By Jeff Bursey
Evelyn Hampton’s collection of stories shares a current interest on the part of writers to link discrete pieces through obvious ways (themes, recurring characters) and some that are less immediately noticeable (style, issues). In Discomfort the most prominent feature, however, is a just-out-of-reach quality where what this or that story is about resembles throat clearing that never quite manages to allow clear speech to emerge. Imagery and word choice work to approximate the outline of a rough plot and to frustrate standard expectations while the terrain of the characters’ minds is mapped sketchily. The opening story, “My Chute,” gets down to business quickly and signals what Evelyn Hampton will and will not supply readers:
I would go with my family to the museums and the restaurants, trying to find what I was supposed to love. The nudes were lovely, and I could see how a slab of marble retained the shape of a man, but I would just think how great it would be to have my own chute, a longish tube to push things through—anything, great or trash, it wouldn’t matter to me, I would push it all through my chute. It would be easy; my chute would be dark inside at all times of day or night, too dark to see into, so its reality would be mysterious to me—except that I had created it, and knowing this would give me the greatest pleasure because it would be such a relief to look at a thing I had created, which could not exist if it weren’t for me, and to see it only partially. It would make me feel mysterious to me. Then I could relax with my family.
At the conclusion of reading the 17 stories one could argue that the chute, apart from offering a sexual-biological interpretation, is Hampton’s book, and that it takes in the finest and grossest parts of life in the US.
In an interview with Black Sun Lit, Hampton states:
At the same time that I stake almost everything on language, I also think that language is always going to be inadequate—language, being entirely conceptual, can’t touch what’s outside of concepts. And what’s outside of concepts is vast, and is a realm where we do a lot of important living. But I think language can point to that other realm, and making it do that—making language point beyond itself—is what I’m usually trying to do.
Discomfort contains many realms. Each makes sense to the person narrating the events even though there are left unanswered numerous questions about life. This is how many of us perceive existence. “The requirements of my work are these: I must not fear what I might see,” says one of her female narrators—most stories are in the first person, and sometimes the narrators make multiple appearances—and we should take our cue from that as we read Hampton: cast aside a preference for tidiness, and enjoy playfulness, disquiet, and the other things she finds essential. (Where there is such attention to the language, then at the forefront is the persona of the author behind the main figures. This or that thing labelled mother, daughter, sister, father, or boyfriend is a means to an end.) The chute grows, “perhaps toward a point that is dimensionless,” a line that can be read as fantasy, a misguided exaggeration, and a metafictional remark indicating that a literary Big Bang from long ago* is still operative.
As in “My Chute,” the second story, “The Fox and the Wolf,” summons up an enclosed space: “I would take the things that had no power of their own into my plastic play home. It was there that I pretended to be a woman.” Imagination fights against whatever reality might exist (views of the outside world are rare), and the twin desires for a space where the female can be in control and off to herself become increasingly prevalent the further we read. We can stumble, though. Why did this girl or child pretend to be a woman? “I didn’t feel like a girl, and I didn’t feel like a boy. But I had been named and the name took on the shape I grew to inhabit.” Language, rather than her individuality, has defined her gender, and therefore sexually and culturally. What protection did that false environment offer when she was young? “As a child,” she says, “I thought the future promised this: God and some disciples come in a van and they fix up the parts of the landscape that we used up and eroded when we were desperate and unaccountable even to ourselves, and we are accountable again when the landscape is restored.” The family she’s born into is poor, then has some money, but becomes poor again, so she’s buffeted by winds she feels but can’t predict. Like other adolescents as they feel their way through stormy times she finds trouble when she tries to get more than she has, and when she senses that there is more to life than she can grasp. Life is unpredictable and actions have consequences: “Things were taken from me in several swift movements.” In the third story, “EEG,” a grandfather is removed suddenly from the life of his young granddaughter. She may feel the loss, but she remains a cipher because, in this important time, her thoughts about art and death, like lines on an EEG reading, intertwine, resulting in an inability to talk with her grandmother about death.
The enclosed spaces of the first stories are replaced in “The Largest Unobstructed Area Given to Ham.” Two boys of different ages eat food at a table and explore their own mental landscapes. “In the lost quadrant Sean had begun to inhabit, Dennis ate ham and Sam tried to diminish the Commander by thinking ‘arable land, arable land.’” The boys’ separate worlds intersect at a flat plane, the table (or rather, the page), recalling both the dimensions in “My Chute” and the painterly pursuit of the girl in “EEG” who wants to “collapse everything onto a single, flat surface.”
Space-time is the underlying subject of “Nowhere Hill,” where a group of children playing outdoors race to meet up with a boy who will “stand and cast no shadow.” The narrator is troubled by an odour stemming from his or her watch, perhaps from its cartoon-character hands, and in the final paragraph, when the boy is without shadow, the watch is thrown “as far as I could.” Since the sun’s position marks the hour the effort to banish time is fruitless, but again, it’s the language that catches the reader’s attention:
And their bodies, too, seemed terrible, they too were part of the way Mickey’s sweaty hands were pointing at two different things that meant the same thing—the time, but really it didn’t mean anything, just some number—because they occupied the place where Mickey’s terrible hands were pointing, the place where the boy’s body would soon cast no shadow.
