July 2015

Rosie Clarke

fiction

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far by Quintan Ana Wikswo

With a knowing nod to her reticence, Quintan Ana Wikswo comments at one point in her debut collection, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far: "I have come too far here -- in this place, in this story -- without answering the fundamental questions of how and why and when. I haven't asked them, and it's possible they don't exist." While these unasked questions, and their elusive answers, are either obscure or absent altogether, Wikswo's refusal to give easy and comprehensible access to her enigmatic characters and their mysterious tales is fundamental to her writing's appeal. Previously, her stories appeared only as single entities (in Tin House, Kenyon Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, and Folio, to name a few), and now collected, we can appreciate the intricate threads tying them together, like a network of delicate veins.

Her writing's emotional power, coupled with a fantastical, dreamlike quality underscored with darkness and a fixation on mortality, gives her prose a cinematic nature evocative of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, and literary similarity with Wikswo's contemporary Amelia Gray, whose skill at digging below the skin and prodding at our deepest discomforts is balanced by unique, uncompromising insight into the human condition. Containing ten stories of varying lengths, Wikswo's transdisciplinary creative practice is apparent, which ranges from writing to photography, filmmaking, poetry, and performance art, and is concerned with the visible and invisible imprints left by physical and emotional trauma.

Some familiarity with her practice is beneficial, as it directs how we investigate between the lines of her writing, and encourages appreciation of the significance of place and "otherness" that underlines these stories and accompanying images. The photographs and vignettes of Fieldwork, from Out Here Death is No Big Deal, for example, depict the sites of femicide along the Mexican-American border, while Fossoyeur/Gravedigger uses cameras created by forced female labor in Nazi concentration camps to capture sites of witch burnings and burials, and the photographs, text, and dance of CHARITÉ respond to the forced euthanasia by Nazi Aktion T4 officials upon tens of thousands of LGBT and disabled individuals.

Wikswo herself is queer, disabled, and Jewish, and her connection with notions of "otherness" motivates her to imbue a sense of difference and separation in her art and writing. Her characters are outsiders, whether from choice or force, and inhabit alienating or unwelcoming environments. Wikswo's use of gendered pronouns is fluid and inconsistent, lending the romantically inclined narratives a nuance of charming confusion. In this way, gender in her writing is both irrelevant and important; irrelevant because love is love and lust is lust, regardless; and important because establishing queer relationships as conventional alongside their heterosexual equivalents is critical in negating the sidelining of LGBT representation.

Thematically, these stories concentrate on love, loss, isolation, trauma, and the indeterminacy of humanity's empire. Wikswo appears to suggest our reign over the environment is reaching its conclusion, and soon the age of man -- the Anthropocene -- will take an uneasy step into a hostile future. This notion is emphasised by photographs containing eerie, dreamlike multiple exposures of dilapidated buildings and industrial wastelands imposed over forests, lone trees, and expanses of water. While apparent in her recurrent focus on dehumanisation and regression to more primordial states of being -- take the amorphous being of "The Delicate Architecture of our Galaxy," whose transformation into an indeterminate being, luminous and tentacled, questions at what point one loses one's humanity -- Wikswo's dystopian hypothesis is exemplified in the peculiar "Aurora and the Storm," one of her collection's standout stories.

In this highly visual, mysterious, and at times erotic tale, the eponymous Aurora recounts her affair with an aloof research partner while investigating a dark matter detector, deep in an unnamed forest. Wikswo captures the intensity of new desire; one's body temperature rising with lust, and with that heat, Aurora's "clothes felt as though they had bonded to (her) skin. As though blood had dried them into a wound." Although in part a meditation on female sexuality, Aurora feels desire for her lover "in (her) most tight and demanding place [...] The V of care that widens from a finite point, or narrows from a gulf into a well," Wikswo counters the vitality and vigour of love with a poignant exploration of profound loneliness and loss.

An unexplained storm hits, floodwater consuming their hotel, and gradually, floor by floor, engulfing the markings of humanity. The women are exposed to the ambivalent power of nature, their bodies "swollen and pliant in the water," the building overwhelmed, suggestive of the transiency of architecture. Aurora alone survives, and in her isolation forges a deep and intimate connection with the flora and fauna that have stripped her naked.

Wikswo is interested in how the trauma of loss affects us on a primal level, denying us a language that can articulate our grief. Aurora's narration is cognisant but fragmented, distracted and vague, indicating a once-brilliant mind driven mad. This technique is reminiscent of Jane Unrue's similarly mysterious novel Love Hotel. As with most of Wikswo's writing, the ending is left open, offering no resolution or explanation, effectively and frustratingly simulating reality. Countering the emotional insufficiency of language are Wikswo's aesthetically rich descriptions of nature: eels in the floodwater are "cool to the touch, and hard as an erection"; darkness so strong it is "muscular"; a bird's nest is covered in vivid, "gangrenous moss."

