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.
There’s a point late in Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest when an aspiring artist named Lee earns entry into an arts program held inside the Aqueduct racetrack during the offseason. While there, between cleaning concession stands and burying dead horses, she is expected to a complete one large art project each month. For her first month, Lee paints “Your Unceasing Fantasy Will Not Conjure the Desired into Being,” “a series of one hundred watercolors depicting women in various states of longing/desire/dreaming/despair with their eyes slightly crossed, mouths mostly open, vaginas reluctantly dry.” Her instructor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands,” decrees that the work is “sexy as hell while being totally amateur and bad.” Lee soon ends up sleeping with him. This section of the story is bears the title “Early work.”
This debut collection, out now from Dorothy, a publishing project, may represent George’s early work, though there is nothing amateur or bad about it. (Sexiness, of course, remains subjective.) The five stories contained within the book can certainly be seen as five portraits of women in various stages of longing/desire/dreaming/despair. They are creatively and sexually frustrated, subject to the caprices of men, machines, mortality, and other arbitrary powers.
The opener, “Guidance / The Party,” is a diptych. The first section, told from the perspective of a woman, age 33, documents the arrival of The Guide, an angelic figure in heavy robes with illuminated skin and blindingly white teeth. Bursting into her apartment via a screened window overlooking the fire escape, The Guide informs the narrator that she has aged but not matured. The Guide (who is referred to always using plural pronouns like we and they) has come to prep the narrator for a party to mark the occasion of her transition into real adulthood. “You must send out invitations,” they explain. “Invitations are formal; guest show up having RSVP’d. People will most likely speak about articles they’ve read and restaurants they’ve been to. Regarding television, follow people’s cues so as not to let on how much television you actually watch. Avoid overtly solipsistic topics like childhood or family stories. Do not overshare.” The guide delivers the protagonist a thick manual, full of symbols she “cannot make sense of and lists of rules. Also, some questionnaires and a page of hygiene tips.” The story is formatted in much the same manner, with titled sections dedicated to subjects like Excuses, Friends/regret, Maintenance, and Stretches & such. Even as The Guide criticizes every aspect of the narrator’s life — and takes naps, and gets drunk — the narrator finds herself increasing attracted to The Guide, unsure of what she will do once The Guide departs.
The second section covers the party itself. The perspective shifts to the third person: the narrator has become The Host, though the appellation seems an optimistic one meant to buttress the woman’s confidence. The Host has attempted to expunge her apartment of all trappings of immaturity, as per The Guide’s instructions. She has redecorated to suggest her own sophistication. She makes a 10,101-ingredient mole, which includes “liquefied frankincense and powdered rotten tooth that belonged to The Host, hand ground with a jade mortar and pestle.” As the guests show up (none of them actual friends, so as not to risk the presence of emotional baggage), The Host attempts to remain calm, though she frequently escapes to the kitchen to pretend to “check the oven.” The story is a catalog of the ways in which a person can feel inferior to her peers, never confident in how or why she is living the way she is, but certain that she’s doing it completely wrong.
The other tales in the collection feature similarly vexing scenarios in which the protagonists are made to squirm before an unsympathetic universe. In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the hospital-bound narrator is diagnosed with increasingly unlikely disorders of the body and mind. With her impending death presumed, she is forced to sacrifice her dignity for the benefit of medical education and the art projects of her various physicians. In “Futures in Child Rearing,” a woman thinking about having a baby seeks answers from a prognostic ovulation machine only to receive responses such as “You will never be able to pay off your credit card debt” and “Get outside and/or a life.” In “Instruction,” which follows the students laboring at the Aqueduct racetrack, The Teacher’s growing obsession with Lee affects an entire generation of artists.
In the wonderfully Gothic title story, the narrator comes to consciousness in a seaside town. She lives in a house with five roommates, and works at a newspaper office where she suspects she is being continually demoted (what begins as a desk job becomes more and more janitorial). She meets Tyler Burnett, the owner of the town’s chemical plant and scion of the local aristocracy, who is three decades her senior. Burnett lives in a house that is slowly falling into the sea with his artistic wife and his infant son. The son is a “forever baby,” who does not age. “It is a curse to have a forever baby,” Burnett tells the narrator. “The baby will never inherit my property, my good looks. I thought the point of having a baby was so you could age and die. You could be released after cursing someone else to this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time.”
The narrator soon becomes both Burnett’s lover and the infant’s babysitter, a web of relationships that causes her some confusion. “Tyler Burnett buys me a stuffed animal, a pony. ‘What will you name him, child?’ Tyler Burnett says. ‘Pony?’ I say. ‘Wonderful, child. Excellent. You’re a beautiful child.’ He gives me a bag of candy from the grocery store and pats me on the head. At times, I forget if we’re lovers or if he’s my father. He does not feel like a father.” The narrator must also contend with a stalker, a dying roommate, and a recurring bout of arson at her home. As in “Guidance / The Party,” she is constantly navigating the space between childhood and adulthood, weighing the expectations of men and society against her own instincts.
