Monday, June 23, 2014

We only know you by the outline of your form

There’s a moment in Night Film when Scott McGrath and his sidekicks are in the cheap boarding house room rented by Ashley Cordova. They look around the room, trying to get a sense of this person, her thoughts and intentions in her last few days. At one point, McGrath reaches down to pick up the white hospital pajamas Ashley had been wearing when she escaped a mental institution:

“I picked up the pants, noting with surprise not just that A. Cordova MH-314—her room number at Briarwood—had been printed along the inner waistband, but the legs still held her form. So did the top; cut in the boxy shape of surgical scrubs, the left sleeve still twisted around her elbow.”

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (which is quoted in Messas’s M_SS_NG G_RL): “Let us see, Other Reader, if the book can succeed in drawing a true portrait of you, beginning with the frame and enclosing you from every side, establishing the outlines of your form.”

There’s a scene in my novel (I first wrote it two years ago) that keeps coming to mind:

I found Janelle in Elsie’s room, her body twisted into the exact shape Elsie’s always was in sleep, as though to fill the indentation that Elsie’s body had left in the mattress. Her mouth was slack, her lips curled out and moistened by steady breath. I watched her for a moment, and then shifted my focus to see myself in the dresser mirror beyond the bed. The father of a 17-year-old girl; how did that happen?

The father of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. I can’t count Elsie out so soon.

The dresser mirror was lined with photographs and images from magazines. Most pictures were of Elsie’s friends, duck-faced girls with the smooth, round faces of youth and inexperience, smeared in dark lipsticks and raccoon-eyes.

Two old Polaroids were tucked into the top of the frame, both the faded maroon of the late-1980s. One, a group shot of Molly and the girls that I had taken one Christmas morning when Elsie was still in diapers. Janelle and Elsie were dozing under the tree, surrounded by crumpled wrapping paper and brightly colored cardboard boxes. Molly sat beside them, hand on Elsie’s head (I could imagine the warmth of that sleeping head, the tiny heartbeat thrumming at her translucent temple), looking both amused and annoyed by the picture-taker.

The second image was from Easter, probably that same year. Elsie in a bright white Easter dress that Molly had made, standing on the stone side steps to the house. Elsie was still a shocking blonde then, I remembered, and the sunniness of the day, the whiteness of the image and the ineptitude of the photographer resulted in a highly overexposed image.  

In the intervening twelve years, the Polaroid had faded such that I had to squint to see Elsie at all. Instead, it looked mostly like an image of the dark blue house with an Elsie-shaped absence in the middle.

* * *

I’ve started wondering: why is this the story I decided to tell? Why, when I did all that research on women and girls who disappeared or were kidnapped, did I give the narrative to those left behind rather than the woman herself? What part of me felt okay—strong, creative, even—making up a person just to enact her abuse? If I am her creator, is it possible I owe her more? (Or as her creator, am I simply outside the concepts of debt and morality? Is my only debt to the story itself? If that’s the answer, it would make me have to consider reversing myself on the ethics of Eurydice Messas’s book, which I’m unwilling to do. But I still just wonder: if Elsie had ever had a line of dialogue that wasn’t delivered from within a memory, if she’d ever appeared on the page, would I have had a harder time following through on my fate for her?)

The truth is, I don’t really know who Elsie Testa is because I’ve never let her tell me. Last month, I tried, as a writing exercise, to write an online dating profile for her, and I found that it was impossible: I had no idea who she actually was. I know her only as she’s filtered through the other characters’ guesswork, memories, after-the-fact cobbling. In my mind, she’s always been the outline in the mattress. Maybe it’s the Vicodin, maybe it’s the cabin fever, but I feel uneasy about this now.

In Redress, Elsie Testa disappears, and everyone who is changed by her absence has a theory, a version of her that they hold in their minds. Elsie is manipulative and cruel—
or she’s sexually reckless
or she’s damaged goods
or she’s insane or depressed
or she has some other secret, the shame of which made her disappearance inevitable.

