A Melancholy Tightrope Act: The Beautiful Spectacle of Sabrina Orah Mark’s ‘Wild Milk’

The stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection, Wild Milk, are as careful, diamond-sharp, and surprising as the narrative poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Dorothy, a publishing project, which is committed to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” has, for nearly 10 years, proven an ally to genre-bending writing. Mark’s book is on a par with the best work they’ve put out, such as Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories and Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest. By turns absurd, fantastic, and autobiographical, these stories—all living in the exciting space between the traditional short story and the prose poem—build upon the world Mark has been constructing for 15 years, starting with The Babies (2004) and Tsim Tsum (2009). Within a single story, the register will shift with breathtaking speed from a fairy tale or Hasidic folktale to a Beckett play and then, in the blink of an eye, to the fiery candor of confessional poetry. At one moment you’re arrested by Mark’s wit, her penchant for puns and malaprops, and the next you’re soaring into the visionary territory of mystic literature. As in “Tweet,” when “following the Rabbi” on Twitter transforms into an actual ritual procession, the metaphorical becomes literal and the literal becomes metaphorical, much like Kafka’s play on Ungeziefer in The Metamorphosis. First and foremost, however, this collection is about family and its various hoods—motherhood, step-motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, childhood, fatherhood, grandfatherhood, grandmotherhood, et al. Each of these roles is shot through with joys and obsessions and is taxonomically open, in that the roles shift and blur when emotional (or imaginative) pressure is applied. The narrator’s personas circle around an array of family members, such as the incorrigible brother Gary, a husband named Poems or Louis C.K., a usurping Sister, sons who metamorphose into daughters, a stepchild named Ugrit, a father shrinking (quite literally) before the specter of a pogrom, imaginations of mothers like Hillary Clinton and Diana Ross, and literary parents such as Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein. Although Wild Milk is much more than the sum of its parts, a collage of lines from the stories “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” “Mother at the Dentist,” “For the Safety of Our Country,” “Spells,” “The Maid, the Mother, the Snail, & I,” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” can provide a small window into Mark’s unique world: “Poems cries so hard a cloud bursts, and children spill out”; “A man can only wait for his wife at the dentist for so long until he wanders outside to buy a newspaper and never returns”; “Under his left eye appears to be a small patch of moss where a flower could grow if only he believed in himself a little more”; “I dream my sons return to me, floating through the kitchen with bundles of wood”; “I read somewhere that some Jews escaped Poland by hiding in coffins”; and my absolute favorite: “With a stone in his hand, Mendelssohn reaches all the way into the bucket, past the hole, past god, and summer, and almonds, and shame, and the ocean, and mice, and love, and fevers, and worship, and snails, and teeth, and lilac, and forgiveness, and a song about a bucket with a hole in it, and past all the children singing the song, and past their children singing it, and their children’s children, and past my broken heart until he reaches the oldest water and wets the stone.” To read a Mark story is a beautiful spectacle, to experience a wonderfully choreographed tightrope performance. But it’s a melancholy performance, too, since none of her characters are expert funambulists. They are nervous, tender, cruel, funny, and messy human (and sometimes nonhuman) beings. Wild Milk is not fantasy untethered to our historical moment. The social commentary is cutting, sometimes on the nose and at others skillfully oblique: Mark’s narrators are bruised by an economy that doesn’t properly value teaching and creative writing, in which a patriarchal boy’s club (represented by “Donald … the man none of us will ever be”) presides over a moribund academic job market; the current presidential tragedy is given its day in court; age-old anxieties about miscegenation are addressed with bitter irony when Grandpa—who cannot escape his own legacy of persecution—grudges the narrator’s marriage to a black man; and the unabated ripple effects of the Holocaust are still felt powerfully by her Jewish characters in their inner and outer lives. In short, Wild Milk is original and unforgettable—without a doubt my favorite book of 2018.

