AUGUST 4, 2014
“I DON’T HATE IT!” chants Quentin Compson at the end of William Faulkner’s famous novel of the South, Absalom, Absalom! “I don’t! I don’t!” Quentin’s vexed insistence that he doesn’t hate his Southern home — its particularly troubled legacy of slavery, class, and cruelty — has for many years been one seemingly immovable marker of a unique Southern literary identity. So much is this the case that, as literary scholar Martyn Bone has noted, “Place, Sense of” was awarded its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture in 1989. Hate it or not, the South, we have believed, is different.
But this may be changing. Globalization and modernization have turned the region into a less exceptional space than it used to be. Even skimming the titles of recent discussions about Southern literature — Bone’s The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction (2005), Scott Romine’s “Where Is Southern Literature? The Practice of Place in a Postsouthern Age” (2002), Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (2003) — give us a sense that the South’s sense of place is harder to find now, and more difficult for readers to recognize. The Old South has met a global economy, and, as McPherson claims, this meeting “might easily blunt the registers of difference that once defined the region.” The question of what Southern literature will be — or, even, whether it will be — once that environment becomes homogenized is changing the way we read literature we might once have understood as “Southern.”
Mary Miller’s debut collection Big World, published by small press Short Flight/Long Drive in 2009, offers a compelling case study. Miller’s stories of young white women who live in gentrified Southern suburbs often feel as if they could take place anywhere. The characters patronize fast food restaurants, read tabloid magazines, and watch Hollywood movies. They get drunk in karaoke bars, sober up at Mexican restaurants, and follow the Atkins diet. In some stories, Miller gives no place names at all. Others, she locates in Shelbyville or Gatlinburg, Nashville or Pigeon Forge (all in Tennessee; Miller herself is from Mississippi), but those places are populated by “tire stores and ethnic groceries and gas stations” that localize them exactly nowhere.
Despite Miller’s generic settings, though, and despite the deracinated (or perhaps deregionalized) culture her characters consume (Papa John’s pizza, Maxim magazine, the film Requiem for a Dream, and the cable channel Hallmark are a few of the references to popular culture scattered throughout the text), Big World is unmistakably Southern, a collection of stories about white women for whom the South is not “mere geography but deterministic geography,” as Romine has put it — a region whose distinctive brand of social and economic relations continues to be real.
In “Cedars of Lebanon,” the first story of the collection, the unnamed female protagonist lives in Shelbyville, “a terrible town,” the narrator says, “full of churchgoing people.” Better for her is the drive-in movie theater that plays popular old-school movies like Caddyshack and Final Destination 3 and the routine she has developed with her boyfriend at Papa John’s: “[T]hey always ordered the same kind: wheat crust with sausage, bacon, and pepperoni. She liked how they had things that were theirs.” As with the other stories of Big World, Miller offers little in the way of plot. The girl’s boyfriend wants her to help him clean out a camper so they can vacation in a nearby state park; the girl is appalled by the camper’s filth — it used to belong to a drug addict — and she isn’t sure she wants to please him anyway: “She thought of going to [the park] with him and having sex on that mattress, the trashy little camper rocking. Then she thought of the piece of her cervix the doctor had removed, how he had been at work that day and couldn’t go with her.” That memory, in turn, reminds her of another: the miscarriage she suffered while living with an ex-partner. He, too, had not wanted to accompany her to the emergency room, preferring instead to watch a football game. She had left that partner, she recalls, just as she would eventually leave this one.
“Cedars of Lebanon” is, in many ways, characteristic of the collection as a whole. Its protagonist, a young white woman, is mired in an oppressive relationship and expected to perform traditionally female domestic roles — cooking, cleaning — that do not interest her. She feels anxiety about her reproductive system, lacks a viable professional career (no vocation is mentioned, but the first sentence — “They had just been to IHOP, where they’d sat in the middle of the room at a two-top a couple of inches from a four-top” — shows her thinking like a waitress), and has no autonomous female role models. She plans to leave her partner, but she has not left him yet; this, too, appears representative of the collection. The women in Miller’s stories appear uniformly unable to emancipate themselves from — or even, in most cases, to imagine alternatives to — the male-dominated social order in which they find themselves. As a result, they offer themselves as objects of sexual attraction in order to survive in the world.
