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After finishing up a recent interview with Christine Stark, I thought: “Whew, that was uncomfortable.” And it was. Not because talking with Chris Stark was uncomfortable—quite the opposite—she was charming and engaging. It was her book, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation (Modern History Press). The book is terribly uncomfortable because incest and child sexual abuse are ugly and uncomfortable anytime and all the time—and because the protagonist in Christine Stark’s debut novel starts her life in Hell.
The child, Little Miss So and So, is routinely raped and sodomized by her biological father, who, after he is finished, gives his daughter a nickel, which she must put into a small plastic purse that he bought for her. It is a harrowing talisman.
Mad dad jerks
his thing in my stomach jerks jerks then he sighs sticky on my stomach…my hands on the floor cold…he puts the mattress into the frame mom’s downstairs car drives by hands on cold floor mad dad … drags me to bed puts the purse next to me There Little Miss So and So kisses me on the head You’re Very Pretty You Should Get Something For Being So Pretty n dad mad dad the devil in disguise I see his face through my eyes smiling lips snake lips kiss me on my mouth kiss kiss kiss I want to throw up stop kissing dad unzips the purse holds a shiny nickel says Oops I already paid you for this n puts the nickel in his pocket n hangs the purse pink round my neck long n skinny
Nickels begins in the 1970s, an era when radical second-wave feminism drove incest and sexual abuse out from under the rock it thrived under, and feminist writers were punching holes in patriarchal language structures, opening up vocabularies to revolutionary new meanings and generating different possibilities of experience and breaking binary links that fettered language to patriarchy.
The language of Nickels is chaotic and discombobulated, a river of verbs and nouns overflowing its banks. The book is barely punctuated, and renders a vivid, frenetic, real-time narrative that pulls the reader deep into the intensities of the moments, back and forth through time until we are carried along like flotsam to the epilogues. (Yes, there are two epilogues, one that addresses the mystery of So and So’s missing “Gramma” and the other one I won’t tell you about.) Stark’s sparse use of punctuation expands the emotional possibilities between Miss So and So and the reader, and this opens up spaces for each to respond to what is revealed and what remains hidden. It is a strategy that navigates Miss So and So past the strange, dangerous adults all around her:
Where did you get this the school nurse says with her spider leg finger on the new spot I shrug my shoulders to tell her I don’t know… Do you have any more the school man says I stand up straight like an arrow… pull my pants down
the school nurse and the school man say Oh so I pull my pants up they call in my mom and another school lady and a policeman who takes pictures…. my mom says she doesn’t know anything maybe it was the babysitter….
the policeman and the new school lady take me into custody until matters are resolved I don’t know what matters are and when I ask the school nurse what does matters are resolved mean she says Oh you are just a like a little parrot I don’t ask no more questions….
the next night snake crawls in bed with me to go up my back lay down so I do be quiet so I do hands over your stomach so I do the snake goes inside me up my back I lay with my hands together in a coffin dead the snake breathes hard one two three until my head cracks on the headboard the snake pushes my head into the headboard my board head cracked
the head board
What head board
The home life of Christine Stark’s protagonist is a nightmare that just won’t quit. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Stark’s small heroine is a firebrand with chutzpah and insight, and by the time we leave her, at the age of twenty-six, Miss So and So has excavated her lesbian identity, transformed herself into Rock River Woman, reunited with her lost Gramma, and of course fallen in love. She has grown up, raged through attempts at recovery, and broken through and broken out: “I know my name” she tells the Troll at the end of her narrative, “and you do not frighten me.”
Nickels has made some waves in the world of queer publishing and it’s no surprise the novel is a Lambda Literary Award finalist this year. Originally conceived as a series of prose poems, Nickels emerged in the wake of Sapphire’s narrative, Push, which was made into the movie, Precious, as much a personal challenge for Stark to write something as good and as meaningful as Push, as it is a testament to the girls and women Stark has known in her years as an advocate for sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors. Stark decided “to write about dissociation in a much more immediate and centrally focused way.” And Stark goes further, foregrounding the dynamics between homophobia and domestic violence, which, Stark points out are often inseparable.
Beginning when So and So is five-years-old, Nickels is structured along a timeline; childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, et cetera, with sub-chapters that not only fill in locations and circumstances, but also give one the sense of reading a memoir rather then a novel—unnerving though it is with its set upon set of devastating triggers and runaway language.
my mother says We’re coming Thursday my roommate throws an empty shoe box out of her bedroom it lands near my feet she follows it I sit up on the back of the chair place my feet on the cushion That is so rude she says points to my feet goes back in her room hair flying through the doorway We’ll be there sometime around eleven in the morning Eleven I say my roommate reappears throws a green plastic bag into the living room Your father wants to get back in time for his program at seven I say nothing space out the thought of being back there in that house with him a black duffel bag lands in the middle of the living room Crazy I say under my breath her bedroom door slams What was that my mother says Amy’s on another rampage I say my mother says nothing Get off the phone I hear my father did you hear me he says my roommate is crying in her bedroom Now my father yells I really should get going my mother says panic in her voice All right I hang up my tongue goes down to my stomach I run to the bathroom wet cotton balls in the sink half packed boxes lying on the floor I vomit in the toilet
From early childhood, Miss So and So develops an extraordinary ability to read the voices, gestures, and moods of those around her—seen and unseen. She anticipates behaviors, and scans and infuses the physical space around her with a veritable force field that keeps an escape route open, clear enough to be able to move, run, and get out of the way. Yet I found the emotional landscape of Nickels to be surprisingly limited for me, a resistant to something I can’t quite put my finger on and not necessarily something lacking in the text or the quality of writing—and regardless of whether or not Miss So and So remains circumscribed by her accelerated thought, state of hyper-arousal, and the jagged, disjointed language that propels her cognitive awareness of the world. No matter who she is talking to or engaged with, Miss So and So throws a constant, unrelenting onslaught of words at us, too fast for a full range of emotions to register, and at times this feels more like a narrative trap than an alternative means of articulating experiences. Then again, until she sheds her skin in that final meltdown, Miss So and So is trapped, and we are trapped with her.
Stark’s narrative language is also lyrical; at times haunting and poignant; and there is a natural rhythm and authenticity in her use of pure, isolated sounds, which generate a perversely soothing quality in the flow of the text: the “trip trap, trip, trap” sing-song that harkens back to nursery rhymes; the detached, mechanical “whish whish whish” of the head against the headboard; the flat but sinister “Crack the back the headboard spat”; the mindless chant of “Knock knock who’s there” ; and the implicit terror in waiting for mad dad to get home, wrapped in a thin layer of nursery rhyme:
Big bad wolf
blew the house down mom says do you hear the b’s she says n looks at me big bad blew it’s good to read to children she says I read that somewhere some magazine she looks at the ceiling McCalls I nod listening I think about the wolf big hairy just like trolls scaring the pigs wanting to kill them and my mouth goes dry and I rub my wrists and she stares at the clock tick tock on the new wall in the new house waiting for dad to get home from basketball at the YMCA waiting for big hairy dad to get home tick tock tick tock we all fall down.”
Something else is teased out through the narrative of Nickels, and that is the reader’s willingness to embrace a revised notion of girlhood as a time of growth, empowerment, and continuum of holistic integration of the female self with the world instead of girlhood as a demeaning moniker that labels girls as weak, awkward, silly, and inconsequential. Anyone who reads Nickels will agree Miss So and So is anything but.
Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation
By Christine Stark
Modern History Press
Paperback, 9781615990504, 248pp.