All variations on a theme of shame. All at least a little true, to someone.

(Overlap the faded Polaroid photos of each version of Elsie and hold them up to the light. A collective outline emerges.)

Maybe I’m like all writers in that I’m interested in my own motives or urges here. (It’s all always about us somehow, isn’t it?) Did I create these possibilities to blunt the impact of her absence and her death? If Elsie Testa had been standing in those woods, I’m not sure which version of herself she might have been. If she would have been willing to forgive me. If, faced with her, I could have forgiven myself.

Friday, June 20, 2014


What happens when you stitch together some of the worst cliches of the thriller genre—the disgraced, divorced journalist, the New York ingenue, Orientalism & the occult, the mad, reclusive genius, the underground internet, Middle Eastern-funded high-end sex clubs, mental institutions, and a mysterious dead girl?

You get Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a novel that weirdly has been heralded as original while feeling as though it was simply cobbled together to get the highest possible SEO.

Eurydice Messas’s M_SS_NG G_RL makes passing mention of Night Film as being part of Messas’s theoretical “missing girl” tradition. It was this connection that led me to pick up the novel. I was quite prepared to love it just to spite Messas’s take on it, but kept finding that the elements of the novel fit into Messas’s theory as neatly as the cylinders in a safe lock rolling into place. (Pessl’s a big fan of the elaborate metaphor, so it’s difficult not to be mimetic in talking about her work.)

The girl is dead from the outset — this might be the only complication to applying Messas’s theory. The body of Ashley Cordova, owner of a distinctive red coat that somehow every fucking person in New York remembers, is found in the first chapter of the novel, an apparent suicide. Scott McGrath, hardened, disgraced journalist, is working with two improbable sidekicks to piece together the details of the last few weeks of Ashley’s life—and by extension, to get an exclusive on her reclusive filmmaker father, who might be a pederast, might be nuts, might be dead, might be a witch, might have been killing children to free his daughter from an ancient Satanic curse, might be the same person as his assistant, and so on.

McGrath’s missing-girl chase (he and his sidekicks pretend to their witnesses that Ashley’s a friend who’s simply missing, rather than a body in the morgue) leads him out of the doldrums of his pathetic life into surreal worlds that blend fact and fiction. McGrath is Orpheus—the talented hero—following Eurydice (here, Ashley, a chick he never fucking knew) into the underworld. That step into unreality is quite literal in a few places—first, at the sex club, Oubliette (“forgotten place”):

It was a party. And yet the floor—black-and-white geometric inlaid tiles—rippled like a sea. It spanned an immense circular atrium, ringed with Corinthian pillars, yet there was no ceiling, just a bright blue cloud-filled sky. How in the hell was it a perfect summer day in here? In the distance, beyond stone arches covered in ivy and dark doorways leading down dirt paths, there was a luscious bloom-filled garden where stone Greek statues reclined in the sun….As my eyes madly searched for some semblance of reality, my mind short-circuited, both entranced and trying to form some rational conclusion as to what the hell it was….All of it was painted, photorealist trompe l’oeil of such detail and beauty, in the dimmed amber light it was all somehow alive, thriving.

Next, he finds himself trapped in a labyrinth of sets from the filmmaker’s darkest films, sets that have such depth of authenticity that he begins to wonder whether the films were fiction at all.

“I’m in one.”
“Excuse me?”
“I think I’m inside a Cordova film. One of his narratives. And it’s not over.”

Throughout the novel, Ashley Cordova is the driving force but never takes on the feeling of an actual character. She’s a mythologically talented musician (an intentional flip on the Orpheus story, or am I just trapped in that frame now?), she’s possibly cursed, possibly insane, possibly controlled by an abusive family. Everything is about her, but she’s rendered an object.

