Experimental prose that plays with form can be an exhilarating exploration of breaking form, playing with the fourth wall, breaking down text to parallel emotional collapse or motion. The play is an intellectual exercise and when done well it adds context, layers, meta-textual commentary and the raw excitement of form breaking with cohesion and intent. The rarer work is the one that both plays with form in fresh ways and resonates emotionally with the experimentation building the resonance. In her new novel American Mary, Alexandra Naughton has told a narrative that is emotionally raw and profound with ruptures of form throughout the text that are both conceptually exhilarating and immediately rich with emotional resonance. The novel is a moving and at times harrowing ride through the journey of a young woman in the world and relationships as well as a thrilling example of the emotional and intellectual ballast of experimentation with blank space and form.
On page 5 surrounded by oceans of blank page space is the quote “Don’t be a nightingale for anyone’s space to fill”; the quote literally hovers in flight amongst empty space. The quote is open to a range of contextual interpretations but one that rings is of a life in its path to not be made up of the assumptions, expectations and judgments of others. This foreshadows what is to come in the narrative. The nightingale in poetry can be seen as both the tender beauty of love and the space between the rich embrace of love and that of death and all in between.
Among the open space of page nine is the text “A beautiful stranger washed up on our shores with only death as a companion and she was like, this is either gonna be a horror movie or a porn, and it turned out to kinda be both.” This can be read as the beginning of Mary’s life and it can be read as the beginning of the narrative along the shores of an ocean of blank page space. The nightingale space between love and death remains and rests within an empty page.
In a small textual island on page 47 surrounded by multiple blank pages on both sides Naughton writes, “Confessing and being confessed to. It’s all a memory in murky water. Notebook pages blooming momentarily and sinking to disintegration. You can only keep a version, and only for so long. It’ll just keep degrading.” There are many layers in this bit of text. The text is near engulfed by blank space as though being eaten way like memories of past relationships as well as the aging texts in old notebooks. There is fragility in the bloom of new connections amongst it all just as the epiphany so often of a moment will fade into the quiet of past.
In American Mary, you is a kind of placeholder within a first person narrative, a universal you. She writes, “I think about you, a specific or not specific you, a faceless you, a clean and safe you, taking the train to come see me, up my garden path to my little cottage.” The journey is not from job moments to parties and relationships but of woman as signifier, a person navigating the dark complexity of the dangers and shadow spaces of a life and of the open contract of a kiss, an embrace, a text, of strangers moving in and out of a single arrow trajectory of a life. The text breaks and reforms, jumps threads and then rebuilds a cohesion only to then break page space into shards, to see blank spaces to traverse, to hold one’s breath in pause as a reader.
On page 212, Naughton writes, “I don’t want to be touched, I want to be understood.” This leaps off the page. This is the molten center of the journey thus far and for so many. There can be tenderness unborn in a stranger. There may just be quiet moments shared, great conversation and two souls bared raw in a first encounter. There may also be betrayal. There may be disillusionment. There sadly may be darker things. The main character takes the reader from a phone sex job and the call center tips of how to fully human automate sex, time it, maximize data output, roboticize the machinations of sex and roles to the parallels in some hook ups, the distance at times that can be felt while in another’s gaze or even touch, the dangerous spaces therein. In the next paragraph Naughton adds, “I want to feel like I am here with anyone as long as they try to” and the arrow of narrative hits dead center in presence again and darkness. There is a frail but deep floating hope of a shared moment amongst it all, a real presence together while politics and all the other dystopic elements of city and world float outside some staircase or room. The moment again opens a hope that the other is there as well, is on the same page somehow, is not disconnected, is not using this vulnerability, is maybe vulnerable and open as well.
The entirety of the text on page 215 is “You are liking my Instagram posts. I am leaving you alone.”
The “novel” has fallen away. The loud, noisy crowd of convention and form has been silenced, sent away from here. Naughton is a brilliant writer both in terms of language and ideas, but also in terms of resonant plays on form. This is still a novel, but it is in this moment a sentence alone in the cold snow, bare. There will be more pages, there will even be more breaks to short sections on a page, but here this sentence stands alone. There is great vulnerability in the lone line of text and there is great strength as well. The main character is here, she is present. She also is surrounded by the cold uncertainties of city and people and rooms and staircases in what is not said here, in the imposing emptiness of the page. The breaking of form is both experimentation and incredibly visceral here.
Near the middle of page 224 Naughton writes, “judge me without any context. Watch me draw all over my face in ballpoint ink. This is the narrator and is the form. This is moving out of silence as well as it is writing. The gaze of strangers and others can rain down contexts, can throw daggers, can imprison in a prejudicial or judgmental glance in the body of a second. The narrator faces these glances as does the text and a sort of unspoken skin breaks; this is the narrative of many, this is the voice of what is often not said, or worse, not listened to.
The novel then breaks again in a free fall of blank space, a pointer upward like the others before almost measuring the unwritten distances passed, the breaks of form, the poignant moments, the meta-textual storm and then uneasy calm. It ends with a poignant rumination on the age old constraints of body and self and those staircases and rooms and words and hopes of love that is a shot arrow from birth to death of a life. The novel is a collection of things arising and breaking , of presence and absence of the wish in a life for others to be present as well and to bring no malice or betrayal and this breaks as well along the number line of pages. This work will resonate for quite some time, raw and true.