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Life Arts    H3'ed 1/13/09

Write What You Know

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 A Review of Stephanie Dickinson’s Half Girl

For many novelists, the trick is to learn how to turn the personal into the fictive. The need is to transform the autobiographical and perhaps bathetic into a story that is more universal and transformative in nature. It means that a writer must not only have a particular way with the techniques of fiction writing but also must have a reason for telling the story in this other way. I think some would just try to be coy and push the reason into some dustbin of some excuse such as, it was just easier to do it that way. But I do believe that given the nature of living with a novel and the at the same time living one’s life too, there are things going on in the world and in one’s own head about the world that make this fictional re-telling of the story also about that, about the political, cultural, intellectual concerns of the time in which the writer lives.

What mostly intrigues me about Stephanie Dickinson’s novel is not trying to see who she is referring to as they existed in her “real” life but what this experience and the writing of it has done to the way the world changes by reading her story. Writers turning their own life stories into fiction is not something new. The disguises are not the subject matter. There is a skeleton to the story and from that skeleton the writer has chosen to tell us certain things about the ways this life, her character Angelique’s life was changed by what she experienced.

Here is what the story is about: A young woman from Iowa meets up with a handsome strange young man from North Carolina as he is traveling through her town. Easton later invites her to a party in North Carolina and she runs away from home, hitch hikes to his town, to go with him to the party. She moves in with him and his ne’er do well family and meets his friend, Charlie, who is wealthy and sexually competitive with Easton. There is much sexual trading off and then in the midst of a Thanksgiving feast from hell, Charlie shoots our heroine, Angelique, in the face and shoulder. She goes through months of hell and returns from a vegetative state (but not that vegetative as she continues to narrate the further atrocities she endures as a patient) until she is finally released from the hospital with a one-way ticket home. In its bare bones recounting, it is a very simple story. What Dickinson has done in the dressing up of this kind of typical journey story is to create the naif, Angelique, to whom all is acceptable, all is allowed because of her love and devotion to Easton. But once her life has forever been altered by the very fight to keep it, without ever uttering to herself or anyone else her new revelations, the new Angelique begins to appear on the page.

Dickinson’s novel has now entered into my imaginative landscape to the point that it is keeping me awake, or more precisely, waking me up at night to think about the very idea of what the transformation of a character means. This is a key element in any story. How has the protagonist changed due to the experiences he or she has experienced in the course of the resolution of the conflict the story relates? In some modern works of literature, not much of a transformation was deemed necessary.  Their very modernity ensured that characters like Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye or even John Updike’s Rabbit character or Roth’s Portnoy all were more invested with burgeoning inner lives that took over the life of the story. However, Dickinson has used a different type of transformative quality in telling Angelique’s story: It is achieved by creating a character who has no powers of reflection. This achievement is both startling and difficult to understand.

How is it, we ask in our post-psychological age when we understand all action through the lens of the therapist’s questions and responses, that a character can achieve a real elevation, a new being and not be aware of it or how it occurred? How is it that a character can become someone else, be transformed, even tell of her transformation and not know or reflect on how that transformation occurred?

In this age of enlightened self-awareness, when all of our efforts seem to be constantly in service to that inner journey and to its eventual enlightenment, how can anyone dare to ask her protagonist to even literally go on a journey, defy death and return home a totally transformed soul and not have undergone the kind of emotional and psychological transformation that this age of Oprah demands of most of us?

In part this is one of the most thrilling aspects of Dickinson’s novel. It is not a defect or something that got forgotten in the telling of this particular story, it is a challenge to her readers. If one of the real aims of art is to make us uncomfortable in our own beings and to ask us to question what it is we deem essential to life and why, then Dickinson has certainly allowed that questioning to begin. What we come away with is how technically proficient Dickinson is so that by the end of her story she is able to inhabit the other cardinal rule of fiction: show don’t tell what these changes are in her character.

This creates such a surprise in the reader. All of a sudden what she has been through takes on much larger and significant meanings. As she understands the differences between the haves and the have nots, the reader does too.

It is through the simplest of descriptions that Angelique’s new observations hit as hard as they do. Angelique who is accustomed to the squalor of her farm life and the destitution all around her all of a sudden sees by means of the the difference between a bus station and an airport where this experience has left her. She is not deluded or seduced by the differences; she simply observes them. Had we not already read the long descriptive passages of the squalor that Angelique sings of without creating rhapsodies of them, then the observations she has at the airport would not carry the same weight.

    The airport terminal wasn’t even a distant cousin to a bus depot. I didn’t
    smell ripe bananas and exhaust and vending machine coffee. I didn’t hear
    screaming babies or see mothers changing diapers between pails of
    mop water. People dressed like they’d just bathed and were going out to
    dinner, not like they’d slept in their clothes and figured they’d sleep in them

While this insight may not startle as much out of context, I urge you to get your hands on a copy of this book. The richness of the language and the attention to the very condition of being poor, female and uneducated has never boon so thoroughly described. However, what is more important is that out of this experience, Angelique finds herself and in none of the ways one could have predicted. In so many important and insightful ways, Half Girl opens a reader to the ways in which life changes and not necessarily for the better. By living with Angelique and experiencing as she does the class differences and how they influence the gender differences and the knowledge differences, Half Girl is much more political and radical in its politics than many a book that has set out to be that way.
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Deborah Emin is the founder of the publishing company, Sullivan Street Press (www.sullivanstreetpress.com). She is also the impressario of the Itinerant Book Show as well as the program director of the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, NY. Her (more...)
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