A repeated refrain in The Hope of Floating is that, as strong as our connection to one another, our connection to nature is deeper and more fundamental. In "The Cartographer's Khorovod," the desired but inaccessible woman takes on nonhuman features, which emphasise her separation from the protagonist: "She was tall but small; she was slight but immense, a naked tree in winter," her face "a December face stripped of leaves... Luminous." In the somewhat Beckettian "Holdfast Crowbiter," an unnamed animalistic woman, legs thin as "heron stalks," is adorned with a "wet pelt of bladderwrack [...] sloughed-off spongy muck of a uterus at new moon." "My Nebulae, My Antilles" is another love story -- albeit one just as sorrowful as Aurora's -- in which Wikswo captures the internal rift that love can cause, torn between one's own identity and the desire to fuse with one's lover. This is merged with the commonality of the natural world; says the the narrator in fantasies about her lover: "I slip through her skin of sand and cashmere, as though a pearl fashioned tight against the rise of her flesh."

As with "The Cartographer's Khorovod," "My Nebulae, My Antilles" uses the act of letter writing to depict lovers simultaneously distant and intimate. However, the latter story becomes an examination of the fragility of the narrator's memory, as she writes letters to herself while awaiting her taciturn paramour in the Latvian city of Riga. It is typical of Wikswo to offer a brief sense of familiarity with a place name or geographical reference, before unsettling us by returning to ambiguity and mystery. Here, the narrator recounts her time in Antilles, and the feeling of alienation produced by the unfamiliar customs and language of the locals. In her consequent isolation "memory after memory unfurled themselves for mere instants -- their dendritic fronds arrayed like firecrackers against my darkened sky." This lyrical simile is characteristic of Wikswo's language, giving her writing a sense of beguiling archaism, although sometimes alienatingly verbose. Upon reading the letters she has sent herself, the narrator feels no recognition: "Is she who I was, or who I have yet to become?" Wikswo's interest in the transformative function of writing is less in the product and more the act; how, in a Blanchotian sense, we lose something of ourselves in writing that cannot be regained, and how this mirrors the experience of love.

In her artist statement for "The Kholodnaya Club," Wikswo recounts her "first true love, an unrequited crush" on a young man who became a Navy fighter pilot, dying when his faulty F-16 jet crashed into a mountain. Her profoundly personal and traumatic memory is evident in the intimate, sorrowful tone of this story. Centering on the ghosts of drowned Cold War pilots, "The Kholodnaya Club" is both tender and spooky, as Wikswo conjures a cinematic vision of lost souls, trapped by their memories of lost loves and lives; one man recalls "to wake with the smell of her under my nails. To hear her cursing in the shower. To find her short dark hairs on my pillow." These are the memories left when all else is stripped away, when we are left with nothing but our minds. Wikswo is skilled at amalgamating her emotions and memories with reflections on human tragedy on a larger scale: in this, as with many of her stories, the universal themes offer familiarity, while the historical or geographical settings lend weight that transcends individual experience.

The collection's final story, "The Double Nautilus," is an evocative and unnerving exploration into the depths of our notions of love and humanity. The imagined or real love between the characters is underscored by a folkloric tale of two nautili that, over eons, "built layer upon layer of shell, melding together a solid, calcified spiraled membrane that separated yet structured them." Wikswo returns again to the idea of love as a primal union of synergy and fusion, which of course makes the loss of a lover all the more terrible: the nautili "perished, each alone on the rock." The human characters attempt to mimic this prehistoric love; traveling deep inside the ossified cephalopods, the man feels "the luster of this shell seems more her skin than stone" -- in order to achieve symbiosis they must cast off their humanity and become one with the ancient, fossilized lovers.

Dedicated to those inhabiting the meeting point of nihilism and romance, Wikswo's tales palpate the tiny, tender parts of us that dare to hope for love and belonging in the face of a cold and unkind universe. But the kinds of love she represents are consuming, disturbing, and irreconcilable with normal existence. For her, love intersects with trauma, offering no respite from pain, while remaining formative to our lives, and fundamental to our experience of the world. Blurring the edges of reality and challenging the body's limits, Wikswo offers a glimpse of what could transpire if our deepest desires devoured us.

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far by Quintan Ana Wikswo
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566894050
277 pages