March 2012

Jill Talbot

fiction

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston

At the end of the title piece of Pam Houston's collection Cowboys are My Weakness, the narrator tells a story that she confesses not to be true, but through her tellings and retellings, the story is something she comes to believe about herself. In that short story, Houston writes, "We invent ourselves through our stories, and in a similar way, how the stories we tell put walls around our lives."

Her latest work, Contents May Have Shifted, is told in first person, in 144 vignettes, each labeled by a city (Davis, California; Creede, Colorado; Bymthang Valley, Kingdom of Bhutan), with a main character named Pam. Character Pam, like writer Pam, has wolfhounds, teaches writing, lives on a ranch in Colorado, and recently turned fifty. There are two words inside a wisp of a white cloud on the cover that read: a novel.

In an essay, "Corn Maze," which appeared in Hunger Mountain days before the publication of Contents, Houston notes, "When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute." Houston has referred to "Corn Maze" as a companion piece to the novel, one that allows her to explain the "liberties" she has taken in Contents. In it, she explains:

When I went on tour with my first book, a collection of short stories called Cowboys Are My Weakness, I was asked, more than any other question, how much of this really happened to you? "A lot of it," was my honest answer, night after night, but the audience grew dissatisfied with that answer and seemed, more than anything, to want something quantifiable, so I began saying, also honestly, about eighty-two percent.

Eight years later, when I published my first "nonfiction" book, and went on tour with it, I would often be introduced in some version of the following manner: "In the past we have gotten eighty-two percent Pam, and now we are going to get one hundred percent," and I would approach the microphone and feel the need to say, "Well, no, still coming in right about eighty-two."

One cannot help intuiting the consistent inconsistency here: no matter the genre, fiction, memoir, "Pam Houston" is not really Pam Houston. I'm thinking of an essay in which Vivian Gornick describes a reading of her own memoir, Fierce Attachments, a work about herself and her mother: "We ourselves were just a rough draft of the written characters." In other words, if you came here looking for the woman in that book, you're not going to find her. She's not here. That woman is on the page.

But from what I've read in blogs and in reviews and tweets since the publication of Contents, many readers are finding themselves in Pam. Even I underlined this passage: "In my twenties I pretended I wanted a long-term relationship but just kept picking up wolfmen by mistake. In my thirties I thought my marriage phobia was something chronic I needed to get cured of, like back pain or herpes, but now that I'm almost fifty I suspect freedom is the secret pleasure." Houston goes so far as to ponder whether the Janis Joplinesque anthem that women of our generation heard might have led us down the wrong path? What if it's better to be free? Maybe the perpetual going is better than any kind of staying? Pam's answer: Maybe.

Here is a woman who on the surface has an adventurous spirit but in truth (a phrase Houston uses in interviews), she is a woman who goes as far as she can to get at some thing (healing? beauty? understanding?) and to forget a very specific thing (the father who broke her femur by flinging her across the room when she was four), a woman who travels to far flung cities to both search and escape; in fact, Pam travels to fifteen countries and twenty-one states in the novel, locales broken up between twelve flights. Houston explains in "Corn Maze," "I have 144 chapters. 132 of them are titled with a place name, divided into groups of 12 by 12 single stories that take place no place -- on an airplane." The locales are scattered -- the first five, for instance: Georgetown; Great Exuma; Davis, California; Ozona, Texas; Juneau, Alaska; and Good Hope, Jamaica. The most common cities, Davis, California (nine vignettes) and Creede, Colorado (eight), are Houston's own home cities, the one where she heads a creative writing program and the one where her ranch is located.

Thread lightly through these cities, states, and countries are the travails of Pam's love life -- the selfish, inconsiderate man who cannot stop checking his e-mail or longing to be with other women, the mind-numbing dates (she actually runs from a restaurant after one man tells her, "I want to say this in a way that makes you think I am a normal person"), and eventually, her movement toward the love of a man and more significantly, it seems, the love for and of his six-year-old daughter, the love that most surprises her.

Through it all, Pam is everywhere and nowhere. And so are we -- most of the vignettes are collages of encounters blended with texts and e-mails from friends elsewhere, of words spoken by tour guides. We don't get to know her and the others beyond what they say, and it's not enough. This inclusion of quotations from other people becomes distracting in the end, when the vignettes actually seem to be more about what others say that what Pam thinks ("I got an e-mail from Quinn that says," "On the way to the airport, Rick says," "At the reading last night, Kwame said..."). Sometimes, there are too many voices, not enough of the one that seems to be missing, the one of Pam's insight, reflection that surges like a river on a rafting trip beneath her strongest works, Cowboys are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat. At some moments, the jumps in paragraphs and thoughts feel like a drop in cabin pressure, reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons might be more grounding. But, as Houston argues, "A shattered narrative is still a narrative."

I read an interview with Houston, in which she describes her novel "trying to live, as it does -- as I believe many many books do -- between fiction and memoir." In fact, her acknowledgments includes a thank you to those who have granted her the "artistic permission" to write such a book, including writers such as Richard Bausch, Tim O'Brien, Mark Doty, Nick Flynn, and Toni Morrison. Houston continues in the interview, "I am not so much a believer in the line between memoir and fiction at all. Though I am a big believer in the richness of the territory (which I imagine as a vast plain or at least a giant meadow and not a line) that connects the two." These borderlands currently being surveyed by contemporary writers are not new territory in American letters --Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac, just to name a few -- writers who staked out that territory between fictionalized personal narratives and autobiographical fiction decades ago. It's just now in a post-James Frey panic, writers (and publishers) feel more compelled (pressured?) to explain themselves. And Houston has it right -- it's a corn maze, especially when one writes about a character who resembles herself so closely and has a title that reads on one level like a clever play on the concept of air travel, yet conveys, on a more intriguing level, the ways in which we write our lives, shifting time, shifting place. Contents May Have Shifted indeed.

Houston, again in the interview, explains how language and memory cannot be trusted -- it won't sit still and mean anything simply, it can't be pinned down, it is always morphing and dancing, a little like the Northern Lights. Fiction, she knows, gives her license to invent, to exaggerate, to protect. It's an approach to writing that Mark Doty calls "the experience of happening." Toward the end of the novel, after a turbulent flight (all of them seem to be full of failing engines and bad reactions to Champagne, just like life), the flight attendant's voice carries through the cabin: "If your contents haven't shifted, you must be carrying lead weights." And I read this through the prism of what Houston is doing in her novel: if as a writer you don't shift content in some way, you're narrative is heavy, immovable, impossible to carry.

We can only write well if we let go of a little baggage here and there, if we rearrange, repack. Toward the close of the novel, in one of the last jaunts there and there, Houston allows us a window seat view of her work: "I stand at the window and watch, impersonating a woman standing at a window and watching." This mirroring, this impersonating, is Pam Houston's writing -- a writer impersonating herself, over and over again.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393082654
320 pages