out of, maybe a hermit crab moves in and carries the house across the floor of a tidal pool. The lover sees the old love moving and it looks like it’s alive again.”
Love indeed is the chief difference between Samantha Hunt and her literary forebears, who wouldn’t touch the subject without that 10-foot pole called irony. Her narrator is not afraid to love deeply, exulting that she loves Jude so much she literally can’t see straight, “in love so badly that it was affecting my vision.” As she puts it, “I fell and fell and fell until I was so deep in love that love resembled a well, steep sides with no way out,” working herself into such a lather that “some nights I want Jude so badly that I imagine I am giving birth to him.” The watery result is that she tries to drown herself in the tub, before reducing her lover, literally, to a puddle.
It’s this book’s emotional expressiveness-generosity, by any other name-that ultimately breaks the mood’s prescribed monotony and lofts it above its precursors. By the end, even the narrator’s sadness is saved from one-dimensionality by insight into her condition, which adds up to a kind of wisdom. “When you are young … sadness can make you feel like you have something to do. Sadness can be like a political cause almost or a religion or a drug habit.” Aspiring melancholics, as well as all experimental writers, should be forced to tape that line to their foreheads.
Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.