Elisabeth Sheffield

To an extent, it's a little surprising that Elisabeth Sheffield's Fort Da (FC2) has not received more attention. It is, after all, in part a fairly sensational story about what we now call a "sexual predator," in this case a reversal of Lolita in which the "offender" is a female scientist who becomes obsessed with an adolescent boy. Although to be sure the story is told (by the woman) in an unorthodox way, the narrative is explicit enough, and the representation of motive and psychology seems true enough, it would seem the novel might have caused a little bit of controversy, although the very fact the narrative is related through unorthodox means that to some extent distance us from the events portrayed and mute the potentially scandalous elements suggests that Sheffield certainly did not seek to court controversy.

What Sheffield seems to be after is a truthful account of the narrator's affliction (if that's what it is) and of her manner of coping with it. The narrator straightforwardly acknowledges her desire for Aslan, the adolescent boy, and painstakingly chronicles the events of their meeting, their eventually consummated relationship, and her final efforts to track him down when she is separated from him. But she is not quite able to tell us this story from a conventional first-person point of view, as if she can't finally bring herself to associate these events and her part in them with the "normal" self she still wants to preserve, as if she just can't acknowledge her own agency. Thus she adopts a cumbersomely "scientific" style emphasizing passive voice constructions. Addressing her "report" to her high school English teacher, Mrs, Wall, the narrator affirms

A true story that will faithfully present yours truly, without distortion or bias. To this end, a detached style has been adopted, one that will hopefully facilitate accurate reportage. The intent of this style is to step outside Rosemarie Ramee in order to more accurately observe her (and not, Strunk and White forbid, to annoy you with passive verb forms, which it is well remembered were a source of contention in high school). Yes, and maybe if the observations are presented with great care, with the greatest possible degree of honesty and precision, in the end empathy will be received.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to send RR (as she frequently hereafter identifies herself) "empathy," but her tortured attempts to remain objective, attempts she maintains throughout the narrative with gradually diminishing success, are really both the aesthetic and the emotional focus of the novel.

Aesthetically the style seems an apt analogue of the narrator's state of mind--she can tell the story, but only if she is in a sense able to withdraw her own participation and attempt to view the events with a kind of clinical detachment. Paradoxically, this forced detachment only makes the reader more aware of RR's obsession in the effort to cloak it, and her emotional turmoil becomes only more visible. This does have a discomfiting effect on the reader: there is a fascination to witnessing the machinations to which RR is driven in order to tell the tale, while we also recognize her strategy is in effect an attempt to minimize her offense. At the same time, it is not at all clear that Aslan resists RRs advances, or that he has been harmed by them, although of course the long-term harm cannot be predicted and we cannot finally trust that RR's account is anything but self-serving. She indicates that she is addressing her "confession" to Mrs. Wall because of the latter's reputation for leading an unconventional lifestyle, suggesting she does hope her audience might extend her some sympathy.

If Fort Da could be said to be "experimental" (FC2 is one of the most prominent publishers of experimental fiction), it would have to be in this tonal discontinuity--how far can the reader extend his/her sympathy to such a character presenting herself in such a narrative voice relating a story about what today approaches being as taboo a subject as we have? While the "report" form is interesting enough, it is finally just another variation on the epistolary or diary forms first explored in novels like Pamela or Robinson Crusoe as the immediate context and justification for first-person narrative. The narrative itself is essentially linear, and though the narrator's language occasionally makes it necessary for the reader to check his/her bearings, it unfolds interrupted only by the by now rather familiar use of footnotes (although given the text's formal status as scientific "report," the footnotes don't seem out of place).

If RR, like Humbert Humbert, believes her desire for Aslan, like Humbert's for his "nymphet," is a genuine expression of love, she seems less comfortable than HH with this form of love. Although both Fort Da and Lolita could both be said to be comic novels, the comedy of Lolita is darker,arising from the audacity of HH's behavior. The humor of Fort Da arises from RR's own confusions and limited self-knowledge. This makes Fort Da a consistently compelling read--to call it entertaining would seem impertinent--but whether it has something to "say" about, for example, the nature of female desire vs male desire, or about the origins of sexual behavior in psychological trauma (RR herself appears to believe she may be reacting to the early death of her brother) is perhaps for the reader to determine, depending on whether one considers it important that a novel treading on sensitive ground should redeem itself by making a "serious" point about the subject. In my opinion, the greatness of Lolita consists, in part, in its refusal to countenance communicating such a point. By raising "issues" related to pedophilia, Fort Da suggests it wants to address those issues and thus doesn't really show quite the aesthetic courage we find in Nabokov's novel.


