All too often, contemporary works of fiction explore autobiographical subject matter with precision and wit, yet fail to extend meaning beyond the individual who’s telling the story. The unsuspecting reader is forced to inhabit someone else’s psyche, then they are ushered out into the cold. With that said, four recent titles from Dorothy: A Publishing Project are a rare exception. Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, Amina Cain’s Creature, and Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women address intensely personal issues—including social anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia—while at the same time constructing larger arguments about the artificial boundaries we have imagined between self and world. The characters’ emotional states are frequently projected onto the world around us, resulting in nerve-wracked city skylines and landscapes fraught with tension. While diverse in style and approach, the four books prove equally remarkable in their relentless interrogation of the ways in which we conceive of inner experience, as it is no longer presented as entirely separate from the world around us.
The specificity of the press’s focus is certainly striking. Each of the four books essentially addresses the same philosophical concern, prompting us to consider interior as exterior, and the world around us as projection. At the same time, editor Danielle Dutton strives to show us the range of formal experiments, appropriations, and subversions that this same question can give rise to. What begins as an editorial constraint allows for a proliferation, offering more possibilities than most would ever imagine. The original question is refracted and multiplied. Indeed, these recent collections offer several thoroughly imagined possibilities for understanding the relationship between self and world, many of which are fundamentally irreconcilable. I’m heartened by the editorial vision behind this press, as Dutton places the reader in a more active role, encouraging them to discern, evaluate, and choose for themselves. Dorothy, then, serves as a forum for a conversation that is larger than any one book, and that the reader is invited to partake in.
Amina Cain’s Creature, for example, explores the reciprocal relationship between one’s psyche and one’s surroundings. In much the same way that our innermost thoughts and emotions are projected onto the external world, shaping one’s experience of cities and landscapes, so too the architectures and topographies that surround us determine what is possible within conscious experience. In many ways, Cain’s story, “The Beak of a Bird” embodies these ideas. She writes near the end of the piece,
Out on the balcony of the house, Clarice’s open coat billowed around her in the wind. She had gone out there to take a break from me, and I watched her looking at the city, an ugly city that seemed to have no end.
I find this passage revealing for several reasons. Without a doubt, the heroine’s discontent is projected onto the cityscape, as are her feelings of entrapment within a dismal consciousness. What’s even more interesting, though, is Cain’s suggestion that the city pushes back against the heroine’s sadness, ultimately keeping her trapped within it. The absence of beauty around her, in many ways, perpetuates the daunting sadness that has been heretofore projected onto the cityscape.
Other stories in Creature exhibit a similar fascination with the boundaries between inner experience and the world around us, particularly the ways in which they exist in tension with one another, and often, strike sparks against each other. Consider “A Threadless Way,”
I continued to wander around the city, absorbing something from it. I had very little money, but I’ve always identified as not having much, so it didn’t bother me, except when I didn’t have money to make credit card payments. One evening I took my bike through a neighborhood where cheap clothes were sold. I bought myself a dress for $9.99.
I’m fascinated by Cain’s creation of cityscape in which the various economies circulating within it are suddenly visible. In many ways, it’s the questions of valuation and economic exchange that unnerve the narrator the most, drawing out her myriad insecurities. Cain suggests that when beholding our surroundings, we seek what frightens us most , and more often than not, we find it. With that in mind, “A Threadless Way” speaks to the tension that frequently exists between inner experience and the external world, particularly as our surroundings dredge up the most difficult artifacts, memories, and emotions that we have often buried within the unconscious mind.
Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women, on the other hand, presents a more ambivalent relationship between the novel’s heroine and her surroundings. The work depicts a woman’s extended stay in a mental hospital, where she is treated by a doctor who specializes in “pretty troubled women.” Scanlon’s beautifully crafted prose drifts between first person and third person, and as a result, we are held at varying distances from the heroine’s anxiety and emotional turmoil. At times we made to inhabit her psyche, then these intimate thoughts and emotions are exteriorized, held at a greater distance for us to behold. Scanlon offers us two extremes, two varied ways of conceptualizing the relationship between self and world. We are presented with intense solipsism and stark clinical detachment, neither of which fully captures what it sets out to. In many ways, the juxtaposition forces the reader to think critically about these two extremes, to see what is missing from each, and what each has to offer.
For instance, Scanlon writes in “Dreams of Return (I),”
In the first dream she is back in a hospital. She is in a group meeting. There are three others in the meeting. Others who were there. The group leader says something, and she answers. She says she has a lot of feelings about having been there for such a long time. She tells the group that she found it terribly stigmatizing, if maybe in some ways helpful. She tells them there have been studies, that it is now considered a very bad idea.
Here Scanlon offers what seems like a detached and objective portrait of the heroine’s inner experience, as seen from outside. At the same time, the reader begins to sense that the entire scene is a projection of her innermost fears. Nearly everything in the clinical, third-person narrative conveys a sense of anxiety. The repetition of “she” at the beginning of each sentence, for example, reads as a nervous tic, an anxiety-induced speech habit. The use of numerous qualifiers, too, conveys a sense of hesitation, if not outright nervousness. I find this tension between objective and subjective language to be provocative and expertly constructed. In many ways, Scanlon suggests the fluidity of the boundaries between interior and exterior, self and world, no matter how much medical culture attempts to separate them. Clinical language ultimately fails to convey experience more faithfully. The fact that Scanlon communicates this ambitious institutional critique through the remarkable craftsmanship of her prose is truly remarkable.
Additionally, these passages written in the third person form a stark contrast with other parts of the book, narrated in emotionally charged first person prose. Scanlon writes,
We walked the halls of S.S. Roger, where I’d been sent from Ward Six. Heather had been on the S.S. Roger for a year, maybe more, by the time I arrived. It became a regular thing. Day after day on the floor of the ward, we talked together and alone, side by side, not talking, each wearing our Walkman as we walked from one end of the women’s dorm to the other […]
What’s interesting about this passage is the semblance of objectivity. We are presented with a long string of facts, none of which seem arguable or debatable. Despite the seemingly subjective nature of the language, we are presented with a more objective rendering of the world than what we saw in the third-person passages.
For Scanlon, both objective and subjective language fail to deliver what they initially have promised. Yet it is the language that is appropriated, and the forms of discourse that are creatively misused, that are often the most powerful. She writes in “Constant Observation,”
(Morning) The resident from South Africa smiles, makes jokes, talks about his acne—endearing to the breakout-prone aboard the S.S. Roger. Liv hisses something about fresh blood. Lizze looks up from the book she’s reading—a biography of Virginia Woolf. Liv’s hand shakes so much she has to move her mouth to the cigarette and not the other way around. Liv takes a lot of drugs. Maybe more than anyone on the S.S.
Here the prose takes the form of a clinical report, though it is written by a patient. The detached nature of the clinical report allows the patient to communicate aspects of her experience that she was unable to in seemingly subjective first person prose. One understands from this passage the tendency to compare oneself to other patients, to chart one’s progress by what seems to be a broken algorithm. The reader is also shown the various hierarchies that pervade this seemingly egalitarian environment. I’m impressed by Scanlon’s ability to convey institutional critique while using the very language of that institution. Even more importantly, Scanlon shows us, as she has with every stylistic maneuver, every type of language, that there is no escaping oneself, however much one fixates on exteriors. Scanlon suggests that the self arises out of these surroundings, and there’s no pure interiority in the way we like to think.
Like Scanlon’s work, Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge offers a blurring of subjective and objective types of language, suggesting the impossibility of separating self from world. This comes through most powerfully in her beautifully rendered prose vignettes that depict imaginary literary works. Reminiscent of Erinrose Mager and Ben Segall’s earlier anthology, The Official Catalogue of the Library of Potential Literature, these lyrical pieces communicate more about the characters’ fears, desires, and aesthetic predilections than they convey about the state of contemporary literature. Gladman elaborates,
I wrote a book whose title I withheld from the book for a long time as I wrote it and slept on it and not because I didn’t want the book to know itself (I had no influence on that), rather, because I feared that once I put the two together they would go on without me.
What’s striking about this passage is Gladman’s use of the imagined literary work as a vehicle for describing the topography of the heroine’s psyche. Here we see the heroine’s insecurities, her feelings of alienation from her own self and work, exteriorized, projected onto the imaginary text. In many ways, Gladman’s prose speaks to the idea of the psyche as text, a collection of disparate images, symbols, and pieces of found language that only generate further questions. Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge is filled with evocative passages like this one, which address questions of projection and psychic discord in a wonderfully concrete, beautifully imagistic way.
