September 2015

Brian Nicholson


It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides by Jessica Lee Richardson

Falling asleep in public places, surrounded by people, I have felt the ambient chatter of other peoples' conversations overlapping and converging with the thoughts inside my head as they drift away from being thoughts altogether, on the edge of coalescing into the images that demarcate the beginnings of dreams. Like these moments, the voices in the opening suite of stories in Jessica Lee Richardson's It Had Been Planned And There Were Guides seem to spin on unseen axes, their narration existing in a space outside the body of the characters that expectation would suggest they speak for. They seem to float just above the skull, like the cartoon angel and devil of conscience, were they to free-associate for the sake of amusing each other rather than debating to determine how a human should act. The way one thought follows another feels dissociative-dosed, uninterested in attempting insight about, say, working in the porn industry, to name the basic premise of a story called "Haut Culture." That's a loaded topic, but the perspective on it found here is almost like someone trying to recount a news story only half-recalled, for the sake of making some anecdotal point about the conversational subject at hand, the connecting point being a minor detail that overlaps in both instances. These sentences seem capable of going way out, into deep space, but never go inside, to be present within the realm of what the stories are ostensibly about.

Take this passage, from the opening story, "Call Me Silk":

I don't care what you call me either, because I dropped through that trap door at the bottom of the bottom and came out on top. Power is circle we oval so vertical it appears line thin. I would offer a scene to show what happened when I stopped dropping, but I don't want you picturing me. I believe in messages of bliss slipped under the crack into the bottles of you, breadcrumbs in your wood, though.

In this passage there is an anthemic fist-pumping quality, but it's delivered as if standing unsteadily on a floor littered with ball bearings and thus is unable to commit to a rousing effect. It is possible, then, to mistake this for "bad writing," but these stories' use of the first-person perspective seems to say that to be an I is to be forever explaining oneself to yourself as well as to others, and to only be able to do this using the signs floating about, either in the ether or in your immediate surroundings, creates multiple double-binds of miscommunication. This is true, and a big thing, and it's felt far more viscerally here than in the short stories of those whose attempts at mimesis of the observable make a more persuasive case as to the reality of what they describe. These stories are not defined by a failure to get inside their character's heads, but are about the floating feeling of trying to make sense of yourself and your situation.

These stories are demarcated into a section marked "Descent." It's followed by two small sections, "Impasse" and "Ascent," that split in half a two-part story where, following the thread of language's derangement, a man attempts to type an e-mail expressing his frustration with his ex-wife over the custody of their child after installing lawyer-recommended software designed to stop him from saying anything that would reveal his rage. We read the text he attempts to compose, the interruptions he receives, and his struggle to communicate a single thought without interruption. We see it all on the page as it would play out on screen, the thoughts mediated by machinery, rather than the mind, and so we understand that the disconnect at work in the "Descent" section is the result of a mind so self-conscious it breaks itself.

The second half of the book, marked "Clearing," is unobstructed. What we can see is the mess we've made, how far we've fallen, the way we derange ourselves. The subject, to a degree, becomes communication, how to do it clearly. The plotlines are immediate, the storytelling antecedents recognizable. "Two Angels," premised on ideas of social-media-style approval functioning inside corporate culture, feels like a George Saunders story. "The Best Deal," with its use of fantasy elements as a way of relaying a thought experiment, is in the vein of Borges, or Millhauser, or Silvina Ocampo.

It is the story "The Lips The Teeth The Tip Of The Tongue" where my feelings shifted from "this is interesting" to "this is really good." The sense of the self as being split between two doubles, a private name (Janie) and a performing alias (Baby Girl Bristol), is made explicit, and it feels like Richardson is explaining herself and her method, in the story of an auctioneer, who in her fast-paced multi-syllabic song sneaks in secrets no one hears. When she is confronted with the idea of having one of her performances being recorded -- and remember that being recorded is essentially a ubiquitous part of twenty-first-century life -- she begins to panic and plan a deliberate performance where she will not be herself:

But BGB was so accustomed to merging her inner life and mind's eye with figures that separating the two proved tiresome. Not just tiresome. She felt like a stone. She wavered between feeling like a stone and bursting into tears over goat cheese crepes.

A later sentence makes the connection between the character and the author more explicit: "Conducting a room was about going there, meeting people in their self-spaces and the only out into them, was in, into her."

The space between outside and in is a messy line, like the sight of a brutal murder, and Richardson navigates it with humor, making puns of the slippage between larger culture and private memory. Another way to say it is that these stories go for the juggler, and that for every ball dropped it is a dizzying experience, keeping your eye on what's in the air.

It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides by Jessica Lee Richardson
ISBN: 978-1573660525
224 pages