Dawn Raffel is now probably best known for her 2012 book, The Secret Life of Objects, an unorthodox memoir in which the author invokes her past through reflections prompted by various objects she still possesses. While this book succeeds on its own terms, offering a concise but affecting account of the writer's relationships with family and friends, it would be an injustice if its relative success came to overshadow the accomplishments of her fiction, which are numerous and distinctive.
If Raffel's fiction is in danger of being overlooked, this admittedly might be due to its rather infrequent appearance. Her first book, the story collection In the Year of Long Division, came out in 1995, her first novel, Carrying the Body, was published in 2002, while a second collection of stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, appeared in 2010. The long intervals between books apparently comes not from wavering ambition but an overabundance of care, as Raffel has spoken in interviews of taking up to a year on one of her stories, most of which are seldom more than a half-dozen pages long.
Although Raffel is a former student of Gordon Lish, and thus could loosely be grouped among those current writers influenced by his notion of "consecution" (writers such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt), the care that she takes is as much with the intervals and silences between sentences as it is in the construction and linking of sentences, the strategies for which have been adopted by most of Lish's acolytes. Certainly Raffel takes pains over the rhythms and tonalities of her sentences, as we can plainly see in the very first story of In the Year of Long Division:
Fishing was the only sport in our town. How it was. Pick. Any house in our town was any house in our town. Any wind in our town was the wind in our town. Down was down. Queasy was a way of life. Bored to crackers, snap, kerplunk. ("We Were Our Age")
If some readers might find Raffel's prose "difficult," its difficulty arises first of all from primacy of sound over sense. The stop-and-start rhythm, the strategic repetition, the assonance modifying into outright rhyme (our-house-town-down)--these are the most immediate qualities of a passage such as this, and whatever narrative or descriptive work they also do must accommodate itself to the intonations of Raffel's language. That language does indeed perform this other work, however, in its own unorthodox but ultimately compelling way. "Any house in our town was any house in our town" tells us almost all we need to know about this town, making any further sensory description superfluous. "Down was down," in addition to providing Raffel's signature wordplay, also clues us in on the type of wind pervading the town, the kind ensuring that "Queasy was a way of life."
But Raffel's attention to the lacunae between and among these sentences, to what needn't or perhaps even can't be said, is just as painstaking. So ruthless is she in eliminating the unnecessary, in fact, trusting in the reader to bridge the gaps and to acknowledge the unstated, that some readers might feel disoriented from the lack of expository directions and situational detail. This feature of Raffel's fiction is perhaps what has encouraged the view that it is a version of "minimalism" (for example, in John Domini's review of Restless Universe reprinted in his book The Sea-God's Herb), but while Raffel's work does to some extent recall the similarly reduced fictions of Mary Robison, her stories rely even less on narrative than most minimalist fiction, in which conventional "drama" is often missing but things happen nevertheless. Raffel's stories convey something closer to a literary impressionism, a blurry but distinguishable evocation of a scene or episode, often, as in "We Were Our Age," an exercise in memory more than storytelling.
A more conventionally recognizable feature of Raffel's fiction is her extensive use of dialogue, which is in fact the dominant mode in some stories. (Perhaps reflecting the influence of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, whom Raffel has identified as among her earliest inspirations.) One of the stories in Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, "The Myth of Drowning," is entirely a dialogue set-piece, and its development is typical, as a man and a woman before sleep talk about a story the woman had told:
"How was it that she drowned?"
"Who knows," she said. "She couldn't swim. Or cramps. Maybe undertow. The undertow was wicked"
"You know what I mean."
"No, what do you mean?"
"I mean people were there," he said. "That's how you told it. A crowd on the shore."
"That's what the myth is: Drowning is noisy. It isn't," she said.
"It isn't," she said.
"I heard you the first time."
"Tired, I said."
"Broad daylight," he said.
"And shallow," he said. "No one could see her?"
Although by the end of this brief exchange (around two pages long) we can piece together what must be the context of the conversation (the couple have had a tense evening, the man believes the woman sees herself as the drowning woman), the absence of authorial assistance is made even more acute by the abbreviated, discontinuous nature of the dialogue itself. But that comes not from a distortion of human speech patterns but an affirmation of it, an attempt to capture the way we actually talk to each other with fidelity. As David Winters says of Raffel's dialogue, "This is speech as it is spoken in life, not in literature: shorn of explanatory apparatus, driven more by conflicting agendas than by semantics, and, in its resultant asymmetry, rife with abrupt about-faces and non sequiturs."
Consistent with the strategies of her prose style more generally, Raffel's dialogue calls on the reader's capacity to infer the not-said from the said, the encompassing context from the fleeting clues we do get. In asking us to read closely and carefully, she also suggests that reading fiction is not merely the registering of the words on the page but also remaining alert to their subtler intimations, the discursive and aesthetic reverberations created by the tension between what those words signify and what they leave unexpressed. The reader's experience will be incomplete without this sort of attentiveness, but this doesn't make her work truly difficult or inaccessible. Only readers who close themselves off to the possibility of a more expansive reading experience, expansive in the sense that reading is more than gliding along the surface of words but can be provisional and recursive, will find Raffel's fiction perplexing. Patient readers will find it enlivening.
It might seem that Raffel's aesthetic strategy would work best in short fiction (and some of her stories are short enough to be called "flash fiction"), but her only novel, Carrying the Body, is also quite good as well. It shares with Raffel's stories a focus on family relations, although where many of the stories focus on relationships between parents and children, Carrying the Body portrays family drama more broadly, beginning with a pair of estranged sisters, one of whom left home young to experience life more fully, while the older sister remained in the home to care for their debilitated father. The younger sister returns to the home with her young son and eventually leaves again, abandoning the child, who becomes increasingly ill, to the ministrations of the older sister, a job for which she is clearly not prepared. The novel traces the development of the relationship between the older sister (referred to throughout as "the aunt") and the child, using the same elliptical methods as in the stories, which prove to work very well in evoking the hesitant, tentative growth of the aunt's concern for the child, as well as her increasing desperation about her own inadequacy in dealing with the situation she finds herself confronting.
Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (2010) is the most recent fiction (in book form) Raffel has published, and while the stories in this collection are generally similar in approach to those in her first book, a few of them, such as "The Air and Its Relatives," although still fragmented and conducted largely in dialogue, are arguably somewhat more conventional. The focus is even more resolutely on parent-children relationships. "The Air and Its Relatives" is a memory story about the narrator and her father, framed by a series of scenes in which the father is teaching the daughter how to drive. The fragmentation of the story serves to emphasize the episodic quality of memory, so that the story coheres in a readily perceptible way. The story's elegiac tone is consistent with many of the other stories in the book as well, and the book is further unified by a motif provided by the book's title, itself a reference to Max Born's The Restless Universe, which is explicitly identified in "The Air and Its Relatives" as a book the daughter and the father would read aloud together. We live in a "restless" universe of change and ineffable mystery, not least in the human experience of love and loss this book explores.
Further Adventures in The Restless Universe begins with an epigraph from Born that not only applies to this book but could also serve metaphorically as an apt description of Raffel's fiction as a whole: "Visible light covers only about one octave, speaking in musical terms." It is certainly appropriate to think of Raffel's work "in musical terms," even if it is a music, like that of, say, John Cage or Morton Feldman, that keenly exploits absence and quiet as part of its musical scheme. And if visible light is only one part of the spectrum, and not the largest, so too does Raffel's fiction make explicitly visible only a sampling of the world in which its characters act, talk, and subsist. With the reader's help, it manages to strongly illuminate, nonetheless.