Friday, February 6, 2009

THE GAP IN THE LETTER C, by Kate Small


The San Francisco State University Creative Writing Department runs an annual fiction chapbook competition, and prints the winner in a limited run. The results range from good (THE TILT, by Robin Romm) to not so good (DESERT STORIES, by Coby Hoffman). In the case of THE GAP IN THE LETTER C, by Kate Small, I'd say the results are pretty close to excellent. (At least so far. I've only gotten a quarter of the way through.)

A lot of the intrigue inherent in C comes from the way Small cultivates disjunction. Here's an example, from the first story in the book: "five full immersions".

I pull back from the regional manager but there's nowhere to go. He steps forward. We freeze, his name tag tangles in mine. It's awkward, like something happening to shy people at a party. I turn my face to the side, my ear pressed to some fake woodgrain on a cupboard. I think of Heng-Jin's statue of the Virgin next to Trung's plug-in Buddha, maybe two feet away from my head on the other side of the wall. Heng-Jin used to light candles, Trung used to give them oranges. I hear my breath come out in squishes; I see parts of me, a hip, an elbow...

I've seen other authors use this sort of thing before, usually in tense moments, to heighten the sense of a character's confusion, to reveal the way the mind scatters its thoughts, focusing on disconnected details here and there. Kate Small does it all the time, in moments of stress and moments of relative calm. The result is a world seen through a prism, each cell of which is a close-up on one feeling, one visual detail, one thought or sound. Instead of a panoramic, in which the reader is given a wider view, Small compels us to piece together the larger picture from its smaller parts. And the parts she gives us don't fit together easily, or in a familiar way--we have to read between the lines, to interpret, to deduce. Small makes the reader an active participant, instead of a passive observer.

In my ever-evolving definition of "literature," I often include a clause relating to the idea that it rewards extended involvement, it continues to give something on the second and third read. Small's writing achieves this by giving clarity in fragments, and asking the reader to take part in the assemblage of story. It's an enjoyable process. It merits participation.

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