Another Sunday morning, another chance to celebrate the winner of a local writing competition and invite readers to a local publication celebration, on May Day, at UC Irvine.
Gold Line Press seems to be a project of another area school, USC, and the judge of its 2012 Competition in Fiction was Dana "Elsewhere, California" Johnson, of whom Mr. Bib is a big fan. A bit of serendipitous circumstantial pleasure it is then that she chose Alisa Slaughter, frequent contributor to Santa Monica Review, as this year's winner,
and that I hold in my hands Bad Habitats, a small, handsome chapbook of Ovidian short stories about local animals interacting with the Southern California human environment, in wry, sad, funny intellect and sociological topsy-turvy organized to remind us of our human species' own devastating, complicating, weird rearrangement of the natural world.
Indeed, novelist and short story writer Johnson blurbs this lovely chapbook with the promise that good stories (as these!) "destabilize a reader's view of the world," and observes that Slaughter's short tales leave us "with serious questions about who we think we are and who we want to be."
Destablize, indeed. Questions, certainly. The first story in Slaughter's collection is titled "The Party Skunks of the South Bay," just so you get the premise. Other stories feature the easily shifting lives and perspectives of animals moving back and forth between and among humans and human-ness. By which I mean not easy at all. Transformation, evolution, sharing–out of necessity, not desire–are difficult, with boundaries and questions and plenty of dark humor offered with sparkling and droll wit.
I was of course familiar with Slaughter's animal-centric worldview, and eager for more, having published a couple of these stories about life as a cougar and a coyote, two creatures living on the outskirts, up against the pools and gated lives and bus stops of the So Cal 'burbs. They hold down jobs, court humans, speak and think while killing pets and bunnies and getting into dumpsters. All of it arrives with unselfconscious assumptions but absent the standard clichés or mythic folk tales. Of course coyote is a trickster. Of course cougar would like to eat you.
It might be relevant to note that Alisa Slaughter herself lives on the edges, in an Inland Empire mountain community near Redlands, where she teaches at the University of Redlands and has been published in The Missouri Review and plenty of other lit mags. She is a serious local, with a keen naturalist's eye and the science-meets-syntax-and-poetry sentences whose authority make, again, this conceit so successful, even wonderfully obvious once you get it. What's so special about her engagement with our ecosystem and its players is that ease with which the creatures enter and depart the human world, going to work, chatting with humans, traveling the world, quoting the dismal statistics about their own ecological circumstances, not at all unlike the way we complain about freeway traffic, pointlessly, but with the despair and helplessness and fatalism which will undo us all.
About those party skunks in the first story, we are immediately clear on the urgent interaction of human and critter societies. "When the conventions come to town there's chicken sometimes, sandwich shards among the square planters and the white-trunked ficus, reflecting pools that reflect and colored jets the fling chlorine drops of amethyst and amber." That's how we should perhaps see out artificial arrangements, our habitats, and how the skunks, raccoons, mockingbirds see it. In that same story, "no one denies the potential of the unseemly, of context ripped away and thrown to the wind." Important that context is lost to the wind, of course, shifting and atomizing and undeniable, however futilely humans try to resist it.
"Mockingbird composes in her own autistic blues of cement labyrinths, crushed kittens that look like tiny foxes from a horrified distance, the silent owls of fate." Wow! Syntax would, of course, need to reflect the difference, so that the disorienting arrangements of words and images create a new human-related language, just close enough but mocking us, dependent on us. You know how they say dogs and cats see and can't see, in relation to the way our vision is constructed? Well, they're domesticated. Imagine, insists Slaughter, what wild animals are thinkin'.
That first story invites us in, establishing the conceit and daring us to abandon our judgments. And on they go. The cougar could be anybody. In one story, he sits at a bus bench, wearing a baseball cap, talking with a human reading in the newspaper about, yes, cougar himself. They are after him, a nuisance, a big cat which as we know some off-duty cop will shoot from the other side of his backyard swimming pool fence.
The birds are smart. They observe our culture, our history from above. From the Westside of LA to Imperial County to Chile and other migratory destinations, they're watching the strata of human society, taking notes on our ecological and economic collapse. Raven is foreclosed, Heron carries on with a rich hippie girl, Duck helps out an Arctic traveler and discovers something good about himself.
"Terns dive for fish, the kestrels and owls hunt real living beasts, and we wait outside the truck stop for someone to drop his French fries, even the best of us sing to the speed freaks and the lettuce pickers for handouts." It's pathetic, what they have become. What we have done to them. Heron, a bachelor lover-boy full of pompous self-regard (because he is still, despite it all, so beautiful), steals expensive carp from the McMansion's pond, frets about the stock market, works part-time in a wine shop smugly selling good taste and disdaining everybody, but nonetheless falls for the human girl-woman in a hot, romantic "Leda and the Swan" kind of deal.
Slaughter's allegorical eco-stories are not fairy tales or magically realistic. There is too much of the urgently detailed and immediately mundane and quotidian for that, both celebrated and confronted. They are one step ahead of the biological-literary story, more like Margaret Atwood or Ursula LeGuin sci-fi poetry, reminding that we are all one step behind.
Meanwhile, at UC Irvine this week, we're celebrating history and art. On May Day, my favorite solidarity holiday–Wednesday, May 1–I'll be introducing two writers you've read about here at OC Bookly and beyond. Peggy Hesketh and Lorene Delaney-Ullman, two Lecturers and proud UC-AFT union members will read from their respective new books, chat a bit and sign copies of their work for sale. Thanks to local indie bookstore Book Carnival of Orange for being there with copies of Hesketh's OC novel, Telling the Bees, the story of an old beekeeper in Anaheim who struggles with just how much of the truth he can stand. And Delany-Ullman's excellent prose poetry collection called Camouflage for the Neighborhood, a geographical-autobiographical-psychic Orange County meditation organized in a series of deceptively spare-seeming poems about the person and place of militarism and violence in our lives. The reading is free, 5-6 pm in Humanities Gateway Room 1010. See you there!
Bad Habitats, Alisa Slaughter, Gold Line Press, 69 pgs., $ 10.00
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.