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Flipping the rice but leaving the beans


KATHRYN SCANLAN, Kick the Latch, published by Daunt Books,

January 2023, Review by Alison Armstrong


The book opens with two sentences: ‘I was born October 1, 1962. I was born in Dixon City, Iowa.’ Bare life exposed, the facts of a life from the beginning, setting up the form and rhythm of the book. Kick the Latch is based on transcribed interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer, and tells the story of her life in a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes. A life reduced to a gruelling cycle of labour and casual violence, of dragging the body – horse and human – to an endless repetition of 4 a.m. feeds, exhausting training, following the racetrack circuit, living in trailers, motels, her truck. There is a worked-at efficiency in the writing and form of the novel which seems to mirror Sonia’s life. Form and content are melded together. Scanlan’s prose is not just ‘clean as a bone’, to borrow James Baldwin’s phrase, but whittled down to the marrow, stripped of all unnecessary detail. This seems also to be the essence of Sonia. Subject and writer fused together – this is part of the book’s power – channelling the understated way Sonia has of describing her life. The two become aligned – we can’t tell which it is – it is both of course and it doesn’t matter since meaning is never fixed, it resides somewhere beyond the text, in the accumulation of sense the reader gathers from the careful construction of the book.  Writing working toward the truth of a life.

             It shares the essence of her earlier book Aug 9 – Fog, which is narrated through fragments of a diary found in an estate sale. There is a return to theme/practice, the mediated object/life; framing the text/life of another person. Scanlan talks about Aug 9 – Fog in a conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl, how she began to reside inside the life of the unnamed diarist, inhabiting her consciousness. She writes in the note that prefaces Aug 9 – Fog: ‘The diary has become something like kin – a relation who is also me, myself.’ ‘I am her.’ Kick the Latch has a similar feel – a symbiosis of minds. The relationship between Sonia and Scanlan becomes briefly explicit near the end of the book in the single address of ‘you’ that Sonia makes to Scanlan. It is the only time it appears in the book, and is significant, reminding the reader of the source of the book – honouring the subject and process.

            This method of utilising the words of another has something of the wisdom of folk tales in the way they become filtered of all but the essential truths through the telling and retelling of them. I know something of this transcending moment from collecting and transcribing the voices of others in my own work. The lines and sentences gifted by others. The sense that the meaning is already there, waiting to be found and carrying something greater than that given by a single authorship, by a single meditation on existence. We can feel the thrill of the ‘found’ sentence coming through her work. The life of the sentence enduring, perfect in its resonance for having being passed down.

            By the second paragraph of Kick the Latch, Bicycle Jenny, a character from Sonia’s childhood, is introduced, and then, a few pages in, a whole four pages are devoted to her, the longest vignette of the book. It ends the first section and more space is given over to Bicycle Jenny than any of the people Sonia has relationships with. We are told Bicycle Jenny’s house burned down and ‘What was left was a scorched concrete hole in the ground. That’s where she lived.’ She wore men’s shirts, boots, multiple hats, bright red lipstick, rouge, and lived in that hole summer and winter with her numerous chihuahuas, filling cream cans with water when she needed from Sonia’s house. ‘She talked to herself while she filled up at the sink. Her voice was high, cracked… she’d usually have some chihuahuas stuffed in her coat.’ We know everything we need to know about Jenny from these four pages. Her essence too is distilled and this encapsulates something of the book; how sometimes it’s the peripheral moments and encounters that hold the accumulated meaning of a life. We learn about Sonia through her accounts of episodes in her life, what she has observed in her working life, what she has learned, a life told in snapshots. Many of the titles of the short chapters come from the words of Sonia herself. The workings of her mind come through in the detailing of her care and relationships with horses and the various characters she meets on the racetrack circuit. We hear, almost incidentally as if it has only secondary importance, of her own coma, sustained through a riding collision, when she defends Tim Tucker, whom everyone disliked: ‘When I got out of hospital I couldn’t even sit up on my own, but Tucker and his wife – they took good care of me.’

            In a short vignette called ‘I Seen Him Every Day’ Sonia describes, in a few sentences, a man breaking into her trailer in the middle of the night – ‘I got raped.’ She concludes: ‘I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was—it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that.’ Nothing else is said. It is left at the unvoiced scar of shorn hair, the only outward sign of what has happened. Trauma is stripped down – the continued daily exposure, the repetition of ‘I’, the shorn hair, the silence. The title ‘I Seen Him Every Day’ makes us look again at that silence, at the normalisation of violence. Though we know from another snapshot of her life that she keeps a butcher’s knife in her trailer for protection.