“Boy” carries this line of thinking further, with the narrator suddenly aware that “[a]s more and more words abandoned their objects, something strange happened to space: walls, doors, partitions, thickets, every kind of boundary gave way. Though I could still see these things, they meant nothing to me, and I inhabited space uncontained.” This lack of definition, at the same time a godlike state of absolute pervasiveness, has repercussions: “morality also meant little, and the boundary between the holy and profane went away.” Science and religion (“God and some disciples”) could be seen to be at war, but there’s more going on than that. Not quite half a dozen stories in and we see that physics is the science of what’s untrustworthy or erratic (“As far as we can see, these are some of the most basic particles of our physical, seemingly solid world, but they are all changing so very, very quickly,” Hampton says in the Black Sun Lit interview), and that language is equally unstable.
So far each narrator talks to an assumed hearer in the kind of language one might find in a dream—a dream idiolect, if you will—that accurately sums up the events primarily for the sleeper. (“Dream and dreamer are one,” Henry Miller wrote in The Books in My Life .) If readers insist on something beyond or above that, an area that welcomes us into a fuller comprehension, then they will feel left out. Prose conveys only so much. “It was only by persisting in uncertainty and confusion that I came to resemble what is human,” the narrator of “Boy” says with—well, with what? Regret, in confession, a resigned acknowledgement, all of these and/or something else? Objects, smells, scenes, and emotions veer into our sight and are quickly submerged by the next clause or phrase. We will never be adept enough swimmers in this pool of unshared knowledge; we can take in the chemical smell, we can admire the sheen, colour, and plasticity of the surface, but we must admit, at least a little, being out of our depth. But we’re not alone, for as the narrator of the title story says: “as if what’s written is any indication of what the writer was thinking.” The faith placed in written communication is tested with each word and line.
It’s after “Boy” that the book, for me, coalesces. “Office” contains what we’ve read before and looks ahead to the remaining stories through its narrator’s opinions and inertia. What we have seen as individual items in the preceding stories come together: holes, doors, light, curtains, and more. The narrator has an office (a story) made up of knick-knacks (words) from earlier times (earlier stories), and she mulls over turtles, artistic rendering of birds, and much else. Here are a couple of typical Hampton sentences:
Another of the mysteries on my desk is a rusted mechanism that looks like a small wheel inside a bracket. There are holes where screws could be inserted into the bracket and the mechanism attached to something large and stable, like a house or a monk.
First, the impression one gets is that the narrator not only doesn’t know what this contraption once did, but also has no idea how it came into her possession. Second, why would anyone think of attaching it to a person of a religious nature? Monks recur, as do empty spaces (the desire to have her office be cleansed, the “empty shape” of her uterus—and here we preview four stories ahead where the female narrator of “Mole” hears about a pregnancy “without an embryo”), and walls covered at night with pencil marks by the narrator. “Interruptions” follows “Office,” and it encapsulates the thought process behind the collection’s set of often hapless or disregarded narrators: “If a person behaves like a piece of driftwood in an eddy, if a person behaves like a piece of trash caught in the spokes of a careening vehicle, held in circulation of a momentary center, I wonder what I have been looking at lately to want to make such comparisons.”
The remaining nine stories feature some oddball and deadpan humour, but this is not a happy collection, as Hampton doesn’t spend a lot of time creating characters that you would care about. Yet despite the forlorn story or tone, the language is lit up. In the interview mentioned above Hampton says: “I also feel that the form of the novel is so old, I want it to be clearly rotting.” We might argue with her belief—the death of the novel implied there has been proclaimed many times, though she views it more as a zombie form—but it’s worth seeing how she goes about trying to prove that assertion by restricting herself to unmoored narrators who, even if in a relationship or related to someone, might experience the dissolving of their personality at any time and without notice.
Not all the stories feature the same high level of invention as others, and here I’m thinking of “Girl,” “My Feet,” and “Cassidy.” But on the whole Discomfort is filled with welcome surprises. “I think I can place language between me and the ground. I will pave my way by constantly describing what’s before me,” the narrator of “My Feet” tentatively offers, “so that it’s my own description of it that I touch when I must touch the world.” Language as buffer, language as a way to navigate the world, language front and centre at all times; with such a focus Evelyn Hampton might sound like a writer’s writer, but Discomfort should appeal to anyone who appreciates an earnest view (that’s not entirely sombre) of where we are in the world, along with offbeat lines and humour, and precision in writing.
* Steven Moore’s The Novel, An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010) and The Novel, An Alternative History: 1600–1800 (2013), essential encyclopedic works, provide the most cogent arguments for backdating the beginning of this form to about 2000 BC. (Michael Schmidt’s more traditional The Novel: A Biography , in contrast, opts for a start date in the mid-fourteenth century.)
Discomfort by Evelyn Hampton | Ellipsis Press | 140 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN: 978-1940400068