“Narrative as Provocation” by Rita Banerjee – Los Angeles Review of Books
In this week’s edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rita Banerjee reviews Douglas Piccinnini’s Story Book: A Novella. She writes:
DOUGLAS PICCINNINI’S Story Book: A Novella suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation. Story Book explores narratives of self-imposed amnesia, bloody encounters at home and on the road, Oedipal rage, suburban cocoons and the anxiety of marriage, male sexuality and therapy sessions gone awry, Catholic school and homosociality, confrontations with love, death, and surveillance, and of course, the purported cure-all of worst-case scenario guides. The “novella” is composed of a series of short stories which all begin with the title, “Chapter 1.” Each Chapter 1, laced with metatextuality, develops its own existential confusions before arriving at a moment of implosion or interruption.
Story Book is thus about a modern man, a modern artist, and a modern thinker disabled by language. The ghosts of Gertrude Stein, A. R. Ammons, and Samuel Beckett haunt Piccinnini’s prose as each chapter performs its role as self-confrontation or self-interview. Piccinnini’s power as a writer emerges when his disabled speaker learns how to articulate himself, and how to use the very language that hinders his understanding of himself, in order to climb out of existential dilemmas and tailspins…
Another “Chapter 1” begins with the simple provocation: “What did I love?” In this chapter, the speaker sits alone at his computer trying to decipher the meaning of his relationships with women and his odd infatuation with words. He ponders the difficulty of writing an address, a story in which the perspectives of the “you” and “I” combine and trade places. He considers how easily days of productivity disappear as the writer attempts to get a sense of urgency on paper. He writes, “I feel the quotation of an afternoon, emptied — empty before me,” and then reveals:
This is the third time I’ve lived with a woman.
I’ve been in love before. I’ve been loved. I’ve also wanted to have sex with the same person over and over again but that is not love, I think.
Sex can be love. But love and sex are different, obviously. Is it obvious? Sometimes you’ll want to have sex with someone you don’t know and never want to know. You’ll find yourself destroying a complete stranger in some compromising position. It would seem to be some biological failure, love and how we live.
This is the first time I’ve been married. I love my wife. I read recently, “Love is a condition of understanding.” I’m quoting from memory. It sounds like something you might read anywhere.
A nagging sense of quotation, of living a life built on quotation marks haunts the novella. The speakers of his stories are troubled by the thought that their very human existence and their desires for creative expression have already been written and have found a home in someone else’s prose. The fear of living a life already recorded and already performed by literary archetypes creates a start-and-stop motion in Piccinnini’s prose.