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A Review of: Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine

CENTRAL QUESTION: Are you more yourself when you’re with other people?

A Review of: Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine

Jason McBride
15 Snaps

In her introduction to the latest edition of the collected Jane Bowles, Joy Williams argues that reading Bowles taught her nothing about writing. With all due respect, I’m not sure that I agree with Williams, whose work I adore and which often bears the same reckless beauty and sentence-by-sentence surprise that I find in Bowles. In any case, someone who, it’s safe to say, learned plenty from Bowles is the Seattle-based author Stacey Levine. I’m not the first to suggest this; Levine’s current editor, novelist Matthew Stadler, astutely compared Levine to Bowles in a review of Levine’s first novel, Dra—.

All three of these writers—I’d argue that Levine picked up a few lessons from Williams as well—are galvanized by misunderstanding. Limited knowledge of the world can lead, and often does, to a greater self-awareness. Sentences accordingly swarm with nonsequiturs, and plots tumble on the slippery meanings of same. Causality and conventional sequence are often comically snubbed. Strangeness celebrated.

Levine’s latest novel, Frances Johnson, takes place in a town called Munson. Munson feels a bit like Guy Maddin’s Tölzbad or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, fictional burgs where mores are arbitrary and oppressive, denizens delirious with indecision.

Levine’s latest novel, Frances Johnson, takes place in a town called Munson. Munson feels a bit like Guy Maddin’s Tölzbad or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, fictional burgs where mores are arbitrary and oppressive, denizens delirious with indecision. Although apparently situated in Florida, Munson is not the redneck Riviera that Vic Chesnutt sings of; the state exists in Frances Johnson no more than it does in Christine Schutt’s Florida. Munson abuts a volcano named Sharla. The town’s sole industry seems to be the production of crackers, which the characters are constantly ingesting, with butter. A neighbouring town, Little-Munson, is populated with the poor and neglected.

Grace Paley has famously written,“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” But in the case of thirty-eight-year-old Frances Johnson, destiny is a warren of locked doors, and she carries a ring of keys that open none of them. Frances is a citizen of Munson, but the town’s borders also determine the borders of herself. She doesn’t know who to be, where to go, what to want: “What kind of woman could Frances be or avoid being?” “What is possible; what is not?” Such questions bedevil her, as does a strange scar. She bicycles endlessly around town, her mind and body made muzzy by a mixture of coffee and sleeping pills.

Friends and lovers would like to determine Frances’s fate for her. Many insist that she attend the big town dance. Her own husband’s brother and her mother want to fix her up with a mysterious new doctor in town, Mark Carol. Another doc wants Frances to leave Munson on a quest for chicken-beak oil, the secret ingredient of his special balm. I would often like to live in a Grace Paley story; I would not want to live in Munson.

As the jacket copy suggests, this is a comedy of manners, and there is an inkling of Austen in Levine’s delicate and deadpan assault on our culture’s heterosexist, heterogeneous dictates. But the feel of the novel is more fanciful than programmatic. Each sentence operates in the same manner as the overarching narrative: shifting shape, defying expectation, encouraging bewilderment. Suspense is expertly built—What exactly will happen at the dance? What of the chicken-beak oil?—but by the novel’s end, it is dismantled in favor of a vortex of resigned wonderment. Freedom becomes just another word for nothing left to choose.

Jason McBride
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