Back in the mid-1980s, while young Scott McClanahan was busy running up and down the mountainside in Rainelle, W.Va., picking blackberries and carving his name into turtles, critics in New York were becoming increasingly preoccupied with defining, and ridiculing, a “new” form of short fiction. Labeled as Shopping Mall Realism, Kmart Realism, Dirty Realism, Name Brand Realism, Diet Coke Realism or “Truth Among the Trailer Parks,” the short stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, and others were derided as being terse, unadorned, and shallow. In a 1986 essay in Harper’s, Madison Smartt Bell described the writing as having an “obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Three years later Tom Wolfe chimed in by claiming that the Kmart Realists had a penchant for “real situations, but very tiny ones” and “disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”
Most critics agree that the idea of Kmart Realism as movement or cohesive style came about after the publication of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) but the style predated her. Ernest Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose might be seen as the Grandaddy of Kmart Realism and Raymond Carver is almost undisputedly the Daddy, and though the term is no longer used very often, the family tree has continued on through writers like Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Tao Lin, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan. But while Mason and others chafed under Wolfe and Smartt Bell’s descriptions, there has been a new trend in this lineage, through the ‘90s and ‘00s, towards a deeper embrace of the “obsessive concern for surface detail” and Novocained nihilism—an embrace that tips towards the surreal, with Johnson’s hallucinatory drug escapades, Bender’s flammable skirts, and most recently Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which just may be the king of Shopping Mall Surrealism.
In a 1985 interview, Bobbie Ann Mason admitted that the characters in her stories are heavily affected by pop culture but, she clarified, this “is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.” Scott McClanahan on the other hand is in full tilt celebration of Mountain Dew, Applebees, and Walmart; in his hands these familiar references are warped in beautiful ways, creating a transcendent meditation on modern materialism. Midway through this novel the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) actually begins living at Walmart, or at least in the parking lot. “I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce,” he muses, “The cops don’t seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance.”
Kmart may have been the backdrop of Shopping Mall Realism, but Walmart, in McClanahan’s fiction, becomes a sacred entity unto itself. From his vantage point in the parking lot, McClanahan’s narrator
watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up their buggies and forget about all their pain […] I got out of my car and walked towards Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. […] I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, porkchops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda. Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids […] I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
McClanahan is not afraid to hold the royal and holy up alongside the mundane and banal. He cups them all together—the high and the low, simple and complex, fiction and nonfiction, present and past—and the result is a book that is as tender as it is fierce. The plot in this “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love, the breakdown of a marriage, and life in West Virginia,” is deceptively simple. It is intensely personal and yet also familiar. But it is not just that the sequence of falling in and out of love is relatable; there is something more than that, a genius in the level of specificity, so tight that it expands out until it contains everything. As one character puts it, “this giant meteor collided with earth and so life began. […] We are all made up of what came here and collided […] but also if you wanted to buy the things that make up our bodies it would cost about as much as a candy bar. And that’s all we are. Candy bars and stars.”
To McClanahan there is no contradiction between the astral and the pedestrian, and throughout The Sarah Book a great electric energy is created by this simultaneous coexistence, the huge emotions that his character feels versus the simple clipped sentences in which they are expressed.
In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “the requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction.” And while McClanahan is clearly a descendant of the minimalist tradition, he does not shy away from profundity, but rather allows it to spring forth from the everyday. A lunch break at the mall results in true love and reunification, or as the narrator puts it: “this is a boring story about how I went to the mall one day and ordered a cheeseburger and my life changed because I ordered a cheeseburger. I didn’t know it then but the story of our lives is the story of ordering cheeseburgers.” Life-changing love and cheeseburgers, candy bars and stars, life is not one of these but both, McClanahan argues.
While he takes on the Hallmark of Shopping Mall Realism—pop culture and consumer goods— McClanahan is equally as successful at incorporating that other aspect which Smartt Bell described as a “tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among […] people.” In a conversation they have while falling in love, Sarah tells Scott that she believes that “we are only a collection of other people’s ideas about us. We are all a we.” Later, when Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, Scott finds solace in this”‘we.” After moving his belongings out of Sarah’s house, he drives to an Applebees where he is greeted by a hostess who is wearing “the same uniform that someone else was wearing somewhere else […] and make-up that someone else was wearing somewhere too. A woman named Michelle handed me a menu and she had a name like the name of a million different Michelles but she was her own Michelle.” Instead of the modern cliche of disconnection or separateness that we so often associate with box stores and chain restaurants, McClanahan uses these settings to amplify a sense of togetherness, a sort of winking “we’re all in this together.” This twist on the numbing universality of brands is uniquely refreshing, this idea that even in our aloneness (or our identicalness) we are not alone.