This incongruity between the narrators and their respective worlds forms the collection’s throughline. One might expect the protagonists — each rational in her way — to crack under the complete irrationality of her circumstances. (After all, isn’t that how a normal person would respond?) But these characters do not crack. They check themselves. They adapt. They mold to the expectations of their environments. For this, as the reader realizes, is how things actually are: even when humans are confounded by the illogic that surrounds us, we rarely respond with logic. Instead, we become illogical, so as to meet the world on the same terms. Such is the way that individuals survive.
The collection remains faithful to the Dorothy aesthetic: books that are not only strange and inventive, but strange and inventive in ways that distinguish themselves from each other. Within that family, George’s surrealist comedies are perhaps most reminiscent of Joanna Ruocco’s endlessly digressive (and marvelous) novel, Dan, published by Dorothy in 2014. Broad comparisons to Aimee Bender and Alissa Nutting might also be made, but George’s motley presentation and aversion to explanation mark her as a truly distinctive voice. Her frank dystopias have the charming eccentricity of Edward Gorey illustrations. They do not rely on beauty or brutality or humanistic appeals to sell themselves. Just a vision and a ghoulish sense of humor.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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Danielle Dutton is a writer, editor, and publisher who might shift the way you read. Author of Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life, her writing is compact and quick as it contemplates the strange banalities of domestic life. Her prose finds wonder in the uniformity of the suburbs, or the particularities of 17th-century aristocratic life. It’s funny and full of strange consequence.
Dutton also runs Dorothy, a publishing project, one of the best independent presses in the United States. Dorothy is dedicated to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” Dutton works on all components of each Dorothy release, including curation, editing, and design. In just seven years, with writers like Renee Gladman, Joanna Walsh, Joanna Ruocco, Nell Zink, Amina Cain, and more, Dutton has brought together the work of some of the most electric voices in contemporary publishing.
Each Fall, Dorothy publishes two new books simultaneously. This year, Dorothy continues its pattern of innovation, with genre-bending French writer Nathalie Léger and out-of-nowhere wunderkind Jen George. Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden seamlessly blends biography, memoir, film criticism, and auto fiction, as it contemplates the star of a 1970 art-house movie. George’s The Babysitter at Rest is a hilarious and one of a kind story collection that has already earned the adoration of writers like Ben Marcus, Sheila Heti, and Miranda July.
I wrote to Dutton to ask her about this year’s Dorothy releases, and her work as a curator, editor, writer, and reader.
The Millions: How did Suite for Barbara Loden and The Babysitter at Rest come into your hands? What was the process like of editing these books, and working with Jen George and Nathalie Léger (or Léger’s translators)?
Danielle Dutton: In the case of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest what happened was fairly straightforward: I read her story “The Babysitter at Rest” in BOMB (it had been selected by Sheila Heti for BOMB’s 2015 Fiction Contest), and I thought it was incredible. Totally unlike anything I’d read. After about three paragraphs I could feel my hands getting shaky. And this is very often the case, that it’ll take only moments for me to sense that I’ve found the right next book — when this is happening, in those rare and wonderful moments, I actually feel somewhat physically unwell. It’s like I’m literally being overwhelmed by what I’m reading. So, that’s one way I know I want to publish a book: vague nausea. Anyway, I got in touch with the editor at BOMB, who forwarded a message to Jen, for whom my interest was, of course, totally out of the blue, and the whole thing went from there.
With the Léger, Stephen Sparks, who manages San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on the Park, and is an incredibly smart reader and one of our most trusted advisors, put us in touch with one of the book’s translator’s, Cécile Menon. Essentially, he recommended us to her and her and the book to us.
In terms of the editorial process(es): with the translation there wasn’t a ton to do. We chose to Americanize spelling, and we did have a few lines here and there that we went back and forth about with Cécile and her co-translator Natasha Lehrer, but the book was very beautiful and basically ready to go (it had just been published in the U.K.). We worked more with Jen. She sent us a number of stories and we whittled it down to the five you see in the book, and then we worked with her on them, arranging and re-arranging, laughing — the raw material of Jen’s brain continually amazes me. Even her emails make me laugh. The process was, I think, really productive, collaborative. It’s been a delight getting to know Jen and getting to see her see her first book enter the world.
TM: The books that you write and the books that you work with at Dorothy tend to have levity — often a sense of humor — in common. What draws you toward lightness in writing? What’s it like to edit humor in other people’s work?
DD: That’s an interesting question, or series of questions. My first thought is that, editorially, we generally leave the humor alone — it’s either there or it isn’t. It’s more often what’s around the humor that might need attending to, the stuff that allows the funny parts to be funny, unburdened, or as you put it, light. But humor is one of those things like voice, if it’s good it’s because it doesn’t sound like anybody else, and then why would you want to mess with that.
TM: You used to work as a book designer at Dalkey Archive Press. Are you involved in design at Dorothy, too? What are your ambitions in the way you design books? What was it like working on the design of this year’s Dorothy books?
