THE TERRAIN of contemporary experimental fiction has been largely claimed by male writers. This is nothing new. As Andreas Huyssen pointed out years ago, despite Gustave Flaubert’s assertion that Madame Bovary “c’est moi,” he spent most of his career carefully distinguishing his high modernist literary sensibilities from the popular tastes of the feminized masses. The contest between high and low, difficulty and ease, in fiction continues to travel along these gendered lines — particularly in conversations about American literature. Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus’s 2002 row over the value of experimental fiction and the fate of the novel in the pages of The New Yorker and Harper’s marked not only a new, meta-ethical turn in fiction after 9/11, but also a continuation of age-old male anxieties about the feminization (or “Oprah-fication”) of the reading public and what this meant for male novelists concerned about the size of their … impact. Later, Franzen tangled with a new foe, so-called chick lit author Jennifer Weiner, about a related topic: the perils of self-promotion for writers of literary fiction. This conflict, in turn, developed into a larger battle about the absence of women writers in the contemporary American canon — with Weiner and Franzen as its unlikely antipodes.
These periodic conflagrations may overwhelm the Twitterverse, but they don’t do much to move the literary conversation forward. Instead, they largely reproduce some of the most ossified assumptions about the differences between men and women and the kinds of writing they are capable of doing. Women write about (and read about) the body and personal experience, while male writers are invested in the heady realm of ideas; the difference of opinion only comes from how much value we assign to each. Perhaps most strikingly, these conflicts about gender, difficulty, and the novel — not to mention the binaries they uphold — mask the genealogy of experimental women writers whose radicalism rewrites the very history that these authors and critics continue to debate. The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yuknavitch’s challenging new novel, offers a worthy rejoinder to critics who elide the story of women in (American) experimental fiction.
Up until now, Yuknavitch has been known mostly for her gorgeous memoir, The Chronology of Water (2011), which used the writer’s lifelong romance with everything aqueous as a metaphor for her life as a woman (and artist) intent on making waves. Yuknavitch’s fragmentary “anti-memoir” relates a history filled in equal parts with violence and aesthetic discovery, sexual exploration and personal chaos. The Chronology of Water is striking for its emotional bareness, but also for its lapidary prose; each sentence is a beautiful gem, diamond-hard and precise. The Small Backs of Children, like her earlier novel, Dora: A Headcase (2012), shares many of the memoir’s preoccupations — from family upheaval and the inextricable relationship between violence and sexual desire to the urgency of putting women and girls at the center of their own stories. More importantly, Yuknavitch’s formal and linguistic playfulness, and her insistence that this experimentalism is distinctly gendered, places her in the vanguard of contemporary American writing.
Where The Chronology of Water was an anti-memoir due to its rejection of the idea of a unitary subject or voice, The Small Backs of Children is an anti-novel.
Yuknavitch’s new book weaves between the stories of a character known only as “The Girl” and another known as “The Writer.” Both the Girl and the Writer are marked by histories of trauma. The former is a survivor of war and the brutality that goes along with it, while the latter is the victim of what one character calls “the family … war zone.” Separated by an ocean, the two women are nonetheless joined by what Yuknavitch has elsewhere called their “body stories,” both of which are tales of extreme loss and subsequent redemption in art. For much of the novel, the Writer’s voice is absent from the text. She lies silently in a hospital bed while her loved ones speak for and about her. Yuknavitch gives each character visiting the Writer’s bedside a space to tell his or her own tale. It is this liberatory experimentation with voice that distinguishes The Small Backs of Children and places it squarely in the realm of the most accomplished experimental fiction.
The stories of the Writer, the Girl, and the friends and family who surround them emerge in short chapters that move fluidly between third and first person. Yuknavitch also departs from the conventional form of the novel by rendering dialogue in the form of a script for a play (in a section of the novel devoted to the Writer’s Playwright brother) and including snippets of poetry written by the Writer’s Poet friend in sections devoted to her story. Like the brilliant British magical realist Angela Carter, Yuknavitch also toys with genre by braiding together the language and logic of fairy tale with gritty historical realism.
