Cloning Anxieties: Susan Daitch's Storytown

Storytown by Susan Daitch, Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996, $12.95, ISBN: 1-56478-094-5

Elisabeth Joyce

People used to read everything as if it were a story. Readers looked for moral tales. They wanted to be taught a lesson and then to move on to the next potential mistake. They matched accidents and natural disasters to hearsay, fables and myths. It was a way of imposing logic on mishaps. . . . People used to read for pleasure. People wanted to recognize the end of a story in its beginning. People wanted to be surprised at its end, anyway. ("Incunabula #3")

We don't have this problem with Susan Daitch. Her stories avoid morality; they drift off at their ends rather than slamming us with gut-wrenching stunners. They evoke a time when people do not read anymore. Even so, they don't attempt to make the reader feel pleasure, but, rather, the angst of a lost cause. There is no nostalgia here--just the failure of fiction and of all our lives to have purpose. The stories do, however, address critical issues of identity, which comes across as merely a series of impenetrable masks, indecipherable and illegible.

I have been here before with Susan Daitch, with these women who are alone, who cannot comprehend other people or the world. L.C. depicts a woman involved in the popular uprising in Paris in 1848 through the discovery and translation and mistranslation of her diary. Lucienne Crozier had to marry for money and discovered her "independence" through affairs with Eugene Delacroix, who treated her badly, and Jean de la Tour, who ignored her.

Even though she was as politically engaged as a man, L.C.'s historical identity was squelched because she was a woman. Women were not allowed to speak in public arenas; women were not allowed to even walk in public in Algeria, where she finally flees to die (in one version of the diary). Even though Crozier spends most of her time involved with one man or another, the diary and the novel focus on her isolation. People cannot make her feel unalone.

Daitch's second novel, The Colorist, continues this emphasis on her characters' detachment from other people. The main character, Julie Greene, says early in the novel, "I'm invisible." She moves in with Eamonn, a photojournalist, when she has known him for two weeks. She never knows much about him. He disappears without a trace, in trouble with possible IRA insurgents. She spends time with a man who is working as a temp in her office. He also disappears: "Then Martin disappeared, his image swallowed up in the vacuousness of an empty kiss, nothing but blur. . . . Martin vanished."

She fills in the colors in comic book pictures for money, though not for much money; the comic book series fails and, unable to find legitimate work, she ends up freelancing with a forger, coloring-in Egyptian hieroglyphics. By the end of the book, all she has left are memories: "So now I have no choice, I'm forced to remember, but I have no reminders." These fragments of material objects which spark the memory resemble fragments in the collection, Storytown. The question always remains of how to decipher these remembrances, these laden images.

The malaise which ties together the novel finally takes over in the form of the comic series. Electra's life supersedes those of Julie and her friend Laurel. Even though Electra's life develops out of their fantasy, it becomes increasingly desperate and exhausted. Even their fantasy is unable to rescue them from the depression of their existence. Electra lands on Earth and tries to fit in by copying people around her, but this integration backfires: "Her reflexivity reached such proportions that Electra was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. She had no control over herself." And I think this is the main issue for Daitch: control. No one in her stories has control over others or themselves.

"Doubling" reminds me of The Colorist in that it, too, has a single female as its main character, one who interacts with another single female but cannot connect with her. This secondary figure is played by Pierra Chiari, Claudia's Italian cousin who was fired from her job as a restorationist. Why she was fired becomes increasingly clear in this story because she also works as an art forger, "adjusting" plaster casts so that they take on the patina of age and the marks of hard use--lost limbs, scratches, faded fresco-esque tints. Like Julie Greene in The Colorist, Claudia has training as an artist but has taken on a job in an art-related field to pay the bills. Julie fills in the colors in comic book drawings; Claudia sketches defendants in courts which do not admit cameras and sells her drawings to the news media. She is alone: "Claudia herself felt anonymous and trivial, a handmaiden to the public's voyeuristic desire to see the defendant" (85).

Pierra appears from Italy and moves into Claudia's apartment and starts making forgeries. Claudia feels oppressed by her presence and the apartment isn't large enough for two and for this extra project. Yet as she has no purpose or direction herself, she passively allows Pierra to take over and work on her forgeries.

The isolation felt by Daitch's characters is everpresent and piercing. In "Fishwanda" the nameless heroine is stuck in London waiting for money to be wired to her after the 1928 stock market crash: "For days she had talked to no one, counted her remaining pounds, and waited for the fare to return home. . . . She resolved again that as long as she remained in London, she wouldn't speak to anyone. She would be as if mute."

These are stories of identity. Everyone in this collection of short stories is masquerading as someone else or is trying to decipher the someone else's identity. In "The Restorer" Anne discovers a portrait concealed by paint under a later portrait: "Under a self-portrait, another face emerged. . . . As she cleaned Courbet's cheek, a second pair of eyes, a nose, and a mouth appeared. . . . The first layer of paint could easily be wiped away, or she could restore the self-portrait and obliterate the other." Anne cannot determine which portrait to protect, which identity was more important than the other: "Flakes of identity gave way to another, whether an interloper or a psychopath with a blowtorch were the agency of torment and disclosure."

Forgeries, representations of representations, seem especially appealing to Daitch, as they add extra impenetrable layers to the impossible deciphering of reality. Pierra, in "Doubling," in fact, is disconcerted when work done by Claudia and herself is attributed to a real artist. Their forgeries are true mimics of someone else's identity, rather than disguised versions of their own. These forgeries are as elusively shaped as real identities: "Even an invented, assigned identity seemed a flimsy, immaterial thing floating past her, ungraspable and evasive. . . .In fact it wasn't the closeness of the resemblance that mattered, people are easily fooled, but whether you can stay in character."

