September 2015

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Slab by Selah Saterstrom

"I have a shitload of friends, and we like to party." Tiger, Slab's narrator, offers this explanation to her audience, an off-page Barbara Walters. For a book to party means an embrace of the chaos of disparate voices, and the way they can play off each other to have fun and maybe transcend any expectations created by milieu of social class or genre. I've realized recently that poets use the term "genre" to refer to specific forms, like theater, prose, or various structures of verse, whereas the publishing industry means it as to indicate various tropes that define a story's movement and marketability. When Slab parties, the poet-authorial-host is inviting into her all the potentials a voice can hold inside it, and so her Tiger, a stripper with a "look too welfare-slut for the clean-cuts," can speak casually about her grandfather's suicide, give instructions on how to hotwire a car, and speak about such images as dogs and water in a way that loads them up with symbolic weight.

The fragmented feeling of the book comes closer to speaking to the reader directly than the comparative bullshit of a straightforward narrative's strategies. The book is so immediate it reads like the contents of a trash can kicked onto the floor. Memories are images covered in dirt that cling to the big questions. Not all of what is here engages, or amounts to anything beyond a bit of bricolage fastened with strands of chewing gum. The genre of recipe goes through the language blender a couple times and in every instance turns up a passage that seems half-cooked and indigestible. But still we receive the feeling of a lower-class milieu speaking for itself without any sort of condescension used to mediate an imagined distance. "So, to answer your question, Barbara Walters, I'd say dogs do make me think about death."

Imagine a VHS collage designed to show a portrait of a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, where the most frequent source of material used to give the thing some narrative structure and sense of character is taken from a copy of Showgirls being remixed in real time. It might not achieve greatness the way that something more considered could, but it's engaging often enough to be an interesting piece that might stick in your mind. By avoiding the calculated, few effects are ensured. In moment-to-moment decision-making, the oblique fragment possesses the possibility that it will occasionally brush against the sublime. This is what separates the direct communication of a conversation from grandiose speechmaking.

A party is made up of such conversations and characters. The book's subtitle is "on that hallelujah day when tiger & preacher meet," but that refers to no machination of the plot. Tiger's monologue is untroubled by any perspective to come from a man who would have received his morality from a book. The book's second act has a shift in register to encompass a preacher. It is Tiger's world, which we have come to know through her flights of free association, that determines the shape of his world. For what Tiger's own rattled talk has promised to the reader is the potential that through brain damage one might have a spiritual experience. Slab speaks of card reading's "poetry of disarray" as a method of divination, as well as the compositional methods found in the art of Japanese flower arranging, and these are likened to each other, and implicitly linked to the book itself. In the end, too, is the truth that preaching is a performance the same way stripping is, and both are similar to a book that speaks of its visions nakedly.

Slab by Selah Saterstrom
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566893954
186 pages