Jagged plots, erotic detail and deviant grammar are all means for undermining the literary status quo, but Detroit-based experimental writer and playwright Carla Harryman understands that humor can function as the most subversive device of all. Her deft cobbling together of theory, vernacular speech, erudite language, unusual action and psychology prods us to re-examine the link between the self and society. Harryman also questions the traditional divisions within writing itself: poetry, prose, drama, essay — what is possible here at all?
Consider this sentence from Gardener of Stars, Harryman’s 11th book, which wrestles with a new and grittier notion of utopia: “Unusual men from the outskirts have driven here to get a look at us. We feed them ungainly sandwiches disallowing contact of any kind. This may be the West we tell them, but it is no longer the Wild West.”
The line comes from a character named Gardener who gardens. The novel takes place in a garden, a surreal architectural structure which functions as a stage for the risky sexual, philosophical and linguistic activity mapped out in the text. Another character, M, who lives in a shack across the woods from Gardener, says, “I had taken my clothes off to enjoy the contact with dirt. The leaves scratched my ass, legs, arms, and back and stuck to my dry, powdery, and leafy-as-the-arid-dirt skin. In no time, streaks and scratches marked my skin … A breeze came to my rescue.”
True to her book’s title, Harryman rolls up her sleeves and riffs on things high and low: stars and gardens; celestial and dirt; the elevated and the dank. Here again is Gardener:
“A helping hand comes out of the sky but I can’t see what it is attached to … Sometimes I like to think of myself as a weed.”
Diverse voices — slangy, poetically packed, rhetorical — and the harsh and tender qualities characteristic of children serve as both landscape and search vehicle in the human drive for self-expression.
Harryman’s project recalls at once Monique Wittig’s Les Guerillères and Huckleberry Finn. It echoes the former with its violently charged balance of the mental and physical (Gardener: “Perhaps M and I will again meet and hurt each other in the plants and shrubs and kick and scream beyond this.”) and the latter with a youthful savvy typical of coming-of-age narratives.
The hyperawareness of a contemporary Huck hovers behind M’s sentence: “We were squatters reinventing a trauma our descendents will brood over later facing the chalkboards.”
This is a novel that can be engaged with in various ways. A powerfully engrossing plotline might pull you briskly through, while assorted breathtaking sentences (“The shaved muscle man is addressing her with words carved out of an eternity whose purpose was to reduce aggression. Her aggression is lodged in her throat but shrinking.”) might make your reading skid to a halt.
Regardless of your approach, reading Gardner of Stars is akin to maneuvering through some spectacular transportation hub, structured to support purposeful, multiple collisions. The fantastic is balanced out by logic … with surprises up its sleeve.
Read Lynn Crawford's interview with author Carla Harryman.
Lynn Crawford writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].