DD: Yes, I do all the design at Dorothy. I think the aesthetic of the press has a lot to do with my limitations as a designer, honestly. Essentially, I am not a designer. I wasn’t a designer when I got to Dalkey, even though I wound up being the book designer there for several years. Minimal was key! I’m actually quite pleased with some of the covers I managed to do there — the covers of both Édouard Levé books, for example, or of Mina Loy’s stories and essays. And I think — I’d like to think — I’ve found a way to make my limitations work at Dorothy as well, though the aesthetic I’ve developed with Dorothy is very different from the Dalkey stuff.
The first thing I do with each cover is find the right art. The art is my focus. I generally manage it by looking all over everywhere, scouring art school tumblers, raiding friends’ Facebook photo albums, just looking all over, really, hoping to find a piece that matches the writing’s energy. I don’t like a cover to be overly illustrative, or literal, but more collaborative with the text. The exception, actually, is the cover of Suite for Barbara Loden, which is an illustration of a still from Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. But something about it being an illustration of a still left space. It still felt open, suggestive, like a sketch.
TM: I was planning to ask you about your great new novel, Margaret the First, but then I realized that you haven’t been asked in interviews about your other new book, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Here Comes Kitty is a narrative collage book constructed by you and Richard Kraft. What was it like collaborating on a book? How did you “write” it?
DD: Here Comes Kitty is really Richard’s book. He’s a visual artist and he had this series of collages he was working on based out of a Cold War comic book called Kapitan Kloss, which is about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis. Richard basically exploded the Kloss narrative with all these bizarre and wondrous intrusions: from Amar Chitra Katha comics of Hindu mythology to underground porn comics like Cherry to just a bunch of bunnies. As he was working on it, he decided it wasn’t quite chaotic enough, I guess, and he contacted me and asked if I would write a text of my own to accompany the images. Our idea was that the images and the text would be in some sort of conversation but neither would attempt to explain the other. To echo my answer about design above: the relationship would be more suggestive than illustrative.
Ultimately we decided (out of a shared love for the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham) to work separately, each thinking about the other, wondering what the other might be up to, but not knowing, just sort of trusting it to work out, and also being interested in whatever discordant notes might arise. I actually did look at some of his earlier work, as inspiration, to find the tone …and, conversely, Richard knew my book SPRAWL very well. So, yeah, for most of the time we worked with or toward each other remotely — one in Los Angeles and one in St. Louis. The result is, as we’d hoped it would be, a cacophonous book that is sort of rhyming and riotous at once.
TM: Between being a publisher, professor, writer, mom, etc., it’s incredible that you still seem to manage to find time to read. What are your strategies for carving out reading time?
DD: The vast majority of my reading is for teaching or for Dorothy. My strategy for fitting in other reading is pretty dull: I read a lot in the summer. For a while I was reading non-work stuff before bed each night (a long stretch there with Angela Thirkell novels), but I’ve slipped into the habit, at this medium-to-late stage in the semester, of watching TV at bedtime instead.
TM: Do you put books down? Or do you finish what you start? How do you prioritize your reading (beyond teaching and Dorothy)? The Angela Thirkell novels, for example — what kept drawing you to them?
DD: I do put books down, yeah, all the time. I’ll put them down after one page. That’s harsh, and it means I probably miss out on work I might appreciate, but if I’m not immediately interested in the writing it’s hard to justify the time. The Thirkell books are an odd exception. The writing isn’t great. There’s also a certain amount of problematic politics in them (they’re from the 1930s and ’40s). I started them because they’re a series set in the English countryside and I was looking for something easy, bedtime reading. That’s not what I’m normally looking for when I read, but I was feeling stressed out and wanted pleasant little stories about mostly happy people. I did actually grow to admire them more over time. There’s a wonderful sense of ease about them. This sometimes means the books feel too loose, or repetitive, but also they don’t feel labored. It doesn’t feel as if Thirkell was wringing her hands over them, and for some reason I find this refreshing. It feels a bit free.
TM: Seven years in, what’s the hardest part of running Dorothy?
DD: It’s definitely just finding the time.
TM: What’s the most rewarding?
DD: The money and power and fame! Also I really like working with these strange, brilliant writers.
TM: What’s something you’ve read in the past year that you’ve loved?
DD: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman
TM: What’s something you’re looking forward to reading, but haven’t yet?
TM: In the classroom, what’s a book that you love teaching, and why do you love teaching it?
DD: Just this semester I taught Marguerite Duras’s The Lover in a new course on desire, and it was incredibly satisfying, a very rich conversation, because it’s such an open text, there’s so much to wonder at — the politics, the way Duras writes sex, the way desire is enacted structurally. And then one of my favorite short stories to teach is Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies.” It’s hilarious, for one thing, but also it gets students to see what you mean when you harp on about how a character is made up of language, or what you mean when you say that there should be action in the writing itself.