In the same way that he asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions about corporate restaurants and stores, McClanahan also pushes his readers to re-inspect our ideas of what is sacred. A Bible is burned, the superiority of the Garden of Eden is brought into question—even the hierarchy of family over pornography is made unstable. The paternal concern that character-Scott is not quite able to muster for his children is perfectly offset by the caring and understanding way in which writer-Scott depicts his own failings. Though this novel chronicles the breakdown of a marriage, it is not an exercise in self-flagellation but rather a revolutionary re-envisioning of what love and family mean. This is perhaps best demonstrated through McClanahan’s treatment of time. In The Sarah Book the falling in and out of love happen simultaneously. A chapter in which Scott and Sarah sign divorce papers is snuggled up beside a chapter in which they get married, and a chapter in which Sarah announces that she is pregnant with their first child comes directly before a scene in which Scott, years later, sells his wedding ring for cash to spend at a strip club. This splicing of the end of the relationship in with its beginning is an exquisite technique that allows the reader to feel the fullness of the lives depicted here. This malleability of time is reminiscent of works like Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth in that it contains a beautiful sense that pockets of the past keep on occurring even in the midst of the present.
While McClanahan’s earlier books have, understandably, been described as “gritty” or “folksy” or “like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you” a story, comparing McClanahan only to Breece Pancake and Larry Brown does not do him justice. The Sarah Book especially, is larger than that. It is not regional fiction, but human fiction, and it is best read not as a zoological window into exotic Appalachia, but as a window into yourself. The very ubiquity of the shopping mall settings is what facilitates and enhances this perspective.
By the end of The Sarah Book McClanahan brings together all of these dichotomous elements—”I,” “you,” and “we;” memory and reality; the stars and the candy bars—into a quietly thunderous and immensely satisfying scene. While reading the final pages I couldn’t help but picture McClanahan as a conductor, orchestrating from on top of Sandstone Mountain with his piles of beef jerky, pistachios, DVDs, and potato chips, pulling it all together into a subtle emotional crescendo, hinging on the plastic lid to a fast-food restaurant cup.
Consider that phrase, “domestic fiction.” So close to “domesticated,” it carries the connotation of a house-broken pet: eager to please, discreet, companionable, sulky but essentially submissive. It’s a usefully misleading cover for a mode that is more often fraught and claustrophobic. When Anthony Lane describes Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady as a “disturbance of the peace” and a “horror story,” he could be talking about domestic fiction generally.
Reissued this month as a NYRB Classic, Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction in 1983, two years after Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and one year after Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories. Upon publication, those three novels were individually considered as feminist reworkings of domestic fiction — as political statements — though each author had ambitions that extended into questions of the self against the demands of community.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once answered the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” by saying:
To be Jewish is not a particularity; it is a modality. Everyone is a little bit Jewish, and if there are men on Mars, one will find Jews among them. Moreover, Jews are people who doubt themselves, who in a certain sense, belong to a religion of unbelievers. God says to Joshua, “I will not abandon you nor will I let you escape.”
In, Housekeeping and Chase’s first novel, as well as Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children and Hilary Mantel’s Every Day is Mother’s Day, the Family is a kind of Lévinasian paradox: its members will not abandoned nor will they be allowed to escape. These fragile communities are knitted together by doubt, intimidation, suspicion, timidity, and egotism.
To better understand why they stay in co-dependent relationships, Fox, Mantel, and Chase anatomize their protagonists’ intellectual contradictions and follies stoically, without a hint of sentimentality. If there is an arch-theme to the genre, it would be the way each of us can become ensnared by our own solipsism. In The Widow’s Children, one character stays in an impoverished, acrimonious marriage because she has convinced herself of her own superiority over her condition, “that they were only ‘broke,’ that rescue was on the way — always on the way.”
The “Queen of Persia” is a grandmother in a small Ohio farming town. She has four daughters. Her four granddaughters are all born within two years of each other to mismatched parents. The male characters — the malevolent grandfather, one hapless trumpet-playing uncle, and another enigmatic uncle who is a failed writer — are palpably uneasy around their daughters and wives. The women assume the responsibility of preparing the young girls for the austere life they will inherit.
Chase’s novel is narrated by the four young granddaughters, “we.” This unorthodox conceit works subtly, but it also leads to a telling choice. There is no reference to “Mom” or “Dad,” only to Aunt Libby and Uncle Dan, insisting on a tone of estrangement between the children and their parents. When their individual anonymity is disrupted, one of the girls is lifted out of the group and treated like an outsider. Occasionally, the narrators skip over subjects that perhaps are not comprehensible for pre-teen girls. (They have a sexual encounter with a cousin that is obliquely depicted.)
The tone is cautiously wistful, as if this past still has a grip on its survivors. A signal choice in this novel is the manipulation of time. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and Toni Morrison’s Sula (1977) cover the same territory, well, literally. Sula opens with a landscape of rural Ohio:
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples, and chestnuts, connected it to the valley.
