This review originally appeared in Kenyon Review Online.
In 1979, Robert Scholes published Fabulation and Metafiction, in retrospect perhaps the work of literary criticism most influential in shaping our perspective on “postmodern” or “experimental” fiction from the 1960s and ’70s. The fiction of this period, according to Scholes, systematically swerves away from realism toward the more elemental mode of fabulation, inspired literally by the fable rather than by modern realism and intent on “telling such truths as fiction may legitimately tell in ways which are appropriately fictional,” unafraid of imaginative distortion or outright fantasy. Although Scholes saw fabulation and metafiction as linked, twin sides of the same experimental coin (indeed he defines “metafiction” as “experimental fabulation”), the experimental impulse in American fiction has subsequently found expression separately in these two modes.
“Metafiction” as practiced by such writers as John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino highlights the artificiality of traditional narrative, implicitly appealing to the “ingenuity of the fabulation” (as Scholes puts it) in substituting its own artifice for the traditional artifice of “story” (in Barth’s case attempting to renew narrative by exploiting its “exhaustion”). While this sort of self-reflexivity has continued to be common and appears even in more mainstream fiction, in the past fifteen to twenty years there has been among many avowedly experimental writers a conspicuous turn instead to a purer kind of fabulation. Whether we consider the surrealistic fairy tales of Aimee Bender, the satirical parables of George Saunders, or the science fiction–tinged magical realism of Kelly Link—to name just three of the more prominent such writers—this sort of narrative, non-realist work that still leans on plot, has most consistently claimed the legacy of the kind of experimental fiction Scholes identified.
Clearly Joanna Ruocco would have to be included among those writers devoting themselves to the fabulative mode. Her most recent novel, Dan, is set in the fictional village named in the title, which itself seems to exist somewhere aslant reality as we know it, occupying a place on the border between the almost plausible and the mostly dreamlike. The characters in the novel likewise are at once both recognizably human and figures from the simplified world of the fable, including the protagonist, Melba Zuzzo, who on the one hand resembles the innocent maiden of a fairy tale, but on the other reacts to the dangers she encounters with a kind of incomprehension not so much expressing fear as a kind of confusion, as if she thinks her own inability to understand is to blame: her apprehensions arise not from the perception that her world is menacing, but from the possibility that it might be meaningless.
The novel follows Melba over the course of a day in Dan. While this day certainly proves to be an eventful one for Melba, those events are framed less as Melba’s story than as its dissolution, the ultimate denial of further development in her “character arc.” Melba’s experience bitterly answers the question posed at the novel’s beginning: “Melba Zuzzo stood in the yard chewing tiredly on several pieces of gum. The day had barely started, and, as soon as it was over, another day was bound to begin. When would it end?”
The novel’s conclusion suggests that it ends, both literally and figuratively, with Dan’s final words, and not just for the reader. As the narrative of Melba’s day proceeds, it quickly comes to seem that Melba has a fragile sense of herself and her place in Dan, indeed a very shaky grasp on the concept of existence itself—as reflected in a recalled conversation with her teacher Mr. Sack, to whom she declares, “I have a problem . . . I just can’t figure out what time is made of.”
If it feels to Melba that time “must be like a kind of jelly,” as she further suggests, that is because Dan is in part the sort of provincial, backwater town in which life does indeed move slowly and in established patterns. But those patterns, while routinized, are off-kilter, seemingly normal to Melba and the inhabitants of Dan but odd and arbitrary from the reader’s perspective. Details of this skewed world emerge with deadpan regularity:
Melba had looked around her mother’s kitchen. For years, snails had been wearing runnels in the floorboards, and in these runnels, Melba could see several dozen snails in transit. . . .
Mr. Sack, the history and phrenology teacher, did not believe in textbooks. Instead, he distributed modeling clay, which the students used to shape the noses of nineteenth century naval heroes. . . .