The first chapter of The Small Backs of Children, labeled “The Girl,” is a tour de force of multi-voicedness, a parable that travels ably between fairy tale and historical time in a way that recalls Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. It begins with the words: “you must picture your image of Eastern Europe. In your mind’s eye. Whatever that image is. However it came to you. Winter. That white …” The reader is then asked to people this barren, winter landscape with a young girl and the widow who takes her in, “after the blast that has atomized her entire family in front of her eyes,” in an unnamed Eastern European territory perpetually at war. Wandering from the widow’s home, the girl (or “The Girl”) comes upon a wolf caught in a trap, his blood stark against the bright white snow. Witnessing the wolf’s grisly escape from the trap forms the bedrock of the girl’s sexuality and her sense of herself as “wounded and animal, lurching against white.” This moment, only one of many scenes of terrible beauty in the novel, suggests that, while The Small Backs of Children may trade in fairy tale time and imagery, it is anything but a traditional “once upon a time” tale. Yuknavitch’s masterful narrative is, among other things, a radical retelling of a variety of our most prized bedtime stories, most notably “Little Red Riding Hood,” the pedophilic master narrative that says that little girls are there to be, first, preyed upon, and, then, saved. Instead, the Girl in The Small Backs of Children learns from the wolf how to save herself. Never named, obliterated by early trauma, she nonetheless finds a breadcrumb-strewn path toward home by becoming an artist. Here, art, like the wolf’s blood, is “this obscene and beautiful making against the expanse of white.”
This chapter sets the stage for the collision between the lives of the Writer and the Girl. After seeing a photograph of the Girl taken at the very moment her house and life were detonated, the Writer, reminded of her own lost child and lost childhood, experiences a deep, catatonic depression from which she can’t be roused. Her husband, brother, and friends, all artists themselves, embark on a wild journey to find the girl from the photograph in order to save the writer from herself. Yuknavitch uses this frame story to explore topics as diverse as the role of photography in representing violence, female sexuality and sadomasochism, rape, maternity, grief, loss, and the redemptive role of art. These heady topics aside, the Girl — and her body — remain at the center of the story. Throughout The Small Backs of Children, Yuknavitch insists on the importance of the Girl’s body as an analogue for the centrality of the body and the scars it carries as the central record of our lives. This preoccupation with the body is born out not only in her representation of the Girl, but also in her depiction of all the characters in the novel. The Writer, like the Girl, is a survivor of rape and bodily abjection. Her best friend, the Poet, is a sexual savant, who beds every woman she meets. Her husband is a muscle-bound filmmaker. Her ex-husband is an artist who paints with his own blood. Moreover, the novel is preoccupied with the body as the key to exploring larger, metatextual issues. Throughout The Small Backs of Children, Yuknavitch questions how to write the body onto paper; can piss and shit and blood and sexual secretions function as analogues for ink on the page?
The idea that women writers would be drawn to rendering the body in language has a long history. The French thinker Hélène Cixous coined the term “écriture féminine” in 1975 in order to grapple with the idea that women writers had a different, and more embodied, relationship to representation than did male writers. For understandable reasons, this celebration of women’s embodied difference has never really caught on in the U.S., reeking, as it sometimes does, of a certain kind of romantic, continental essentialism that marginalizes women even as it places them on a pedestal. If The Small Backs of Children can be said to possess a flaw, it is this one: it sometimes seems too in love with the idea of the capital “w” woman, treating its characters as representatives of some eternal, feminine body-bound essence. This lack of specificity is particularly evident in the secondary female characters, like the two prostitutes with whom the Poet has a night of wild sex. Although Yuknavitch gives erotic life to the Poet’s sexual escapades, she deprives the prostitutes of the same juicy particularity; they are merely metaphors for Eastern European and African otherness, the lovemaking between the Poet and a Polish prostitute described, awkwardly, as a kind of “Warsaw uprising.”
Apart from these occasional moments of forced metaphor-making, Yuknavitch’s writing in The Small Backs of Children is ever lovely and precise. Its bold imagery and fragmentary style recall The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, even as its meditations on photography and war, not to mention Yuknavitch’s aphoristic style, can’t help but invoke Susan Sontag. It is these ghosts that make The Small Backs of Children such an important book. From Duras and Sontag, to Gertrude Stein and Yuknavitch’s former mentor Kathy Acker, the spectral presence of radical women artists haunts the novel.
Yuknavitch’s investment in exploring the relationship between gender and creativity is evident everywhere in the novel. Indeed, she opens with an invocation of the muse, describing this figure in an epigraph as “a woman, or a powerful force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration and agency for a creative artist” and “an imagined feminine.” She does not rest there, however, moving quickly from the muse to an image of the feminine calculated to challenge the conventional idea of the muse and its casual invocation by male artists. Experimental women writers and thinkers seem like the real muses of The Small Backs of Children. They ask us not only to rethink the body of the woman and its place in literature, but also the body of the novel and how women writers might lead the way in remaking it. Yuknavitch’s novel, like the work of the radical artists who inspire her, is difficult in the truest and best sense of the word. While male writers, such as Franzen and Marcus, remain busy debating the value and future of experimental fiction, Yuknavitch and her female peers have written their way into its canon.
Jennifer Glaser is a writer and teacher living in Cincinnati. Her book Borrowed Voices: Writing and Racial Ventriloquism in the Jewish American Imagination is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in 2016.