Wednesday, April 17, 2013

God Is In the Details: Jamie Quatro's "I Want To Show You More"

I'm going to open this piece with a terrible pun on the book title. After reading and loving Jamie Quatro's "The Anointing" (published last fall in Guernica), I wanted to see more of her fiction. That story, which happens to be included in I Want To Show You More, was a stunning, uneasy exploration of a crumbling family paired with complex issues of religion as a functional and social tool/problem. It was beautiful, upsetting, and wholly original, and I made a point to read her debut story collection. "The Anointing" wasn't just a flash of brilliance, but rather one of many pieces that are unafraid to get into unsettling subject matters in weird, sometimes brutally honest ways. Now that I've read more of Quatro's work, I'm amazed at how diverse her stories are. She moves seamlessly among tales of infidelity, crisis, and small worlds of suspended disbelief. Some of the characters appear in multiple stories, creating a wider arc of interactions across various time periods. And she explores religion in a way that few contemporary writers can match, deftly balancing the subject with all of its complications, showing how it can be essential and disappointing. I Want To Show You More is that nearly perfect combination of entertaining storytelling that forces the reader to pay attention and weigh various possibilities.

Almost all of these ideas are on display right away in the opening story. In the span of a couple pages, "Caught Up" tells the story of a woman's childhood memories (a combination of celestial awe that turns into complicated ideas of god in adulthood), a casual affair, and honesty. I was very tempted to scoff at copyright law and transcribe the entire story, since taking one passage as an example leaves out bigger parts of the entire narrative. But the passage below is a decent sample size that manages to pack in various ideas.

"This time, in the vision, the other man was with me. I would like to say he was standing beside me--that we were equals--but he was the size of a toddler. I was holding him. He was limp and barely breathing, his skin gray, the color of my two-year-old son's face the night we rushed him to the ER for croup, and I knew the reason I was about to be caught up was because I was supposed to carry the man to God and lay him in His lap so that God could...what? I didn't know.

Bullshit, the man said when I told him about the vision. I'm already there (Quatro 3)."

In the next story, the reader is then thrown into similar circumstances with one of the creepiest, weirdest plot devices I've ever encountered in a story. With "Decomposition," Quatro gets into another saga of a family torn apart by infidelity, but this time, the lover's body is a constant, physical presence. The body lays on a couple's bed, and evidence is given for it being either an actual body or a wax figure. The reader weighs both of these possibilities, but the focus remains on the collapsing marriage outside of said physical manifestation. Also, Quatro is deftly playing with a big metaphor. Any writer of her stature can work with careful metaphors, but in this piece, the act of the metaphor being an unavoidable, essential piece of the narrative adds even more texture to what is already a tense unfolding. Upon a second reading, it's even more amazing combined with Quatro's beautiful descriptions and minute details. It's a combination of classic storytelling with modern, experimental twists.

"In the front yard you pick clusters of holly and magnolia to arrange on the pillow around the man's head, thinking the least you can do is create a little beauty around the edges of death. But when you enter the bedroom you notice the man's skin has turned the color of wet newspaper. You smell menthol and burnt plastic and something like rotten Nilla wafers. You hold your breath and close your eyes while the word inaccessible lights up against the backs of your eyelids--the thing you wanted there in front of you but also as far away as the bottom of the ocean--and you remember how your husband said, when you were pregnant with your first child, inches from us but she might as well be on another planet, and it is perhaps this realization--you are shut out--that makes you drop the leaves onto the wood floor, grab the bedpost and hold on, and say, to your husband, still curled up on his side of the bed: But I wanted him.

I checked the body out, your husband says. It's fucking wax (Quatro 8)."

I Want To Show You More has some pieces that are scaled back, yet no less powerful. "1.7 To Tennessee" tells the story of an elderly woman's dangerous walk along a highway to get to a post office. She lost her son in Vietnam and is determined to send a letter to President Bush in protest of the Iraq War. It's a small, personal narrative with hints of a much bigger backdrop. It's as much about the woman as it is about the people she encounters along the way, in addition to the having a link to worldwide protests (on a tinier scale). By having the main character be an elderly woman, Quatro is able to add careful touches: Eva needs help writing the letter, yet is sharp, feels responsibility, and pushes herself into what turns out to be her final act.

"In her pocket was a letter, addressed: Pres. George W. Bush, Penn. Ave., Wash. D.C. Seven envelopes she had thrown away before she felt her handwriting passed for that of an adult. The letter itself she dictated to Quentin Jenkins, one of the McCallie boys who went down the mountain for her groceries. Quentin wrote in cursive on a college-ruled sheet of paper. She preferred he type it, and considered offering to pay him an extra dollar to do so, but when she finished her dictation and Quentin read the letter back to her, she grew excited and snatched the paper from him, folding and stuffing it into an envelope. Then she realized she hadn't signed the letter, so she had to open the envelope and borrow the boy's pen. Quentin offered to mail it for her but she had made up her mind to deliver it to the post office herself. She took great pride in the fact that she, an eighty-nine-year-old woman, still had things to say to the President Of the United States. It was a formal letter, protesting the war. She felt it her duty to place it, personally, into the hands of the government (Quatro 67-68)."

Another aspect of Quatro's writing that I love is her joy in truly challenging the reader, not on an emotional level (although there is plenty of that), but on a tangible one. Some of her longer narratives are complicated, multi-layered sagas that require rapt attention, especially since they draw you in so casually before going off into unexpected directions. "Ladies and Gentlemen Of the Pavement" explores marathon running in which the participants are required to carry heavy, cumbersome statues; "Sinkhole" takes place at a religious camp and unfolds adolescent sexual attraction on the backdrop of various kinds of fervor; and in one of my favorite pieces, "Demolition" starts off as the story of an unexpected church patron, then becomes a staggering exploration of loss, strange ceremonies, and the actions of a small town congregation. Although stylistically and thematically different, it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite stories: Matt Bell's "His Last Great Gift," another complicated mystery with religion at its core.

"Unwilling to abandon the church, the remaining leaders--an elder, the organist, and Robinson himself--formed a Committee for the Reestablishment of Order. Their first recommendation: the immediate removal of Sunday services to the windowless Fellowship Hall. But we refused to move. For the first time we could see each other worshipping in the natural light. Breezes fluttered our skirts and chucked our collars up under our chins. Through the empty lead cames drifted scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, mown grass, grilled fish. We could hear weed trimmers, children's laughter; the whir of a moped, the drone of an airplane.....

....Without the support of the beams, the roof, too, would have to go. But this was no great loss. Many of us--though we'd never said so to one another--had begun to long for total open-air worship (Quatro 168)."

As I have a tendency to stress in my reviews, the small sample citations are no match for the collection as a whole. I Want To Show You More demands to be read, since there are so many other details that I've neglected to mention, and I'm sure once I post this, I'll think of other, better avenues I could have explored here. But this was one of the best reading experiences I've had in quite some time, and in a year dominated so far by terrific, heralded story collections (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, etc.), it was exciting to be so enthralled by a writer whom I didn't know about until a few weeks ago. I was challenged, vastly entertained, and definitely felt like I was discovering someone who needs much more recognition. Jamie Quatro really transcends genres and manages to do something that many writers attempt, but few can accomplish: she completely upends a reader's expectations, and does so intentionally and intensely.

Work Cited:
Quatro, Jamie. I Want To Show You More. Copyright 2013 by Jamie Quatro.

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