I don’t think that this one novel proves Eurydice Messas’s theory about the “missing girl” phenomenon true — how could a single example do that, anyway? It is nonetheless interesting to see how a writer can backslide into every possible trope if she’s not vigilant.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Poetic injustice: torn ACL, no grad school, ghostly encounters

It was my sister Pam’s idea for us to return to Bennington’s campus for a literary ghost hunt. She’d spent all of the night before on Wikipedia, reading up on the details surrounding a missing Bennington college student from the 1940s, as well as Shirley Jackson’s history and her relationship with the people of North Bennington (the town surrounding the college).

It was my sister Pam’s idea for us to find the building that was the basis for the ooky-spooky mansion in The Haunting of Hill House, and it was my sister Pam’s idea for us to go traipsing (Yes. I said traipsing; my bitterness has made me 50 years old) around the woods at the edge of Bennington’s campus. Basically, for the rest of my life, or at least until I actually get this ass to graduate school, I will be reminding my sister Pam that all this was her idea.

If you want to skip to the end, here it is: I fell, tore my ACL, and am having surgery in a week. While my would-be classmates are lining up at the registration table or whatever, I’ll be in bed in yoga pants, leg elevated on a pillow, brain mushy on pain killers.

Here’s the scene: Last week, Pam and I were traipsing around the Bennington College woods. Pam started zigzagging up and down the big hill, working out the timing of something she read online about that missing Bennington girl. (Pam watches too much daytime Lifetime network, which tends toward “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Cold Case” shit. I can’t wait until her kids are in school and she can go back to work and use her intellect for something a little more socially acceptable. Love you, sister.)

I’ve been working on a woods scene in my novel (I pasted the the beginning of it below), and I was doing this kind of embarrassing thing that I hope to God other writers do: closing my eyes and working to memorize the smells of the woods and the sounds of the leaves and the cool peeliness of the bark on the tree trunks (but please, don’t envision me doing that).

I was spinning around a bit to give myself the same sense of disorientation my character feels in the scene, and I wasn’t really keeping track of where Pam was. I’m not sure how long we carried on that way (probably looking like crazy people to anyone who would’ve observed us), but it was quiet for a long time. Then Pam let out this shout that was kind of a bark, and the sound came from up behind my left shoulder, which was not at all where I thought she was, and I turned around at the same time that I started opening my eyes and I felt something pop in my knee and for a second I saw that ghost of Elsie Testa standing there in the woods in her red dress, I swear to god.

By the time I had processed any of this I was on the ground. Pam was still finishing her shout and had turned toward me to ask Did you s— and then she started walking toward me really slowly, saying What’s going on with you? I think at that point I was already sobbing but the sound hadn’t reached my throat yet. I could feel the way my whole face had puckered into itself, though, and the heat spreading out from my knee. If you’ve ever been bitten by a shark and then immediately had someone piss all over the open wound — I imagine that would feel approximately as bad as I felt in that moment. Give or take the massive bleeding hole in your body, obviously.

Pam had to go get the car and pull it up as close as she could so I was sitting there by myself for about twenty minutes. What I thought I’d seen was just a red paint mark on one of the tree trunks. Despite my metaphorical shark bite, I was trying to get a photo of the tree at the right angle to make it look like what I’d seen, the swinging hem of a red dress, but there are a lot of limitations to cellphone cameras. Specifically that cellphone cameras are never paranoid or delusional.

(Above, what it actually looked like. Below, post-photoshop.)


Pam had been shouting about the same mark on the tree, actually. She was so stuck in this Paula Welden mystery that she saw the mark and thought it was a red coat hanging on a tree limb. She’s not sure whether she actually thought it was Paula’s coat, hanging there seventy years later, or if she thought Eurydice Messas had planted it in the woods as part of another “investigation.” Pam has been calling it Paula’s revenge, because she said I was making fun of the whole thing the night before, and because she really thinks that she is hilarious sometimes.

(What it kind of looked like if the camera had been dipped in research-fueled hysteria.)

