Monday, November 13, 2006

Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine

In an interesting contrast to American Genius by Lynne Tillman, this novel is almost entirely in scene. I can count the number of times the narrator intrudes to tell the reader something outside of scene on my fingers. And the small intrusions are all echoes of each other along the lines of p.201, "For how long would Frances Johnson go in circles?"

Let me backtrack and say first, I was completely charmed by this novel. As in put-under-its- spell charmed. The whole thing was like an intense immersion into someone's totally believable dream world. And the way that the third person narrator relays events and settings and characters in such a matter-of-fact, sensory, I'm-watching-it-myself way without narrative commentary (or less than ten sentences worth of narrative commentary) probably helped to create that. The novel has fairy tale qualities--a strange, isolated town, a dreamy girl, a mission to retrieve some potionesque ingredients--but doesn't have a once-upon-a-time voice. It has a realism-Raymond Carver (or per the publisher, Jane Bowles, who now moves up the reading list to "next, please") voice. And I loved that combination.

The novel is anchored by two things--the strange town it takes place in and Frances Johnson, an immensely likeable character who never leaves town and kisses men in caves and may or may not go to the town dance. Actually the novel is not so much anchored as encapsulated by the town, the character, and the very tight (a matter of days?) chronology. And so it's a small novel in certain ways, but immensely felt, because of Frances Johnson, who's made both real and dreamy (which I think is how many of us feel --all weighty body and floaty mind) by the combo of realistic detail (a weird scar on her leg, a funny scene involving putting her legs on top of another character's) and emotional response (Frances wants desperately to leave town and the whole town seems to be offering their opinions on her life).

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