“You’re not like the other children, Melba,” said Gigi Zuzzo. “You react poorly to elastics. Whenever you are given a piece of elastic your nose begins to bleed. I blame factors from your birth. Namely, your abnormally long umbilical cord.”
Melba herself simply accepts the weirdness of her world, but she is nevertheless dissatisfied with what she perceives as the underlying uniformity of her existence. “You’re right,” she says in a conversation with one of the inhabitants of Dan:
I’m always waiting. It’s because I’m confused about what’s happening. Life can’t possibly be just what’s happening right now. Then you’d be right, it would be just the two of us in the cold street, talking. This would be the whole thing. It’s only waiting that makes it more than that. I’d say remembering too, but you can’t trust memories.
Despite Melba’s reservations about the reliability of memory, the story of her day is structured precisely as a narrative of “waiting,” her experience of Dan’s all-too-familiar presence alternating with moments in which she is seized by an episode of “remembering,” usually prompted by something she observes. Like Melba, we readers wait to see what she will encounter next, what we will come to understand about this peculiar place in which she lives, although never does it really seem that we are in the midst of a conventionally developing “plot.”
Melba’s plaint that “Life can’t possibly be just what’s happening right now” certainly puts her in conflict with the prevailing attitude in Dan, where people do indeed seem wholly oriented to the present. They are so much so that the past seems swathed in the sort of cloudiness that hovers over the mountains surrounding the town, most disturbingly illustrated in the case of those people Melba recalls simply vanishing—a phenomenon the citizens of Dan have apparently taken in stride, provoking little curiosity or concern among them. Indeed, Melba’s references to these events and her clear resistance to the general complacency otherwise characteristic of Dan make her an object of suspicion. This suspicion and impatience is filtered mostly through the men she meets in the course of her activities (although she is castigated for her shortcomings most vociferously by her own mother), introducing the possibility that Melba’s status in Dan is especially precarious because she’s a woman.
Certainly it is tempting to regard Dan as a novel employing the allegorical or symbolic mode and thus to take it as a kind of feminist fable. Not only does the narrative conjure the atmosphere and attributes of a clearly make-believe world, a large part of this effect is achieved by Ruocco’s deliberately artless prose, its simple, straightforward diction and emphasis on declarative sentences without much figurative ornamentation. It is language that mimics the manner of a fairy tale, as if the primary effect of Melba’s experience of Dan has been to infantilize her, as evoked by the ingenuousness with which the third-person narrator conveys Melba’s awareness. Yet Dan has infantilized everyone who lives there, or at least lulled them into accepting existing conditions, however puzzling or arbitrary, as essentially inescapable. (Indeed, “the only way to leave is to go nowhere,” Melba is told.) At the novel’s end, we find Melba laid out on an examining table, exposed perhaps to some final degradation at the behest of Dan’s male authority. Yet the details of this final scene are typically enigmatic, and the scene might just as easily be interpreted as a kind of metafictional apotheosis: “The paper on this table is just like the paper I used for my drawing,” Melba declares. In the last view we have of her, “she felt the paper moving beneath her, and she lay very still on top of it, not saying anything, not moving at all,” as if Melba is being imprinted on the paper, returning her to the domain of artistic creation from which she came.
It is difficult to say that by the novel’s conclusion Melba has found the “meaning” she desires. The meaning of Joanna Ruocco’s fabulist novel is elusive, dispersed and deflected through its surreal imagery and motifs. A story with all the markings of an allegorical fable, it is closer to the kind of fabulation Scholes identifies in the work of Donald Barthelme, in which an apparent symbol really “symbolizes symbolism, reducing it to absurdity.” If Ruocco’s fiction doesn’t quite exhibit the formal or stylistic audacity of Barthelme’s, it does similarly compel us to register its motifs and images in their immediate and literal manifestation (in, as it were, their denotative state), without subordinating them to an external representational or symbolic order where they find their true significance. Ultimately Dan fails to deliver the kind of clear-cut moral traditionally associated with a fable, but this failure is actually a measure of its success.