The downside to any low-residency MFA program, I’ve come to learn, is that the residency (particularly the first one) is so important that you can’t miss it, or even half of it, and still be enrolled for the term. So now I’m looking at a January 2015 matriculation, which is so incredibly far away…

Thus concludes Jeannie Alexander’s tale of ghosts and woe. Stay tuned next week for disempowerment at the hands of the medical profession, better living through pain-killers, and a repentant sister who’d better show up just about every day with movies and a bucket of KFC. I plan to be a pain in the ass.

*    *    *

excerpt from Redress, novel in progress

When I pulled up the drive, it was nearly three AM. The house was dark. Insects and air particles somersaulted in the headlight beams as I squinted at movement along the edge of the woods beyond the backyard. An obscured figure was moving quickly—a person, all shades of black and green until she moved through the furthest reaches of my headlight beam and became Elsie, full hem of that red dress swinging around her knees.

I wrenched at my seatbelt and ran from the car, pounding out exhales as I sprinted across the uneven grass toward her. I tried to shout her name but it was a wheeze. As I neared the tree line, the figure was barely discernible amidst the spindly tree trunks. My feet slipped and skidded on the deep carpet of pine needles as I knocked elbows and shoulders into peeling bark. Over the thunder of my own panting I could just barely hear her footfalls up ahead, quickening as I tried to close the distance between us.

We were headed in the direction of Buck’s Creek, where the ground would be slick and soft after the past week’s rainfall, and where Elsie and Janelle used to build mud castles and come home streaked green-brown, driving Molly nuts.

It was those green-brown streaks that my cruel imagination had been picturing on Elsie’s body since she disappeared, streaks on her knees and her cheek as someone pressed her down into that mud. I’d tasted the cold gravel, felt the pressure of someone’s shin on the small of my back, the ache of my long hair held back, the scratchiness of the fabric of my mother’s red dress, the burn of the seams as it chafed against my neck.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My first Amazon review: M_SS_NG G_RL and the make-believe literary cabal

It takes a lot of chutzpah (or hubris) to undertake a project like the one described in Messas’s book. Messas staged her own disappearance from some unnamed artists’ colony two years ago (simply by not returning when she was expected—no fake ransom notes or overturned chairs), holed herself up in a nearby motel, and chronicled the community’s reactions. Throughout the narrative, Messas positions herself as a victim of a larger cultural response to missing women, rather than embracing her role as mastermind who created authentic distress in a group of well-meaning people.

There are a number of reasons to doubt the veracity of the entire project. How, in this age, does one really cover one’s digital tracks or stay anonymous? Messas has implied elsewhere that a legal gag order is in place that prohibits her from identifying the people or places that appear in the book. (She’s also implied that the news station websites might have employed a web-scrubber to erase their own articles on the disappearance, as though they’d be embarrassed by being suckered in, rather than eager to report a newsworthy hoax.) In the book, she maintains that the “mystery of this story does not lie with those details.” I’m no Reddit user, but I’m a child of the internet, and I’ve got no doubt that sooner or later someone’s going to deal with the issue of truth and credibility here.  

Instead, it’s the literary propositions that I seek to question. In the narrative, Messas refers to “the experience of going missing,” implying that there is a single experience that is shared (metaphorically, at least) by the missing women and girls she identifies in a laundry list of books ranging from Jane Eyre to Lady in the Lake to Night Film (which just came out last year). In Messas’s narrative, I read the insinuation of some shared, insidious intent on the part of the writers who make these women go missing (or die)—as though Italo Calvino, Tom Stoppard, and Haruki Murakami are sitting in a smoke-filled room somewhere, a literary cabal intent on systematically erasing vulnerable women from the world by eliminating them from books and short stories. (Norman Mailer, maybe, but surely not Murakami!) It’s unclear to me what Messas’s alternative would be: a world in which certain subjects are just de facto off-limits for writers? If so, is it Messas—a person who freely manipulated the good intentions of an unsuspecting community—who’s going to draw those ethical lines for the rest of us?