Nothing about these gender dynamics are exclusively Southern. And yet the Southernness in Miller’s stories does seem tied to the stories’ portraits of gender. Melanie Benson Taylor, in Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature (2008), argues that long after slavery white Southerners continued to quantify the worth of human beings, fetishizing numerical value and privileging mathematical equations. “The twentieth century South,” Taylor writes, was “increasingly attached to slavery’s prescriptive calculations of worth, value, certainty, and hierarchy.” In Miller’s “Fast Trains,” the narrator says of her boyfriend:
In his head, if not on paper, there was a column with my name on it and how much I had cost him to date. There was the question of my worth — a complex equation involving my weight and breast size and hair length along with my willingness to engage in oral sex and my domestic abilities, of which I had none.
The woman is spending the weekend with her boyfriend in Pigeon Forge, a Southern tourist town cluttered with shops selling knives, fudge, and Confederate flag T-shirts. She avoids these regional forms of consumer kitsch, however, favoring national varieties: generic magazines, whiskey, and television. On the History Channel, she observes a group of women hunting Big Foot: “They wore oversized sweatshirts and hats; they were the kind of women who had no use for men. I had never had any contact with this kind.” Later, she compares these “women who didn’t need men” to UFOs, as though they were improbable, fantastical entities, utterly alien to her own experience. When she finally ventures out of the hotel room, her boyfriend offers to take her shopping. She declines, not wanting to tip his calculations of her value.
This “question of my worth” haunts many, if not all, of the female characters in Big World. Their abilities to stay thin, assure domestic order, and provide sexual pleasure are tracked and precisely tabulated, a kind of running tab the women have internalized and which is monitored by the men — old Southern dynamics persevering despite the South’s rapidly homogenizing culture. In “Aunt Jemima’s Old-Fashioned Pancakes,” the formerly unpopular teenage narrator falls in with a wealthier girl named Kitty, who is pretty and thin. “Everyone wants to fuck her,” the narrator observes. “Everyone wanting to fuck you is not as good as it sounds.” Still, Kitty decides, it does have its advantages. When a boy insults one of her other friends, she finds that she can stand up to him without losing her social privilege: “I can say whatever I want because I’m very thin. [This thought] pops into my head like a life raft.” If the girls recognize their thinness to be a form of social capital, the story’s most prominent male character, Kitty’s boyfriend Jet, plays the role of fledgling capitalist, “explain[ing] the law of supply and demand” and talking to the girls “like we’re not even there, like he’s working stuff out in his head.” At the end of the story at the narrator’s father’s trailer in the countryside, the teenagers drink together and look out at the stars. “I wish there was a Taco Bell like right there,” Kitty says, a world in which global capitalism trumps Southern culture becoming flickeringly visible.
Miller’s stories focus on women who refuse to give hackneyed performances of the Southern femininity that’s expected of them. In “Leak,” the young unnamed protagonist’s mother has recently died and her father appears dazed by grief. He buys her a simple cookbook and suggests she learn how to prepare meals for the household. She reluctantly complies. Her aunt, a veritable avatar of traditional Southern femininity, takes it upon herself to teach the girl how to behave. She bakes her a casserole and shows her how to serve it. She brings her to a department store where they try on bras together. She takes her to lunch at the sophisticated French restaurant where all the older women in hats eat. (The girl prefers the chain Ruby Tuesday.)
Ultimately, the girl resists her aunt’s advances, repudiating her image of white Southern femininity. “[My father] was the manager at a bank, and his job, he liked to tell me, was to make people want to do theirs,” the girl muses toward the end of the story. “He made me want to do a shitty job.” The girl understands her aunt’s version of womanhood to be a kind of job, contingent upon and subservient to male need and desire, and wants no part of it. Yet she also recognizes that refusing to do such a job has its risks. By the end of the story, the leak in the ceiling still not fixed, the family hopes “the ceiling [will] hold.”
Miller shows the psychic penalties for women who opt out of Southern femininity, even in the 21st century. In “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” the narrator stares at a crumb of oatmeal on her desk “for days. I considered removing it […] but I couldn’t, so then just considered how lonely it looked, all alone, a crumb of fucking oatmeal, and I thought I would lose my mind.” In “Aunt Jemima’s Old-Fashioned Pancakes,” the protagonist imagines her gun-toting father mistaking her for an intruder: “I’d stand there calmly and say don’t shoot after pausing a few beats too long” — a chilling description of suicide by parricide. In “Leak,” the narrator feels “like tossing myself down the stairs and letting my father clean up the mess,” the image of self-harm darkly ironic in a story about the unwanted pressures to perform domestic tasks.
And while Miller’s women have relationships, these relationships operate outside the realms of romance, decimating the Southern narrative that love will be fulfilling or redemptive. Her women sleep with their managers, tell strangers about their periods, and labor at menial jobs. They “finger the small prickly spot[s]” they’ve “plucked bald” on their heads, drink too much, and have sex with bartenders in storerooms. The men, too, behave unromantically and, often, appallingly. They command their girlfriends to “suck my dick,” call them obscene names for not drinking enough, and show them pornography in motel rooms. In the post-Southern society of Miller’s stories, the abandonment of Southern romance coupled with the perpetuation of Southern patriarchy results in coldly transactional exchanges between men and women, often involving money for sex.
Tawdry interactions are the norm in the stories of Big World. In “Temp,” the young female narrator visits a dance club “wearing ankle boots and a skirt that hits mid-thigh. [She] could pass for a hooker.” At the door, she “smile[s] and cock[s] her head like a dog” in exchange for a 20-dollar bill. In “Cedars of Lebanon,” the protagonist thinks about how she will “get on her knees and suck [her boyfriend] off and maybe he’d leave her a few dollars, like he did sometimes so she could take herself out to lunch.” In “Pearl,” the main character accompanies her co-worker to a casino, where he plies her with gambling cash, pays for their expensive dinner, and rents a hotel room; they only fail to have sex because he decides not to go through with it. In “Aunt Jemima’s Old-Fashioned Pancakes,” the high school narrator comments wonderingly about an ex-boyfriend, “I never even had to fuck him.” Unable or unwilling to conform to the dictates of traditional Southern gender roles, Miller’s women perceive sex to be the most viable form of social currency to which they have access, and they behave accordingly.
Notably, all of the female protagonists in Big World are childless, and references to miscarriages, infertility, and menstruation are common throughout the collection. For Miller, this is another way to explore how Southern women are valued by their worlds. Critics have noted how the bodies of childless white Southern women in the early 20th century were considered, as Taylor writes, to have “not produced anything of social value” and thus were “of no discernible worth.” Miller’s stories suggest that some of these calculations have endured in the post-Southern age, as well. The story “Even the Interstate is Pretty” begins this way: “My sister is inside watching a movie and bleeding. I don’t bleed anymore. […] My mother refers to the whole situation as my apparatus. […] [S]he’ll put her hand on my arm and say, just because you don’t have your apparatus doesn’t mean you’re not a woman.” However, one senses the mother’s statement to be insincere. Miller’s women seem to recognize that reproduction confers lasting value for women, even in the post-South. They may be adept at cashing in on their sexual appeal, but that currency is transient, ephemeral. Only motherhood is bankable. When they are confronted with other people’s children, Miller’s women tend to treat them with indifference or scorn. In “Full,” the narrator’s cousin’s infants “look like all babies: bigheaded and big-eyed and pale, nothing special.” In “Temp,” the protagonist’s co-worker brings in a child who resembles “a pink shrimp of unknown sex.” The women seem to recognize their dependency on reproduction and resent the children for it.
Miller’s women also often have no mothers, and this, too, explains some of the anxiety surrounding reproduction. In certain stories, the protagonists’ mothers have died. In others, their mothers are absent or literally missing. “Can adults be missing?” the ex-husband asks in “Big World.” “Anyone can be missing if there’s someone to miss them,” the narrator replies. Miller’s women do miss their missing mothers. Even more so, however, they miss positive female role models, women who are less responsive to male needs and desires than the traditional Southern archetypes. Invariably, they have none.
The women in Miller’s stories are trapped in tiny worlds — the title of her collection is obviously ironic. And while those worlds are populated by cultural artifacts, corporate chains, and consumer products that are familiar to most Americans, the gender relations with which they contend appear to be residually Southern. The “disturbing calculations” they feel compelled to make (and which are made for them), the looming specter of white Southern femininity, and the social, psychic, and economic penalties they pay for refusing to conform to regionally specific gender roles reveal the resilience of a Southern order. The South of Big World is far from the South that Quentin Compson tried so hard not to hate. But in the post-Southern stories of Mary Miller, one can see how the social and economic peculiarities, and the dark feelings they generate, continue to hang on.