Discomfort, by Evelyn Hampton. Jackson Heights, New York: Ellipsis Press, forthcoming. 144 pages. $14.00, paper.
Evelyn Hampton’s Discomfort is a beautifully constructed collection of stories—slim, spare, and mysterious, contained within a subtly assured voice that gently presses you to turn the pages in hopes that each new story will fill in the negative spaces of the last. The stories do, indeed, complete each other, though through echoes and resonances rather than by any kind of narrative explication. The stories slide easily into one another, and while there are not concrete connections between them, themes quickly emerge. Through the disparate, the confused, and the uncountable something whole and recognizable peeks out.
While the stories in Discomfort are far from realist, they are not surreal in the expected ways either. Nothing seems quite as it should be, or as you would expect it to be, but it is hard to pin down exactly what is so very (and yes, the title is apt) discomforting in these pieces. The overall feeling is one of microscopy—as if Hampton has us looking so close, has us rooted so deeply into the grit of her characters’ experiences, that the edges and the context get lost. We sense that if we pulled back far enough everything would fall into a more conventional view; all the stories of disembodied lovers and mysterious contraptions would settle into recognizable metaphors for loss or loneliness and alienation. Luckily, Hampton makes us want to stay right up close, nose to the glass of her words. These close-up worlds are beguiling and relatable, though they move by a logic more bodily than narrative. The stories end not when the plots (such as they are) end, but when the object has been looked at long enough, or when the sudden thought is spoken fully. In “Blue” a character watching a television news show calls out in despair to the universe and notes that “Immediately nothing happened.” There is perhaps no better description of the way Discomfort unfolds itself: nothing happens, but the way it happens, or fails to, is surprising—sudden and fresh—and worth watching.
The prose is elegant and tight. Hampton’s descriptions, even at their most poetic, are controlled and precise: there is no looseness here, no messy, headlong glory. The power of this writing is in slow accumulation—one right word after another after another. This is load-bearing prose, prose strong enough to anchor us into the strange intensity of these stories, approachable enough that when it says keep looking, keep looking, look close, we do.These stories are intensely embodied, taking as both subject and form the basic awkwardness of existence, of moving among others. The stories—more perhaps, than the characters themselves—are neurotic, circling back on a thought again and again, never quite resolving it into a meaning. These are stories of an elaborate overthinking, a close examination by which the normal, natural, and physical all turn grotesque. In “Nowhere Hill” a young child becomes convinced that their Mickey Mouse watch is producing a foul, damp odor that others must soon notice. In ”Julian” the objects and moods of the world are gathered together in a wild solipsism until they become some version of a man. In the titular story, a bag of food gets damp in the rain and begins to weaken, and a man talks and talks. and a woman remembers people who have made her uncomfortable before him. In this sense, the stories are highly naturalistic—or at least highly relatable, despite their occasionally impossible plot points. The stories feel real, feel like they get at some essential, mundane ill-ease, even if we could not say precisely how their odd, looping logic reflects our experience, except in so far as we all live within the closed loops of our bodies and minds.
There are multiple returns to the idea of naming in Discomfort, or of trying to make something shifting and unreal whole by knowing what to call it, or of trying to constitute something solid out of only the loose material of language. The characters of Discomfort are at home in the body and its oddness and its sufferings, but the words to trace the outlines of these things often prove ineffective, tangential, in need of frequent revision. The things of these stories certainly are but tend not to remain. In the final story of the collection, “Blondlot’s Transformation” the narrator is assisting police in searching for Blondlot, who is missing. Blondlot is described at various points as a certain configuration is sparrows, a scientist and discoverer of the N-ray, a man with Christmas lists in his pockets, a mist rising between trees, and a person in a dress of unremembered color. In this last guise, Blondlot sits and talks with the narrator for some time. Afterwards the narrator says “I know that back in my hotel room I’ll see, in the white wrinkles and folds of my sheets, the way Blondlot’s dress gathered and carried him from one gesture to the next, so that Blondlot’s thoughts seemed to belong to the dress which nodded no and yes and fidgeted Blondlot’s hands” the physical is strong and clear in the impression it leaves, Blondlot’s body and clothes projecting their memory forward into the sight of the hotel sheets. But soon, the narrator is scribbling a question into a notebook, “When there is real distance between us, what will Blondlot be?” because in the world of Hampton’s Discomfort, description, memories, or even the reality of being cannot be expected to stay put, to stay named or understood for very long. Everything is subject to a strange tide.
In most of the stories, this constant slippage of identity and reality, this too-easy path between presence and nothingness, is a source of some anxiety, or at least of a pervasive sense of dislocation. There are moments, however, when we see the sweetness of this universality, of how our own bodies and minds—confused and strained and circling—are constituent of something bigger or beyond or, at least, held in common. In “Mole” we see this most clearly, as the narrator, weighing an escape from relationship and home and life-as-she’s-known-it tells us, “Walking above the cape this morning, I wasn’t worried about myself because I didn’t feel that I had a self apart from the cape to worry about. To worry about myself living alone on the cape would be to worry about the cape living alone on the cape, and where else would a cape live if not on an oceanic coast, where rocks are constantly being pummeled and tossed by waves that are sometimes the size of houses, sometimes even larger?” Where else, indeed? The stories in this collection are not as strange as they are first appear. They are, in fact, quite clear, as soon as one gets the sense of this self-destroying, drifting logic. These are not stories, after all, of pain, of abjection, of the extraordinary or incomprehensible, but of discomfort—something that cannot be named except by saying what it is not, not a feeling so much as a state—inhabitable, large, shared.
A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. She is the author of Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014) and a graduate of the MFA writing program at the California Institute of the Arts.