“I wondered what it felt like to be a girl everywhere; I thought that if I was in her place, I might feel lucky.”
In her debut novel, Kathleen Alcott i“I wondered what it felt like to be a girl everywhere; I thought that if I was in her place, I might feel lucky.”
In her debut novel, Kathleen Alcott introduces us to a world ruled by sleep: the death of a mother troubled by the memory of her dreams, the resulting insomnia of a now-single father, and the impenetrable, sleep-talk language displayed by our female protagonist’s surrogate brothers, Jackson and James. As a child, Ida lies awake in the space between the two boys’ beds, struggling to understand their nighttime conversations and desperate to assign meaning to the words released by their shared subconscious. The two brothers also sleepwalk, and although James grows out of it, Jackson continues well into adulthood. Years later, Ida begins to hand him paints and brushes, and while asleep Jackson creates masterpieces—artwork that he has no memory of producing once he awakens. His inability to reconcile his waking self with the latent, artistic talent he demonstrates while dreaming is the key to unlocking the novel’s internal mysteries.
At the surface, these complex characters and their intricate relationships with one another act as the driving force of the narrative, but in the end, the choices they make function as a fascinating commentary on ownership and autonomy. When Ida goes behind Jackson’s back and arranges an exhibition for the paintings at a local gallery, the opening night ends in an explosive outburst from the artist, during which he emphatically rejects the works as his. Elsewhere, Jackson’s somnambulism has grown into violent episodes that leave Ida, who has shared his bed since adolescence, bruised in the morning. She always forgives him—even turns the issue into a joke—and his solution is to apologize in advance every night. Whether the ramifications of his actions while sleepwalking are positive or negative, he can’t accept them as his own. Or perhaps the situation is more complicated than that: for if Jackson takes credit for the paintings, then he’ll also need to take the blame for his abusive nature and the bruises he leaves on the canvas of Ida’s body—a responsibility he is clearly not ready to take.
This dilemma casts a disturbing twist to more common cases of domestic violence. Ida’s situation is comparable to that of a drug addict’s lover who is always quick to blame the influence of the drug instead of the abuser himself. Often, one might protest that if he were genuinely remorseful he would go to rehab, get help, quit drinking. Substituting a sleepwalker for an addict complicates the equation; the solution here is not quite as simple. You can’t expect someone to quit sleeping. At the same time, a relationship cannot continue in that vein.
While the events in the novel are relayed in a non-linear collection of short vignettes, the overarching narrative hurtles toward a foregone conclusion. Alcott’s prose is dreamy, blanketed in a poetic haze that seems to mask the promise of impending tragedy. The characters wander the streets of foggy San Francisco during late-night and early-morning hours, forever referring to their present location as “our city” and “our town” in lieu of giving it a name. As if, somehow, these three young adults are comfortable laying claim to an entire city when they are unable to take responsibility for their own behavior on a much smaller scale.
As a narrator, Ida gains our trust by being a girl everywhere. She recounts events that happened before she was capable of cognitive memory—such as the details and circumstances surrounding her mother’s untimely death—with the assuredness of someone who is truly remembering, not simply regurgitating bedtime stories or imagined scenarios. She puts herself in the mindset of others remarkably well, with consistent awareness of a wider landscape and a perspective other than her own. In doing so, she creates the illusion of an omniscient first person narrator, objective despite her central role. We’re all the more heartbroken when the fissures in Ida’s judgment begin to appear, when we finally realize just how unreliable her point-of-view is.
In her description of Shannon, Jackson’s new lover, Ida paints the woman as a pushover who continues to make excuses for Jackson even as his behavior becomes more and more abhorrent: feigning innocence after a one-night stand with a bartender in the backseat of Shannon’s car, followed by similar indiscretions involving Shannon’s best friend. After a while, he doesn’t even bother offering excuses. Shannon chooses to convince herself that he was sleeping through all of it. Looking back, we begin to wonder. We wonder if, in fact, Ida has been doing the same thing this entire time, if Jackson is not as innocent and helpless as he initially seemed. And if we find ourselves unable to accept that interpretation of events, it’s a testament to Alcott’s strengths as a storyteller. Because over the course of the novel, we have grown to love these characters so much—we refuse to believe that they may be solely accountable for their own destruction.
Note: This review previously appeared in Issue 15 of the literary journal Eleven Eleven (Summer 2013)....more
Dash Shaw is unreal. I was in awe the whole time I was reading this. Twice as good as Bottomless Bellybutton, in my opinion, and I already thought thaDash Shaw is unreal. I was in awe the whole time I was reading this. Twice as good as Bottomless Bellybutton, in my opinion, and I already thought that was pretty perfect. The thing that's so great about BB is it's such a tightly executed graphic novel with a singular vision and style, but with this collection you really get to see Shaw's range and the way he plays with color and shapes and bends time to his will, all while maintaining humor and heart. And the whole thing still manages to cohere as a collection, bookend-ed by storyboards and sketches for motion- and time-based projects. I can't even decide which story is my favorite: they are all great explorations in different ways, though I think I really have a soft spot for both the stories that showcase circular elements. Also, the whole thing is just flat-out gorgeous, which I somehow forgot to mention at the beginning.
Body World is next! Then I will sit around twiddling my thumbs until his next two books are released, because I cannot wait to see what he does next. ...more
Miss Jennifer reminds me of my monkey Lobert, only more violent and less confused about the English language. Also, my monkey does not wear a dress.
IMiss Jennifer reminds me of my monkey Lobert, only more violent and less confused about the English language. Also, my monkey does not wear a dress.
I thought this was an improvement on the first volume, both in the quality of the art and the story. I love all the extra bits at the end, especially when Jennifer reads fan mail! And drinks NyQuil! ...more