Once upon a time

Paul Constant

October 09, 2018

Rebecca Brown is the smartest writer in Seattle. Intelligence is not a competition, of course, and there are many different kinds of intelligence, but even with that understanding I still feel comfortable with the statement i'm making in first sentence of this paragraph. In this city, at this moment, she is the fittingest example of hyperbolic words that reviewers and blurbers tend to overuse when describing authorial talent — brilliant, genius, unparalleled.

Before you set out to write me a nasty email extolling the brain-power of your favorite local sci-fi novelist, let me explain what I mean. The one thing that every writer has in common — from Stephen King to Joan Didion to James Patterson to Zadie Smith — is that they work with words. And what Brown is doing with words is beyond most every talent I know.

Brown's stories and her non-fiction use words the way Miles Davis used the trumpet, or Ella Fitzgerald used her voice: precise, thoughtful, without a hint of cliché or sentimentality. It is not taking anything away from Billy Joel, say, to claim that Duke Ellington was the smarter piano player. In fact, it's as close to quantifiable as anything related to art possibly could be.

Aside from "genius," the other word I would use to describe Rebecca Brown is "elemental." And I mean that in both senses of the word. Anyone who has seen her sweep into a group reading knows that she is a force of nature. She has turned entire rooms upside down with five-minute readings because she is a Category 5 Writer.

But the lesser-used definition of "elemental" is my favorite interpretation of Brown's writing. As our understanding of the universe has grown as a species, we've learned more and more about the very smallest pieces of everything — from the classical understanding of elements to molecules to atoms to protons and neutrons to quarks and leptons. Brown isn't just a genius at words. She's a genius at the invisible forces that bind words together. (If I were to torture a metaphor to the breaking point, I'd refer to those forces as the gluons of grammar. I'll allow the metaphor to live to be tortured another day.)

All of which brings us to Brown's latest book, a slender collection of short fiction titled Not Heaven, Somewhere Else. Like one of her heroes, Gertrude Stein, Brown is working at her most elemental here. Consider the first line of a short story whose name I am coyly withholding for the purposes of a cheap reveal roughly three paragraphs from now:

Nothing between them. Nothing left. Nothing to take or give. No, nothing less. Nothing but nothing but nothing but themselves.

There's a lot to pull apart in that short paragraph. We know that a double negative cancels itself out, but what about an octuple negative? All those nothings have a whittling effect on the reader's consciousness. The "between" gives a sense of two people, and the "Nothing between them" could mean any number of things: barriers, clothing, emotions. Even those three words put a picture in your mind, but the second sentence, "Nothing left," strips whatever vague image the first sentence might have constructed. Then "Nothing to take or give," which sharpens the sense of barrenness. "No, nothing less" with its double-negative aggressiveness, threatens a kind of roguish comedy, a dark-metal desperation. And then that tumbling last line, "Nothing but nothing but nothing but themselves," pummels the reader into submission. We've gone around in a circle — "think about nothing; oh come on, you call that nothing? — and Brown has looped our expectation into a knot.

Not Heaven is mostly like this: a succession of short collections of words that toy with the reader's expectation again and again. Brown is the cat, and we are the mouse. Or Brown is the earth and we are the moon. Or Brown is the particle and we are the observer who thinks she sees a wave. This book is all about reading, and the expectations of a reader, and the responsibility of a writer. And here's where I reveal the title of the short story whose first sentence I quoted above:

The story is titled "Hansel and Gretel."

Okay, so that wasn't like a hyper-dramatic Agatha Christie reveal or anything. Sorry if you were expecting me to M. Night Shyamalan you. But I bet you if I started this review with "Rebecca Brown has written a book of stories that largely retells fairy tales," you would have come into the review (and the book) with some serious prejudices.

I know I would've. Fairy tales serve an important role in our storytelling lives: they're the basic building block we hand to children, the "once upon a time" of our lives as readers. And because they've been retold so many ways by so many storytellers, fairy tales are the first stories that teach us that no story is carved into marble, that we can manipulate and twist and blend them into any way that pleases us.

Personally, I'm kind of exhausted by fairy tales. I think the last twenty years have seen a disgusting number of precious "grim and gritty" retellings of fairy tales, and from Fables to Once Upon a Time, the genre feels strip-mined to the point of worthlessness.

So I admit to feeling some wariness when I opened Not Heaven and saw that the first story was a retelling of "The Three Little Pigs." And that the second story was titled "The Girl Who Cried Wolf." I may have winced a bit and said to myself, not again.

But of course I wasn't taking Brown's galactic brain into account. It makes perfect sense for our most elemental writer to address and investigate our most elemental stories. In Not Heaven, Brown pulls apart the most basic storytelling elements in the history of humanity, and reassembles them into something entirely new. You won't find any morals here, or any sentimentality for the tales of your youth.

In "Hansel and Gretel," Brown addresses the central tragedy of the story, with witches threatening to eat children and breadcrumb trails being eaten by birds and either witches or Hansel and Gretel themselves — depending on the author — being shoved into ovens. "This is why God invented forgetting," Brown writes. "Praise God." And then, this great passage:

Hansel and Gretel...uh...uh... "survived"...

They uh...uh...uh..."survived" what uh..."occurred."

At less than half a page, it's a story that can't even stare into its own central horror. In Not Heaven's first story, "The Pigs," Brown writes that the pigs' house blew up "one day." Then she readjusts: "Actually, it took longer than one day but I'm telling it like the way I want." (She concludes that paragraph with a sly little grin of a sentence: "It smelled like a barbecue.")

These aren't all fairy tales. One story looks at two types of cement, and another investigates the literal difficulty behind the cliché of serving someone's head on a platter. But more than half the book is interested in fables and fairy tales — Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood stop by to say hi — and the other stories feel as though they come from the same cold dark primordial narrative forest.

In Not Heaven, Brown is reaching back into our brains, into the past, into the little switch located somewhere in the gooey glop at the back of our heads that makes us see the world in a never-ending cascade of tales, and she's doing new things with it — angry things, funny things, fascinating things, things that have never before been done. It feels dangerous and exciting, like if she puts her big brain to it long enough, she could completely rewrite the story of who we are.

Personally, I can't wait. I'm tired of the old story.

Books in this review:
  • Not Heaven, Somewhere Else
    by Rebecca Brown

    October 01, 2018
    80 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound