Two Strange Fictions About Fringe Entertainers in the 20th Century
Some children are born performers, while others have performing thrust upon them. In Frail Sister, a mixed-media collage and fiction prose book by Karen Green, two sisters perform as children during the Depression to bring money into a dissolute, difficult family. In Callbacks, the first novel by playwright Meg Whiteford, triplet sisters perform as singing contortionists after their parents separately abandon them. Both books are deeply weird period pieces, and both books are wrapped up with performance, textually and metatextually.
Whiteford, a skilled writer with a strong command of compression, attempts to transform a series of stage performances into narrative prose. Her set pieces include a deranged television puppet show, staged multiple times across the book; a full variety show, similar to vaudeville, encompassing comedy, mime, songs and dances, and other acts; and daft soap opera scenes involving a Southern teen prostitute named Peachy Keen.
She structures the book arrhythmically, with unpredictable peaks and doldrums. As its narrator relates, “My story is full of boring bits but is also punctuated by joy, surprise, pain, sorrow, and loss. That’s the interesting stuff.” Whether Whiteford pulls the whole thing off depends on the reader’s ability to envision a stage performance when reading prose describing it. Perhaps there’s a reason few authors have attempted to record the intense, ineffable experience of performance on the page as doggedly as Whiteford does. The scenes come off strange, and a little flat, and not remotely as easy to read as they probably were for Whiteford to imagine. Still, it’s an intriguing book, so unusual as to be original, and Whiteford is an extraordinary prose stylist.
If Green’s book is more successful than Whiteford’s, that’s because she creates a simpler blend of genres. Green, a visual artist as well as a writer, peppered her fragmentary memoir and first book, Bough Down, with tiny collages. Frail Sister, a short epistolary novel about a woman named Connie and her life in the mid-twentieth century, contains plenty of art but is also much more generous in size and scope. Green spends the most narrative time on Connie’s adventures in the USO during World War II. This section includes letters home to her sister, letters from various soldiers to Connie, unsettling service records for the sisters’ brother, Mouse, and even menus for the food scraped together in combat zones.
Green’s book, startling, uncanny, violent, beautiful, and tragic, climaxes in a horrific act. I had to read that section twice because I didn’t believe someone would really have put such a thing in a book. She expertly makes use of collage, turning old documents into wholly necessary palimpsests for Connie’s story. Her interventions with the materials that make up the book include sewing, burning, scraping, paint, glitter, tape, and liberal use of scissors. These materials are clearly genuine sources: musical scores, USO stationery, and many, many vintage photographs. Every page evidences the book’s handmade quality. Even if the book’s content doesn’t comment directly on it, something about this quality feels urgent, crucial, in a cultural moment when very little is handmade..
Callbacks and Frail Sister tells very different stories in very different ways, but both use rare methods. They choose to tangle with the uneasy relationship between sisters, particularly sisters who perform together on stage. Some element of competition never really dies between sisters who’ve done such a thing, whether the effect is blatant betrayal or benign neglect. Both are set around the same time, although Green’s book emphasizes the wounds of the war and Whiteford’s does not. Between the two, Green’s book wields more authority, while Whiteford’s book is much more fun.
(Frail Sister, Siglio Press, October 23, 2018)
Callbacks, Northwestern University Press, October 2018)