Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poetry Its Own Logic - #27

STORY: "Leopard Arms" by Leni Zumas

FROM: FAREWELL NAVIGATOR (Open City Books, 2008)

BASICALLY: A dreamy and unsettling account, as told by a gargoyle, of the occupants of the Leopard Arms apartments in Brooklyn. To save a neglected child with tonsillitis, he'll have to break the rules he learned in gargoyle school.

"Leopard Arms" isn't like any of the other stories so far twiddled apart here on YoOHS. Much stranger and harder to categorize than, say, "The Last Rabbit", its experimental elements mean we're dealing with a new species of short fiction. It's far more of an actual story than Lydia Davis' experimental "The Family", but it's not even trying to do what "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian" was going for—and so I find myself less sure than normal what to make of it.

I either liked "Leopard Arms" or I didn't. One of those two things. The jury's still out. Could go either way. But since it's trying something that feels fresh and weird, I lean toward giving it the benefit of the doubt.

I liked how it's episodic—a simpler structure that doesn't require such a tight control on continuity between scenes. To open, for example, the gargoyle narrator introduces the "new family" that "is taking the place of the woman who choked on a peanut." Then, following a section break, the gargoyle gives his backstory and outlook—

The word you know me by is from gargouille, the French for throat. A throat can sing a tune, swallow milk, be sliced wide open. Down throats go slender needles aimed at human hearts. 
Another section break, and now for a moment we see the new family, the young daughter "pacing along each new wall to listen," but then the camera swings outside to show a passing bus full of tourists and swoops back in to show the reactions of building residents like Mrs. Megrim and "the watcher."

So Zumas builds up her story stroke by stroke. It's how a lot of TV shows work—a whole tangle of subplots get advanced at once by moving an inch on one, then switching to another. And of course they all interact. Part of the appeal of a show or a story with a large cast is our involvement and interest in their individual lives. When they inevitably conflict, fall in love, form friendships, and make enemies of one other, we have a sense of complexity because we are intimately familiar with all the separate points of view. (I love shows like The Good Wife or True Blood or Boardwalk Empire for this, but look for it in your favorite ensemble dramas. You'll probably start seeing it everywhere.)

While I think Zumas creates a narrator that's just perfect for giving voice to this episodic structure—a gargoyle is the ultimate watcher of all and sundry—something's missing. She either doesn't try to or isn't successful at binding all her strands together. The threads that follow the collector and the watcher and the flautist, while stuffed full of lovely poetic non sequiturs, don't do much that I found satisfying. They're connected, but the connections don't bear fruit. The scenes are well-larded with striking imagery, yes—the shame collector's senile grandmother phoning him, the watcher's bittersweet longing for a shark—but in the end, are used only as elaborate set pieces. I felt like the peripheral episodes on which the story spent so much time didn't signify much to the main story about a neglected little girl finding a mother-substitute in her curmudgeonly neighbor.

So I don't like that. Except that I can appreciate how this story eschews narrative structure for its own kind of poetic logic. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of poetry for school, lately, and so I feel sympathetic or attuned to the lushness of strange words arranged just to be fascinating…Even though the scenes didn't satisfy me in terms of story, there's still something about their eccentricity, their sense of being assembled of odds and ends, that, surprisingly, ties them together enough to make them feel like more than they individually are.