This is the beginning of Chase’s novel:
In northern Ohio there is a county of some hundred thousand arable acres which breaks with the lake region flatland and begins to roll and climb, and to change into rural settings: roadside clusters of houses, small settlements that repose on the edge of nowhere […] These traces of human habitation recede, balanced by the luxuriant curving hills, cliffs like lounging flanks, water shoots that rapidly lose themselves in gladed ravines.
As opposed to Morrison’s description, the present doesn’t dominate the memory of 1950s Ohio; the past has been carefully circumscribed. Morrison’s historical landscape is besieged by real-estate developers and social forces of change. Chase’s landscape doesn’t register the present. It appears elemental, hardly concerned with human beings at all.
The first chapter of During the Reign is set in motion when the oldest granddaughter, Celia, experiences puberty, “a miracle and a calamity.” Sexuality shuffles the motives of everyone around the young girls, who only dimly seem to understand why. Her mother, Aunt Libby, becomes fiercely devoted to making sure she doesn’t ruin her chances for marriage. A half dozen men woo her. Her fiancé later betrays her. In what feels like 10 pages, Celia’s adolescent beauty and verve quietly shrink: “[Her mother] still fretted over Celia, a set habit, focusing now on her health, for rather quickly the bloom of Celia’s face and figure was gone. She looked wilted by misfortune.” Celia marries the quietly pining boy she wasn’t interested in and moves to Texas.
When the father of two of the girls visits the farm, a large “country-style” breakfast sparks memories of his own childhood. After breakfast, the girls wait for him in the barn. Their private ritual the narrators describe is a re-enactment of his childhood. He performs the role of a Mr. Higgenbottom, a teacher “as mean as Silas Marner, as severe as God, and as relentless as the devil.” He gives each girl a word to spell. Eventually, the girls misspell “symbol” and “conscience” and he whips them with a stick. They rationalize that he hits them less hard than he hits his own hand.
The father, Neil, eventually let them go:
We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and it runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies.
Neil, though, follows them to the stream, where they tackle him and pile onto him. Restless and mysterious, he seems to vanish into the air, and the girls call his name. The narrators then say, “Then we forget again, dreaming.”
This odd father-daughter set piece is echoed in a later Chase novel, The Evening Wolves (1990). The father in that novel imitates the big bad wolf. Drawn to the dangerous wolf, the daughters are unable to resist approaching and being mauled by the wolf. Both scenes, with the apologetic victim and the physically violent adult, are unsettling.
The father-uncle and the girls are caught in a pantomime of private history that they can’t seem to extricate themselves from. Like the abusive grandfather lurking in the background, Neil allows the grief of his own past to impinge on his own daughters’ youth. Their childhood isn’t innocent and it isn’t painless, Chase suggests, but he shouldn’t add to their suffering.
The novel then spools backward, to the marriage of the grandmother and grandfather, a man hardened by his Depression-era struggles. He is an abusive drunk who slowly recedes to a bench in the barn, among the cows that he is dedicated to. He sells off the cows silently and dies, un-mourned.
For the first three-fourths of the novel, the girls have only touched on the trauma that has shaped their young lives, as if their consciousness has ricocheted off it. The reader learns that Grace, mother to two of the girls, has already died from cancer by the time Celia is married in the first chapter.
The novel tests an old cliché — that the dying can teach us how better to live — before the narrators discard it. They also reject the faith-based consolations of their Aunt, a Christian Scientist.
None of us sang, our sorrow accomplished. We heard the footsteps of the men who carried the coffin and the closing of the car doors. We went outside with the others, blinking our eyes as if we’d walked into first light. Without a comprehensible past or imaginable expectations, we had entered into another lifetime. We held hands.
That fragile and incomprehensible past looms in this story, a centripetal force in the narrative of their lives. The painful recollection of her slow death resonates throughout the house. The gurgling sound that Grace makes during one of her last nights, as she tries to breathe, is the same sound the sink drain makes.
Amy Hungerford has argued that Robinson’s Housekeeping is preoccupied with how grief paradoxically enlarges the memory of the dead and starves the self’s presence. Alternately, the group chorus of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia seem untethered by time, reordering events and maintaining the inscrutability of their own motives. Unbound from a linear construction of time, this group of agnostics are connected by the tenuous thread of Lévinasian doubt and by grief.
One reason that Chase has slipped into obscurity, while her rough contemporaries Robinson, Mason, and Mantel have ascended, is the relative infrequency with which she publishes. Seven years elapsed between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves. It has been 23 years since her short-story collection Bonneville Blue.
“The success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel,” she told Contemporary Authors Online. “But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.”
I also suspect that her lack of productivity owes something to her lapidary style and unhurried structure. Near the end of the novel, the Queen makes arrangements concerning the house, which she keeps secret from the entire family: “We were as separated from her,” the narrators say, “as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale.” That poignancy and solemnity is the effect of deliberate, patient craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftsmanship here is consummate.