There’s something in Messas’s choice of approach here (the conflation of a physical going-missing with the literary going-missings she purports to be exploring) that implies a causal connection between literary disappearances and real-life dangers to women and girls. It’s a connection that I wish she had amplified and clarified. While I don’t think it would have saved her book from critique, further discussion of this issue might allow the book to have an impact outside her tightly closed circuit of thought. Without reaching a tentacle into the real world, Messas is just another unknown writer criticizing more talented or successful writers rather than making something new herself.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Who will be my muskrat?

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.

Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pretend Tweet-Fight with Rainier Marie Rilke

I don't even have a twitter account really, but I got into a conversation with a friend the other day about imaginary tweet-fights with dead writers. I do have a bone to pick (a tweet to twick?) with this dude in particular, so I thought I'd bring my fantasy to fruition.

@TheRealRilke says:

@ALittleLikeJeannie says: 
"Somethings" that are difficult: lifting one's refrigerator over one's head
@ALittleLikeJeannie says: 
@ALittleLikeJeannie says: 
Candy Crush after the Frest Mint level
@ALittleLikeJeannie says: 
reading Swann's Way or John Banville

@TheRealRilke says:

@ALittleLikeJeannie says:
Why must our growth be solitary? Can it not be in symphony, in communion, or in celebration with? Must we ourselves apart to become ourselves?
@ALittleLikeJeannie says:

In other words: Ain't that more than a little pretense going on, bucko? Not everyone is jealous of you.

 @TheRealRilke says:

@ALittleLikeJeannie says:

Okay. Let's call it a draw.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Out of the Closet

The call comes in the middle of the night, like such calls always do. That’s the story, isn’t it?

A single ring, silence, and then another. I palm at Molly’s shoulder—the phone is on her side of the bed, and it was by her insistence that we continue to pay thirty dollars a month for an outdated landline that only telemarketers and school administrators use. It’s the reminder of this irritation that really wakes me, rather than the ringing itself.

    Molly is dead weight under my prodding, and the damn thing just keeps ringing. I wiggle myself over her, pressing my stomach against her hip bone, and just barely reach the receiver.

“Hello,” I say. I sound annoyed as fuck.

The connection, filtered through the twenty-year-old cordless phone, is staticky and cuts in and out.


“Hello, say it again. Who’s this?” It could be a misdial, aimed for the West Coast where it’s still a party hour, even on a Wednesday. It could be a bunch of kids, friends of Janelle or Elsie, stoned and prank-calling through the school directory. It could be—

More electronic hiccuping, a sound like a theramin, then a quick bark: “We have Elsie.”

*    *    *

For the past four years I’ve been working on my first novel, Redress, a literary thriller about the Testa family whose fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing. There are ghosts, secret lives, betrayals, and a special red dress, poly-cotton blend and handmade by Elsie’s mother, Molly, for her own high school graduation 25 years earlier. It’s a dress that got Molly into heaps of trouble, the undoable kind, and that seems to have led Elsie Testa into something even more sinister.

Until quite recently, I was a secret writer, a closet writer. It’s an embarrassing passion to admit, especially in my family. Keeping it a secret also meant that it was an isolating passion: I’ve been grappling with some big ethical and emotional questions for my characters over the past several years, and have had little support in processing them. I think I’ve done myself, and maybe my characters, an injustice in keeping everything so quiet.

I recently read a piece in the New York Times by Alice Mattison, a Bennington Writing Seminars teacher, about how she feels compelled to keep her novels a secret — she fears her characters might stop talking to her if she exposes them too soon. I’ve been feeling the opposite, though: that my characters feel claustrophobic, that they need breath from outside my head. They need to wander the world a little, encounter new stimuli, do some damage that I’m not tightly controlling.

But that can only happen if I open the doors to my writing closet and let them out. Let myself out.

So that’s what I’m doing. Hello, world. I’m yet another unpublished novelist with big ideas. Welcome.