Elisabeth Sheffield's novels feature women who are "difficult" "unruly," at times resolutely unpleasant--at least to readers who expect a fictional protagonist (especially if it is a woman) to be at heart "likable." They are otherwise dynamic characters who just don't observe the rules of propriety or decorum. Stella, one of the protagonists of Sheffield's first novel, Gone (2003), is a disaffected and dissolute adjunct community college English instructor who goes on a fruitless quest, accompanied by her ex-student lover, to track down what she believes is her inheritance, a valuable Winslow Homer painting. Along the way we read from letters written by Stella's deceased aunt, Juju, who in her own, different way, is as incorrigible as Stella. The protagonist of Fort Da (2009), a 38 year-old neurologist, relates (in a dissociated and displaced way) an account of her reverse-Lolita obsession with an 11 year-old boy. One of the dual protagonists of 2014's Helen Keller Really Lived (the other protagonist is a ghost) is a quasi-grifter (she dispenses "healing") who ultimately becomes involved in a theft of embryos from a fertility clinic.

It is likely that these portrayals against the grain of conventional assumptions about appropriately feminine behavior help account for the dearth of critical attention given to Sheffield's work in the mainstream literary press (or even what was once called the blogosphere), although the adventurous formal structures of the novels also no doubt bother less adventurous readers and critics as well: it would seem that difficult women require more unorthodox, more ostensibly difficult methods of aesthetic representation to adequately render their experiences. If in Fort Da the main character offers her version of events through a misleading, pseudo-scientific "report" and much of Helen Keller Really Lived comes to us as a ghost's communications to the protagonist (his ex-wife) through her computer, in Sheffield's 2021 novel, Ire Land (a Faery Tale), the narrative consists of a sequence of emails written by the protagonist, Sandra Dorn--although they actually come packaged as an edited and annotated manuscript sent to the now deceased Sandra's daughter.

The status of the text has--or should have--an immediate effect on our perception of the narrative it relates, making it, of course, an inherently unreliable source of truth or accuracy, especially since the story that emerges from Sandra Dorn's email chronicles (sent as responses to the unknown recipient "madmaeve17") involves the intercession of Gaelic faeries and Sandra's transformation into a hare. That story is essentially a picaresque recital of Sandra's fortunes after losing her home in Denver, where she is a professor of gender studies whose disorderly behavior has left her an older woman without friends or defenders among her colleagues, a wretched outcast. She first finds refuge with a younger sister, and when that ends up badly, she lives for a time with a brother and his girlfriend, but that too comes a cropper. Finally she is granted a reprieve of sorts with an offer of a temporary teaching position in Belfast (where she had lived previously in a relationship that ended badly), and the novel concludes--after a bizarre interlude in the classroom--with the intimation that Sandra has been taken away by the faeries ("[we can] fix ye up and kit you out" the mysterious editor--or some other shadowy figure usurping his role--declares in one of the editorial insertions).

While it is somewhat hard to know how seriously to take all of the particulars of Sandra Dorn's account (or at least the version we are presented), finally the plot details are less pivotal for an appreciation of the novel than our response to Sandra Dorn and her recital of her life experiences. It would be very easy to recoil from her, given some of the bad behavior to which she confesses (abandoning her first-born son) or we witness her perform (hurling invective at a child), but it's also hard to not admire the unapologetic candor of her admissions, her acceptance (not without an implicit sneer) of her dismal circumstances after a lifetime spent insisting on personal autonomy and disregarding convention. If Sandra Dorn were the male protagonist (Sandy Dorn, say) of a male-authored novel, he would surely be considered a "rogue," defiant of norms but to a degree laudable for that. Perhaps such a roguish personality is still regarded as objectionable in a female character, but at this stage in her life, while it might be salubrious for Sandra to be with the faeries in their mounds, that Sheffield affirms as her protagonist such a morally unkempt character as Sandra Dorn in the first place is arguably the novel's most praiseworthy achievement.

Sheffield would be high on my list of unjustly overlooked writers in current American fiction, but fortunately she is still able to attract publishers to her work. Ire Land would certainly be a good place to start with that work for the uninitiated, but really all of her books are equally worthwhile.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)