Anna Kavan’s Ice Age Dreams

Ice—the last novel Anna Kavan wrote before she was discovered dead with a syringe in her arm and her head resting on the case in which she kept her heroin—is a gem of speculative fiction. It is uncanny, hallucinatory, apocalyptic, a book crowded with glaciers and starlight. The novel’s popularity has grown steadily since its first publication in 1967 and Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of Ice, with a fine introduction by Jonathan Lethem, gives Kavan’s valedictory effort the platform it deserves. The plot is deceptively simple. In the aftermath of a major atomic event, a monomaniacal man searches for a fragile, silver-haired girl from his past as the vise of a new ice age clinches the planet. He searches for her through the chaotic territory of memories, dreams, and half-real war zones. At all costs, he must locate “the glass girl” before the world darkens and human life is over. In a game of cat and mouse, he sails to foreign shores on the last overcrowded ships, gleaning clues to her whereabouts, yet when he finds her—and he always manages to—she flees from him as from a tyrant. The warden of an unnamed northern country is the narrator’s erotic rival and has the power and savvy to preempt the narrator’s every move. Kavan makes ample suggestions that the two adversaries are in fact doubles, mirror-images, the Superego and Id of the author’s avowedly psychoanalytical nightmare (Kavan’s best friend and sometime creative collaborator, Karl Theodor Bluth, was a psychoanalyst who treated her depression and supplied her with legal heroin). In addition to being a prolific writer and inveterate drug addict, Kavan was a serious painter, producing startling artworks in a series of modernist styles, from cubism and expressionism to surrealism. Her wartime traumas (she lost her only son in WWII) and confinement in asylums (much like another oft-neglected English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington) add to Ice’s strange alchemy of glittering, visionary detail and psychological dishevelment. Considering Kavan’s earlier works, such as the story collections Asylum Piece and I Am Lazarus, one can’t help but read the glass girl in Ice as, in part, a self-portrait of the protean, charismatic, and psychologically bruised author who never recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect. The novel’s dystopian world is hermetically sealed. Geographical information is withheld and we are never quite able to get our bearings in this landscape of snow and ruins, illuminated by the ever-changing lights of the aura borealis. The glass girl slips through the pages, tantalizingly out of reach, seen through the filter of the male narrator’s objectifying, sadistic, chimerical gaze. Her hair is “bright as spun glass” and “shimmers like silver fire;” her face “cracks to pieces and tumbles into the dark;” the narrator fantasizes about “the circular marks of teeth [standing] out clearly” on her “white flesh;” he sees “the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watches from the tent of her glittering hair;” “mountainous walls of ice surround” the girl and “huge ice-battlements fill…the sky, lit from within by frigid mineral fires.” One never tires of Kavan’s poetry. She has a gift for elemental and atavistic language. [millions_ad] The science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has dubbed Kavan “Kafka’s sister” for good reason. Not only did she absorb and creatively imitate many of Franz Kafka’s short stories in the 1930s and 1940s, but she carried his enthusiasm for the frustrated quest, the skeptical fantasy, and the allegory without a key into her mature work. It’s hard not to see reflections of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in Ice. As in those novels, the mysteries of the invisible and all-powerful authorities are never penetrated or understood. Kavan even changed her name from Helen Ferguson in 1939 as a phonetic gesture to Kafka, whose own Czech surname was originally spelled “Kavka.” Some critics read the “ice” as a metaphor for Kavan’s desperate struggle with heroin and the cold, suffocating experience of addiction. Others view the novel as a veiled autobiography of Kavan’s relationships with abusive men that eventually led to romantic abstention. Given that the narrator, the glass girl, and the warden are sometimes conflated through slippages in point of view, one could see the various character dynamics as a kind of alchemical yearning for the androgyne, for the union of psychological, emotional, and sexual opposites (a major preoccupation of surrealists like Max Ernst, whose technical innovations Kavan appropriated in her own paintings). To a certain degree, it’s useful to interpret the book as a critique of totalitarianism, the ecological crimes of the Anthropocene, or a protest against the Cold War. A few have pointed out its proto-feminist verve, though the satire of patriarchal thought-control is never entirely satisfying or aboveboard, as it is, say, in the works of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Kavan’s first critic, Brian Aldiss, saw Ice as a pure science fiction novel. Faced with such a multidimensional work, the reviewer is happy to allow all these interpretative planes to coexist. Even 50 years after its publication, this is still a relevant book. It’s not perfect. The author, after all, was in and out of the hospital during the process of composition and her editor, Peter Lang, demanded dramatic revisions before agreeing to publish the novel (characterized by one manuscript reader as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers,” a description Kavan found delightful). The narrative repetition of chase and escape can be tiresome and the prose can occasionally slip from its usual sterling quality. Nevertheless, Ice is ambitious, unforgettable, and one of a kind. It demands to be experienced. During a time of environmental crisis, when totalitarian-inflected administrations are brazenly withdrawing from climate accords, when ice caps are melting and the world’s magnificent glaciers are disappearing, Ice provides a photographic negative of the present moment—a world overshadowed by atomic threat and nearly devoid of ice.