Boysgirls by Katie Farris, or the Power of Allegorical Fiction through Theory and Poetry

by Chris Tanasescu

Katie Farris heralds the dawn of a “new literature” with both fierce audacity and untender irony. In her first book – from Marick Press – where fiction has the taste of jaded post-history story telling and the sound of poetry in the making, she first threatens the reader with a capital (or even deadly) shared experience – “But between these covers you will participate, whether you desire it or not. You might think about this before you turn the page. You might turn the page” – to consent then, no later than just a couple of pages through, to the reader’s royal supremacy, on a tone of facetious submissiveness: “We will not attempt to throw you down from your throne. We are all aware (shh! shh!) that we are here to please. Enjoy our ghastly pirhouettes, then, our silhouettes, afterwards our plucky monologues et cetera. We are here for the purpose of being beautiful. Please do not attempt to use us otherwise.” Such dualism operates as a tantalizing ambiguity which although every now and then threatens to tear apart the texture of composition, actually constitutes a living paradox, a schizoid pythoness’ message/story, and a sort of (con)textual hermaphrodite – the boygirl, the hybridized genre and post-gender hybrid, the wordy body of political critique and artistic guilt.

The close vicinity of words like “purpose,” and “beautiful,” and “use” is characteristic of such a vision whereby aesthetics and utilitarianism are both contrasted and entwined without any of them getting to be favored over the other, or indelibly dismissed either. In a production-driven world in which profit is the order of the day and where art has become an industry and sometimes even a means of manipulation, a writer like Farris chooses to “manufacture” intimations out of clichés or allusions that feign conformity to thus pass over camouflaged subversion and jocose sarcasm. “Never fear, there are no Romantic fools here, just bread and circus bread and circus bread and circus.” Or, in a passage that echoes Borges and Foucaultian references (the latter ones being actually disseminated in various places throughout the book) among others, the young writer conjoins the rhetorical device of mise en abyme, which she deconstructs by also taking the term literally, with the theme of artist/character’s representativeness of the community, and again, with mass production. “People are forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face. […] Her face is a map more beautiful than the most exalted cartographer’s. In her face, it’s so clear that the city provides, provides, provides.”

Katie Farris’s ruthlessness (“Her Mother’s Mother Was a Machete” reads a title) does not spare iconic literary topoi either, since their contemporary entanglement with political and mercenary expediency cannot but trigger the same painful yet inevitable ironies. In phrases that uncover both culture’s and people’s commodification, Whitman is once again parted with, while Aristophanes’ and Ovid’s augural symphonies are translated into “the politics of metamorphosis:” “On days when she feels hungry, when there is no one around to reflect, she takes comfort in this fact: the number zero was invented to act as a placeholder in calculations, indicating the degree of loss or gain. And so I am not only empty: the girl thinks—I also contain multitudes.”

One of the first parallels that comes to mind when reading these strange, visceral, both oneiric and palpable “fairy tales” is of course Angela Carter (with a touch of Bulgakov here and there, and even Kharms), only that unlike the English classic, Farris swerves not only from the standard tone and imagery and plot of traditional fairytales, but from the genre itself, and not only hunts the reader’s expectations down in order to deconstruct the story and story-telling, but blows up the very notion of literature and even writing through “fake” allegories that flow into theory and poetry, a combination I see as the writer’s trademark and an accomplishment remarkably above those of quite a number of other American and international young writers who share similar goals. It is for the future to tell us whether these original approaches can “produce” a prolific and consistent work capable of absorbing and covering wider areas. Until then, one cannot but be hypnotized by her curt and jerky statements that coagulate the rhythms of good poetry in prose, verge on theoretical speculation or paradox or allusion, hover over ampler musical phrases, and then fritter and dither back into the obsessive ticking of wordplay and the bursts of liberated pure sound. “The maker kept making her, long after she was finished. The girl had an overcooked quality, singed brittle round the edges. Separate things—toes and fingers, eyes, lips—had run all together. Stumps for arms. Stumps for feet. Mute for mouth. Cyclops” or “The scientists come from everywhere to make a study of the girl. … She loves to hear them say her name, loves the circular sound of Cy-clops, psyclops eyeclops, like a horse galloping over their tongues.”

A book that indeed convinces the reader that “the girl is no lamb either” and announces a unique talent with a fearless and original approach that will surely know how to keep metamorphosizing from “inventing invented things,” as one of the characters shrewdly puts it, to the “invention of love” which, as the author strongly states even beyond the book’s pervasive sarcasm, will give us a (poetical) body to eat from and live.

Boysgirls by Katie Farris, or the Power of Allegorical Fiction through Theory and Poetry

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