F IN: A Novel, by Carol Guess. Buffalo, New York: Noctuary Press, 2013. 70 pages. $14.00, paper.
At first, Carol Guess’ F IN draws attention to what’s missing. Its pages are mostly empty, as it is the parts that remain from Guess’ novella Willful Machine after being cut down to a scattering of words and phrases. The original was a mystery, including ghosts and the investigation and pursuit of a crime. This new version, an erasure of its parent text, evokes mystery in entirely different, and fascinating, ways.
The novel operates under constraint in that Guess is limited to the original words, phrases, and plot of the text, to a certain extent. Guess brings novelty and flexibility to this constraint by using individual letters from the text to form words or splitting phrases along lines to change their meaning or pacing. And, like any good constraint, there’s also the moment where it’s broken—at the closing of F IN the reader gets, for the first time, complete paragraphs from the text with no erasures, creating an act, both in style and content, of closure.
Visually, the work is captivating. Guess describes her process in the introduction as simply changing all of the text to white on a white screen, then selecting words and phrases to change back to a visible black. The parts that remain appear to be placed where they would be if the whole text was present, inviting the reader to look at the negative space, to imagine what used to be there, with all its implications and possibilities.
Reading this novel is much like reading short form fiction in its reliance on evoking a world beyond the text on the page. In his introduction to Short Shorts in 1982, Irving Howe described the very short form as one that is “drape[d] with a quantity of suggestion,” and F IN operates on a similar, though much larger and more fluid, version of this concept. The novel is miniscule when measured by the number of words (this review is significantly longer than the number of words in the novel itself, I’m sure), but an entire world hovers at the edges and behind the white space, only barely out of sight. This is a novel that, in more ways than if it were a solid block of text, challenges and invites the reader to imagine the possibilities.
This book is a sky of stars, and the reader can’t help but look for the constellations—and there are many beautiful ones to be found. No reading will be the same in how it strikes the reader. The novel is composed of suggestions of shapes, events, characters, and relationships, and each has the possibility to strike the eye in a different way and to evoke a new association. Much of the experience will also depend on the reader’s familiarity with the introduction, which reveals the plot of the original novella and helps guide the interpretation of some, though by no means all, of the bits that remain of the original work.
The brightest constellation is the transition from girlhood to adulthood. The selection of words and phrases reveal the obsessions and transitions of the main character, a girl who moves from sunny days of dresses and picnics to a woman exploring her own sexuality (she realizes early on that she doesn’t want to marry a boy), navigating the treacherous balance between truth and fantasy, and discovering mysteries worth pursuing in the world. This tenuous space of growing up is further evoked by the juxtaposition of the innocent with the adult or the ominous: “pink lace” and “chain link fence,” “grape juice” and “beer,” “vodka” and “embroidered flowers.”
Obsessions also arise in the text, and reading the book is like following only the highlighted passages of someone else’s reading of the story which, in fact, it is. Place and movement recur throughout, often with glimpses of a neatly planned city with “daily violence, random and reckless” lurking beneath. Marriage, punishment, and death pervade the narrator’s thoughts.
One of the most intriguing obsessions is a delight in swans, a symbol of change and growing up and into beauty from nursery tales. The word “swans” occur numerous times, mostly on the same page, including an iteration that is built by individual letters from other words. While the technical, craft elements of the novel perhaps focus on the act of taking away and the words that are missing or lost, what remains is a story about becoming. But, as with any star-filled sky, your constellations may be different, both on your first read and in subsequent reads.
Near the end of the novel, the narrator recognizes and delights in this ambiguity, teasing the reader that:
You think you know
the whole story
This statement, with its implied warning, shows that we are mistaken in this belief—we don’t know the whole story. We can try to draw lines between the words, try to form connections, but there’s little evidence, and no reassurance, that we are right. But there’s something freeing in this release from being right. We can’t know the whole story because there is more than one story to know and more than one story to find.
The reading of the novel is in some sense fractured, obsessive, or uncertain. But then, so is growing up from a girl to a woman. F IN is a book that invites pleasurable re-reading. It invites the reader to discover it anew, to read new shapes in the spaces between its words. This reincarnation of Willful Machine is still a mystery, but it is a mystery that is new, compelling, absorbing, and able to yield new questions, and new answers, with every imagining.
Kelsie Hahn is an MFA candidate in fiction at New Mexico State University and a managing editor of Puerto del Sol. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in NANO Fiction, Inkwell, Timber, and Short, Fast, and Deadly. Her reviews have appeared in Puerto del Sol and The Collagist. More here.