ANY READER FAMILIAR with surrealist fiction knows that the experience involves systematic paradigm shifts, to the point where reality doesn’t make sense anymore. Common reference points are consistently stripped away and replaced by implausibilities, superimposed fantasies, and overlapping realities. Poet Sabrina Orah Mark’s first book of fiction, Wild Milk, isn’t just a collection of surrealist stories with a contemporary twist. It’s an accumulation of highly astute observations on how people interact not only with relatives, officials, and pets, but also with the inadequacy of the language culture provides to lead lives as social beings.
In Mark’s eponymous story, the reader is introduced to a mother dropping off her child at day care. While this gesture at first feels familiar, it quickly becomes apparent that something is off about this setting, as Miss Birdy, the teacher, tells the narrator,
[Y]our child is a mana mana. […] What I mean to say is that your child is a real man. […] I mean, a ma. […] I mean, a no one. Your child […] is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either. […] What I mean to say, most of all, […] is that I love not being dead.
What’s immediately striking here is not just that a day-care teacher tells a mother her son is “a no one,” it’s also that Mark introduces very early in her collection the notion that language is insufficient to characterize humans. Further in the story, the narrator encounters another strange character: “I pass a mother covered in daughters. I count five. […] ‘No daughters?’ she asks. ‘No,’ I say. […] ‘By the time they arrived, […] the daughters had turned. […] Not exactly rotten but gigantic. […] And mealy. I sent the whole bin back.’”
In this opening story, the reader is given these two integral, foundational elements to hang on to: language in Mark’s world doesn’t quite work, and humans (or characters) are as disposable as rotten fruit. But Mark quickly strips these reference points away. After “Wild Milk” ends, the reader is thrown into the quasi-religious space of “Tweet,” in which humans blindly follow and unfollow a person called the Rabbi. The narrator says, “God, it is lovely. It is a lovely, lovely tag. That we should all one day be tagged by a tag as lovely as this tag.” Of course, the reader has no idea what the purpose of the tag is and doesn’t know the identities of these people, or the Rabbi. Language struggles to characterize personality. And Mark repeatedly uses the words “follow” and “unfollow,” which have more elastic meaning than they did decades ago: “A lot of my friends are following the Rabbi so I start following the Rabbi too. […] I unfollow the Rabbi. I unfollow everything. […] Who will feed us? Who will keep us warm? How am I supposed to know where to go?”
Surrealism does this: it throws the reader into a situation that feels uncanny and, through language, encourages associations between what’s on the page and what the reader has personally experienced, though it never truly allows full comprehension of the story. The best a reader can do is interpret. “Tweet” captures the feeling of hopelessness people experience when they’ve reached an impasse, or when what they’ve held dear suddenly disappears, but it also addresses sheep culture. Who deserves to be followed? And why do we all perform the same gesture once that value has been assigned? Through this subtle but powerful exploration of social media culture, Mark gives us an environment ruled by a language determined by the platform it’s meant to inhabit.
Mark asks us to consider what happens to a civilization in which language isn’t intended for human use, where words function as kinetic forces with their own consciousness. To explore these notions, the author places her characters in situations where they’re surrounded by their relatives, those with whom developed language isn’t always necessary and intuition can go a long way. In “My Brother Gary Made a Movie & This is What Happened,” the narrator says, in reference to her brother,
Gary had trouble with words. It was his sorest spot. Sometimes he was so tragically far off I wanted to gather him up in my arms, climb a tree, and leave him in the largest nest I could find. He’d mean to say “human” and it would come out “cantaloupe.” He’d mean to say “dad” and it would come out “sock.” Even my name he malapropped. He called me Mouse.
Though the narrator can understand what her brother is trying to say, the reader wonders whose language he is using. If he’s unable to express himself in his own words, what word bank is he trapped within? It becomes increasingly clear that the characters Mark creates aren’t prisoners of her language — they’re literature’s enslaved subjects.
In “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” the author demonstrates this idea quite masterfully. The narrator encounters a bully named Beadlebaum with a gap between his front teeth that reminds her of Poems, a metaphorical character in the story. The narrator’s mother calls and asks her to describe the gap, and the narrator says: “Like an empty Bible. […] Like if the Bible was a room you could walk inside and there was nothing. No Genesis, no Exodus, no Numbers, no god. No light, no darkness.”
Mark sets up a space in which the foundation of all literature, the Bible, loses its footing. Enslaved by the language of their form, characters can speak with assurance only of the nothingness that results from this loss. Disrupted, they are at a linguistic impasse, experiencing literature only through the faint echoes of the disembodied words it has left behind. A spin on Plato’s allegory of the cave, perhaps, except that instead of light and shadow there are only words stripped of their context in the rhetorical darkness.
In another story, “For the Safety of Our Country,” Mark shows us what happens when the lights suddenly come on in this empty room. The narrator manages a flock of new presidents, officials who will determine the rules and order of things. However, they demonstrate their utter uselessness in the face of crisis: “The Presidents turn their pockets and out spill crushed flowers they’ve picked for no one. The Presidents’ heads are bent, and they are making little gray sounds. Sometimes I look at the Presidents and dream of another life.”
After this poetic reverie, the presidents struggle to understand what “Aleppo” is. At this point in the collection, Mark wants the reader to consider whether the world we live in is so far away from reality because of its governance. Words don’t make sense, metaphors are jumbled, public discourse is snuffed, nature is murdered, children are vetted before birth — language has been co-opted by the unreality of the political climate. Here, the collection evolves into an exploration of how human pathos is mediated by language and political influence.
While Wild Milk isn’t an overtly political book, it forces characters to confront the powers governing their environment so they can regain control of their language. The political message here is that no matter the scope of the struggle, the characters ultimately lose — always. For instance, in “The Very Nervous Family,” a family is so petrified by the outside world that they cannot leave the house without feeling crippled by fear rooted in a linguistic paradox. In “The Roster,” a teacher takes on a new classroom and slowly realizes that his students don’t need him. As a result, rejected teachers become obsolete ornaments in society.
Mark’s language is filled with allusions to the physical world, but the reader may struggle to follow her train of thought, especially when the words on the page meander outside the author’s control. The text shines when it hangs on to something tangible but gets lost in the fog of connotation when a linguistically amorphous story line dominates. As a poet (The Babies , Tsim Tsum ), Mark understands how far words can go to produce meaning, and it’s exciting to see this poetic kineticism applied to the short story form.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.