"Analogue" takes the issue of identity and forgery to its extreme when Sélavy creates a forgery of herself. "She dressed the dummy in her clothes, and it took over her job, like a kind of golem. No one noticed the difference." Everyone in these stories is a golem to a certain degree. They are unable to act; they are invisible. In the title story, for instance, characters dress like characters out of fantasy stories: Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood. "Sometimes I feel like an imposter," says the main character, an actress who performs in the role of Alice.

In "Storytown" Alice lives alone with her mother who seems to spend most of her time at work. The story takes place in early autumn when the employees at the park are drifting off to other jobs. Alice's boyfriend goes into the military and is promptly killed. She lives in wonderland, by which I mean, she increasingly enters her part literally, reciting phrases from Alice in Wonderland, and entering the world of the white rabbit at the end of the story when she sees the real amusement park rabbit behind the screen door of her mother's apartment. Alice has no direction or purpose in life, and like the character out of the Lewis Carroll novel, strange things happen to her which she cannot control.

Language is a part of what determines identity in these stories, but it is as incomprehensible as appearances. In "Killer Whales" another nameless heroines devotes herself to deciphering the meaning of language. She describes how her attitude toward language has changed over time to the present: "Now I look at words as isolated catatonic patients in a state hospital whose funds have been cut off. It is a scene of bankruptcy where there is no longer any relationship between sound and meaning." She spends her life trying to decipher whale language: "I recognize patterns of sound, but the meanings they bark remain elusive."

The important sections of "Killer Whales" focus on the narrator's neighbor who displays Joseph Cornellesque tableaus on his windowsill: "My neighbor . . . constructs stories out of ephemera--toys, needles, and nicked-up saints . . . . I don't know if there's been anyone in to learn his speech, anyone who could decode those window displays, and say with certainty, this is what he meant by . . . and I will repeat to you." The surreal dioramas spur the narrator's, and our, desire to comprehend this language of objects:

Once my neighbor put a fishbowl in his window. Goldfish and guppies swam through a miniature pink castle surrounded by artificial ferns. A naked Barbie doll, or something like it, sat on the sill watching the fish. The doll's knees weren't jointed, so its legs shot straight out, aggressively. On the other side of the broad window ledge another doll was submerged head down in a glass tank, surrounded by rubber fish placed in inquisitive attitudes as if they were watching her, although later it occurred to me the rubber fish setup might have been an ambush. The doll's legs stuck out above the rim and its blond hair floated in the water.
And earlier, the narrator
looked into my neighbor's window. He had changed the arrangement of figures set out behind small panes of glass. . . . A statue of Saint Frances faced outward from the sill, arms outstretched, one hand chipped off, white plaster showing through the scratched brown paint of his robe. He was surrounded by toy sheep, soldiers, a couple of windup Godzillas, a toy bed with two syringes tucked in it, and a candlestick which had a flame-shaped light bulb where a wick would have been.

Part of what develops the sense of isolation in these stories is their settings. They often take place in the basement of large buildings, two, in fact, occur in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "The Restorer" and "Incunabula #2." These are "airless, stifling," close, tight, awkward quarters which express the repressive nature of these characters' lives. There is never enough room or light here. In the translator's office in "Asylum," "The blinds were drawn. . . ." In "Killer Whales," the killer whales swim in "confined pools." The settings of two stories are created by small fake houses--in "Aedicule," where the girl works in the small "house," the tourist bureau, and in "Storytown," where the fake houses are too small or inadequate for "Alice" and her boyfriend to spend the night together in one: "One night they slipped back into Storytown and tried to find a house with a usable bed but all of them were painted props, hard and too small for two people or even one adult, so they slept on the grass near the rabbit hutch."

I sometimes think it is harder to put together a collection of short stories or poems than to write a contained novel, for each item in the group calls out to the others, and the order which they take can influence the entire passage of the work. The writer must leaf through all the work of the previous ten or fifteen years to select an effective pattern of stories. Daitch has opted to put her relatively conventional pieces in the first half of the book, with two exceptions--"Incunabula #2" and "Storytown" fit into this category but appear in the last half. The rest of the stories in the latter end of the book tend to effect a more radical style.

My favorite story in this section is "Scissors, Rock, Paper." Its characters are Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and two invented writers, "Scissors" and "Rocks." Daitch incorporates into this story fragments of an interview of Brecht by Benjamin. This story is allegorical in form, with "Scissors" representing the realist novelist who watches people and tries in writing to capture their appearance, behavior, and speech with exactitude. "Rocks" represents the bricoleur, a random gatherer who concocts a representation of human existence through the concatenation of haphazardly selected artifacts. Brecht takes on the role of "Paper," the stifling influence who criticizes writers no matter what tactic they take.

While Daitch acknowledges the dyadic nature of this division of writing styles, she yet adheres to it. The story ends with a note on the uncrossable gulf which lies between the writer and the audience. Benjamin acts in this story as both its frame (his reminiscences are what recall Brecht) and its audience (he watches the conflict which Brecht sets up between the three game elements). Benjamin acknowledges that "he was no longer interested in being Spectator, but didn't feel up to the task of spectacle either."

When stories had lessons to teach, they had the option to be hopeful and idealistic. Now that this function of fiction is apparently over, characters, like people, wander aimlessly through their uniformly mediocre lives. If I feel nostalgia at all, it's for those days when we could accept and even embrace transcendence. Realistically, however, Daitch is probably right. We are stuck here on the ground and we don't even know what it means.

Elisabeth Joyce has been teaching at Edinboro University of

Pennsylvania. Her Aesthetics and Cultural Critique: Marianne Moore and

the Avant-Garde is forthcoming with Bucknell University Press. She will

be teaching on a Fulbright grant in Tokyo next year.


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and the author. All rights reserved.