As was the case with Scanlon’s novel, it’s the literary forms that are appropriated, reconstituted, and collaged with other types of language that are the most revealing. In much the same way that the self is othered, and made strange, familiar pieces of language take on wildly unexpected meanings. For Gladman, the defamiliarization of language and the self are intricately linked. This idea comes through most clearly in Gladman’s blurring of first person and third person, which suggests that the self has been not only othered, but exteriorized, held at a distance for one to behold. Gladman writes, for instance,
People kept saying other people were fleeing the city and pointed to themselves. We became third persons, but not arrogantly so. I referred to myself as “Ana Patova,” and said, “Ana Patova must have left.” For a moment I thought I would sell my home and wrote in our newspaper, “Ana Patova wishes to sell her home, she is leaving.”
Here consciousness is exteriorized and the self made strange. I’m fascinated by the fact that this all takes place amidst everyday language and commonplace cultural texts. In much the same way that the newspaper is rendered suddenly unfamiliar, even volatile, the self appears as inherently unstable, namely as we are unable to locate the protagonist on either side of the boundary between interior and exterior, real or imagined. Like Scanlon, Gladman suggests that the self is all of these things: pure interiority, an object held at a distance, a suddenly strange headline appearing in the all-too-familiar newspaper of your hometown.
Gladman’s work differs from Scanlon’s, though, in several ways. What’s perhaps most unique about Gladman’s work is her use of the page as a visual field. All of these moments of strangeness, defamiliarization, and recognition occur within uniform, neatly formatted prose blocks. I’m fascinated by Gladman’s use of the page to evoke a variety of expectations on the part of the reader: linearity, logical consistency, a clear narrative. With that in mind, Gladman offers a stunning, incisive exploration of the strangeness housed within all of us, all within the confines of a seemingly docile form.
Lastly, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper narrates a heroine’s problem-ridden marriage and undesired pregnancy, exteriorizing these internal conflicts in novel ways. As the book unfolds, the couple’s pet wallcreeper serves at times as an emblem for the heroine’s loneliness and alienation within this seemingly blissful domestic setting, while also existing in tension with the heroine’s thoughts and emotions. The wallcreeper transitions swiftly from sympathetic companion to a mocking, taunting presence within a house already fraught with tension. Like Gladman, Scanlon, and Cain, Zink creates a relationship between interior and exterior that is complex and multiple, suggesting the very impossibility of mapping the relationship between self and world.
With that in mind, Zink’s use of recurring images, which appear and reappear in vastly different contexts, is one of the great strengths of the book. The wallcreeper in particular becomes sedimented with memory, history, and emotion as the book unfolds. Consider this passage,
The gesture was like a prayer of desparation, but he never raised his eyes, as if to say, there is no one to appeal to for help, not even me.
It was an effective gesture. Omar’s wife leaned back, nodding, believing in the wallcreeper.
I’m intrigued by Zink’s presentation of the wallcreeper as a mythical figure, an oracle of the otherwise plain domestic setting. In many ways, passages like this one suggest the heroine’s desire for a beacon, an external presence to believe in and look to for guidance. This scene forms a sharp contrast with other depictions of the wallcreeper, which portray the small bird as mocking, even antagonistic. Zink writes,
‘I have a surprise for you. But it’s in the kitchen.”
‘I don’t think I can get up.’
‘It will have to wait.’ I slurped and he winced. I drank more quietly.
‘Twee,’ said the wallcreeper.
‘You didn’t!’ I laughed.
I find Zink’s multifarious presentation of a single image, that of the wallcreeper, to be altogether captivating. Here the wallcreeper taunts the narrator, and as she responds to the bird’s call, one senses that she is responding to her own thoughts and emotions. Her internal conflict, then, is exteriorized, held at a distance for her to behold. With that said, Zink suggests the fluidity of boundaries between interior and exterior, evoking the myriad ways that objects in the world come to embody emotional content, namely as the commonplace items that surround us serve to house our most intimate memories, thoughts, and recollections.
All points considered, Dorothy: A Publishing Project is an exciting press, focused on a compelling philosophical question. Danielle Dutton’s editorial vision is stunning, particularly as she treats curatorial endeavors not as an exercise in gatekeeping, but rather, as an opportunity to host a complex and multifaceted conversation. In short, Dutton is an editor to watch.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty collections of poetry and hybrid prose. Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Kittredge Fund, the Ora Lerman Trust, and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in English Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.