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In American Romances, her new book of essays, Rebecca Brown has a voice that is full of pop references, family stories, and the fruits of a lifetime of — in her perfect phrase – extreme reading. The voice is a hoot, and it is dead serious. This is writing with exquisite control, fully up to the task Brown takes on of playing a fierce game of beach ball with deep problems of American (and personal) history and identity.
Brown has written a dozen books, including her debut novel, The Haunted House, first published in 1986 and reissued in 2007 by City Lights. Her body of work, fiction and nonfiction, is playful, grave and fearless. She consistently brings sensuality and emotional urgency to everything she writes (the description of a child being dressed by her mother to go out in the snow that opens from The Children’s Crusade is a knock-out), coupled with fierce intelligence. Brown has never hesitated to take wild leaps in time, letting the parts of her imagination shaped by the medieval Crusades or the American West, for instance, people a narrative that also includes contemporary settings and characters. As a case in point, see the title story of Annie Oakley’s Girl (1993).In this way , she makes buried influences visible, old shames palpable, queers irrevocably present (now, then, whenever), and everything more interesting. She’s at it again in this collection.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is everywhere in American Romances: in quotations before each essay; as a subject for Brown’s scrutiny; and as a writer who revisited (and took liberties with) both his own family history and the larger social worlds of the Puritans. In the last piece in the collection, Brown and that unforgettable voice of hers show up inside of the one of his most famous stories, “Young Goodman Brown.” (Any relation between Young Goodman and Rebecca? Anything’s possible.) Also everywhere – not only in her memorable evocation as the one who named that same-sex-loving sacrament, the Oreo cookie (see “The Priests;” it’s hot!) , but also in the agile language taking wicked little turns that explode into meaning — is Gertrude Stein. For instance:
Some things, no matter how far apart, occur again the same. They happen the same again and over again. The same except for different, and forever.
Those lines, thematic for the entire collection, are from “Hawthorne,” the first essay in the book, a tour de force which links Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brian Wilson, the composer and Beach Boy raised in Hawthorne, California. The piece is an exploration of American cultural forces, including the dreams and practices of the Puritans, westward expansion, the failings and ambitions in both men’s family histories, the lineage of recent US government uses of torture, and – Gosh, it’s dark (which is a line Brown deploys from a song by Brian Wilson) – what writing and music wrench from and give back to all that. Brown , who uses endnotes as their own little arias, cites the great scholar of Puritanism, Perry Miller. She cites The Scarlet Letter. She cites Paul Revere and the Raiders. The cumulative effect is revelatory.
The same is true throughout the collection. Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Invisible Man, theology and religious practice in twelfth and thirteenth century France bump right up against Brown’s childhood memories and stories about her pilot father. Everything is infused with grief and yearning, with knowledge and experience, with unbelievable nerve and the wholly recognizable details of this messed up, sticky human world, complete with soundtrack. When Brown writes about her experiences with religion and God, they are the more powerful for the intellectual, moral and aesthetic questions that surround them. They are understated, part of the music.
Brown isn’t always so subtle. In the stunning essay, “Extreme Reading,” she writes:
Extreme reading is like cannibalism. You take a book, like a piece of food, and eat it. For sustenance, for blood, if not to ritually ingest the soul or heart or power of your enemy or someone you loved. You take it in and chew and grind and tear it down to the smallish bits, to things that you can swallow. You rid yourself of some of it and keep some of the rest. Sometimes you keep what may not be the best for you. Your body knows what’s good for you, but sometimes you don’t listen. The things you eat and keep become part of you. You re-create inside yourself, with caverns, juices, processes you can and can’t control, a kind of meat.
Brown goes on to describes cutting and pasting (or painting) over the text in books until she makes the words say what she wants to read. Movingly, she credits this practice with getting her through the hard years after her parents died. The meditations here apply to the transformative power of any intensely engaged act of reading. The essay ends:
Every time you read a book you read what you desire.
Every time you read a book you make that book your own.
Before I started writing this review, I put a corner of American Romances against my mouth and ruffled the pages. This left my lips dry and tender, slightly numb. I flicked my thumb hard against the edge of the book, not the bound place, but where it opened, which made a little wave of sound that snapped when it hit the cover . The pages caught bits of me in delicate pinches. When the corner was a little damp, just enough to tear easily, I ripped off a tiny piece of one page with my teeth, a bit of paper so small that I couldn’t find the torn place a moment later, although the pages I had dog-eared in the course of reading were obvious enough. I opened the book and licked two pages all of the way down to the crease, where they joined, not exactly like the two sides of an Oreo coming together through the crucial conductive matter of the creme, but in a shadowy, inviting way nonetheless. I pressed my tongue into the middle as far as it would go. I wanted to eat this book.
*Brown, defining creme in “The Priests,” cracked me up: Creme, American: a whitish fake food designed to pass for cream. Invented because it was cheaper and had a shelf life of millennia. It fell from favor during the natural food boom, but later was reclaimed by liberal-minded vegans, vegetarians and persons of lactose intolerance.
by Rebecca Brown
Paperback $16.95, 234