Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Stacey Levine's Frances Johnson
I recently finished reading Francis Johnson by Stacey Levine, a strange little novel that I enjoyed very much.
The book is set in a sort of small-town dreamland, like the TV series "Twin Peaks" -- a place where everyone and everything is just a little off. The characters are either sonambulistic (this includes the title character, a woman in her late 30s who suddenly finds herself at an existential turning point) or sort of spastic. They speak in aphorisms or in slightly stilted Nancy Drew-style dialogue that enhances the impression they live in a sort of time warp, and more than that -- a sort of sense warp as well.
Where they really live is a place called Munson, Florida, a seaside town that resembles no place I've ever been in Florida; it felt to me more like the lost coast of northern California. For one thing, there's a pet volcano; for another, fog commonly blankets the action. Unless it's a metaphorical fog; I think it is.
The man scooted forward. "Frances, what if I were to ask you to help me with an errand?"
"Errand? What errand?"
"I'm no competer," Palmer began with controlled excitement. "But like most professionals, I've long been drawing up elaborate plans in my bedroom at night. I may have mentioned my experiments before... you see, I've been tinkering with a wax-and-oil compound for quite a while. The project excites me terribly, Frances. To be exact, I'm trying to invent a special balm."
She listened with absorption, watching the man's chin and its movements.
"I hope that one day, this balm will stand up to criticism, and maybe even help people far away. Does that sound silly?" The man stared ahead, pushing his glasses up his nose, resting his forearms on lean knees. "Well, you see, there's a particular ingredient I need to finish the project, but lack. The stuff isn't available in Munson--"
"You're not like anyone," she observed.
"... and which is not exotic, by any means. It is, however, an unusual, semihardened oil with some far-reaching, healthful properties I've long admired. I want my balm to have pizzazz! Searching for far-flung ingredients is not my forte, however, and I can't take time to travel, not with my responsibilities in town. Frances -- can you help? If you find the oil for me, I think it would help us both. Besides, travel makes me queasy. I need the darned oil --"
"What sort of oil?"
"Chicken-beak oil," he replied, "and lots of it. Can the stuff be found in this state? Christ, no! ..."
Frances is tormented by the expectations of the townspeople, who seem uneasy that she hasn't mated with anyone, ignoring her longtime boyfriend Ray, an inert man who is about as much company as a chifferobe. Frances seems to prefer the company of Nancy, an older woman who wants help cleaning out her car -- she is disturbed by the specter of a forgotten raisin on the floorboards -- but everyone wants her to marry the new doctor in town.
The characters seem to consume little except coffee and crackers; they travel by foot or bicycle; they attend a town dance in a pavilion in the trees, a pavilion which has a translucent dance floor you can lie underneath to watch the colorfully vague shapes of dancers twirling above.
Nothing is resolved in the end, except everyone decides the new doctor is "a real crumb-bum." Frances does not go in search of chicken-beak oil, nor ever, as far as we know, leave town. I was annoyed at this non-resolution, a weakness that plagues many novels with literary pretensions. But I liked Frances a lot and I loved the weird town and its weird otherness.
The novel is an edition from Clear Cut Press, a recently launched house that publishes pocket-sized books available through subscription
only. You subscribe for a year and you take what you get. The first year included volumes by Robert Gluck and Charles D'Ambrosio. But this was the first book of theirs I really got into.
Update: Stacey Levine herself emailed me to let me know the novel is available individually from Clear Cut at the above link, or from Amazon or other online bookseller.
Frances Johnson, Stacey Levine, Clear Cut Press
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