            Rituals of care are revealed in Sonia’s understanding of horses – the horses come first. Measured against the dollar, they are worth more. Though for Sonia it is a labour of love. Of her first horse, the difficult Rowdy, she says: ‘He taught me to trust. He taught me not to trust too much.’ The horses are successively described as sensitive and temperamental – they don’t drink the water because they can taste the change from track to track, so Coca-Cola has to be added to get them to drink. When a horse is off its food, ‘They shit in their feed tub to send you a message.’ Ways of coaxing them to eat again are described. When a horse is repeatedly put in races beyond his capabilities and keeps coming last, he gets depressed, so races are set up in training and fixed so he wins and can feel like a winner again. Like in Aug 9 – Fog, what is described is the inexhaustible bond of care that tethers us to the world.

            Animals are a constant presence – often their sensibilities, like in Scanlan’s collection of stories, The Dominant Animal, are as acute as any of the human characters – their existence equal to the human animal – they dominate, their shed hair and needs, their feelings and attitudes, their hunger and feral menace, they are touchstones to the human malady. The concision and compression of the writing, the tone of her stories, rings on in the bell of our skulls. The crux of meaning seems to reside in a singular, apparently throwaway line – from ‘Men in the Woods’: ‘...he read the letters and decided his mother was a useless woman’. In another line from the same story, when the protagonist has placed the dead rabbits in a fire: ‘Then he kneeled in the grass and watched the flames lick and fuss their fur like their mother did.’ The mystery of the story, which at just under four pages is longer than most in the collection, is left hanging in the air like a cold mist, constructed from a web of seemingly unrelated observations.

            Animals are also the source, particularly in Kick the Latch, of a deep tenderness expressed through the demands of care. Their suffering and temperaments eclipse those of the human actors. Sonia’s life is full of sacrifice – like the writing itself, it is stripped of unnecessary comforts and conventions; her work is hard, living conditions are precarious, there is no time for a family, romantic relationships are short-lived, serious injury is rife. ‘You live at the track, your life is full… You lose touch with the outside.’ The last entry of the book, entitled ‘A Particular Language’, refers to the lexicon picked up at the track: ‘I’d come home for the holidays and speak to my family, but nothing I said made sense to them.’ In the section before, we learn that now she no longer visits the track to avoid the danger of wanting to go back. ‘I still dream about it most nights.’ Sonia’s many injuries surface in the arthritic pain she feels on rainy days, scars in the bones from old injuries. Horse-track racing is harsh, unforgiving: ‘Riders would go down. They’d get steel rods put up their spine.’ ‘I met the jockeys and seen what they did to make weight. They slap on glycerin and cling-wrap and sit in their cars with the heater blasting when it’s a hundred in the shade – they pass out.’ The jockeys starve themselves, throw up their food. ‘They get so good at puking they brag about it – I can flip the rice but leave the beans!’ The horses suffer too: ‘Most horses bleed from the lungs when they run.’ Their legs detach, trainers use syringes to take blood from the horses to reduce their blood pressure, priests bless the horses’ legs before a race ‘but there’d be plenty of times it didn’t work’.

            The author is behind the scenes, not explicitly present, constructing the text, choosing what to put where, orchestrating the effect of the text. The book achieves its cumulative power in this way. The text is cut to a minimum, carefully placed, maximising its emotional impact, resonating across pages as references and slight suggestions of repetitions are made across time. We read, looking for clues of a life.

            When Sonia describes the passing of her friend Bobbie Mackintosh, she says: ‘She wanted to write a book of her life. Anyway, she was from Minnesota.’ The statement harks back to the beginning of the book: ‘I was born October 1, 1962. I was born in Dixon City, Iowa.’ These simple, naked facts of a life hold something important. As with her short stories, there is an anarchy in the mundane moment – it is sublime in the archaic sense, pushing always to the other side, to a kind of purity where meaning and mystery reside, one inside the other.

            Wry flashes of humour turn on the word choice in a sentence – in ‘Small Pink Female’ dinner dates are described, ‘… enduring protracted sessions of mastication and, later, abbreviated fornication’. This unblinking take on the absurd repetitions of the mundane renders the unbearable facts of existence bearable. The pain of existing, of making a life, highlighted by an absurd phrase or juxtaposition. The construction of sentences lays our wants and needs bare. There is something of the style of Gary Lutz’s short fiction here – in a piece on craft in Granta, Scanlan acknowledges this: ‘Like Lutz, I favour “narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude . . . the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.”’ (The quotation is from Lutz’s essay ‘The Sentence is a Lonely Place’.)

            She uses objects to convey feeling beyond themselves – in the way that Sonia’s shorn hair carries weight beyond itself – and works her sentences to achieve ‘objecthood’. Sentences become an object in themselves, they have their own internal power, a life and significance of their own. The words within a sentence have a relationship and exist in that structure as a kind of harmony or ‘community of words’ (Lutz).

            Other influences have been cited: Christine Schutt’s tonally precise sentence construction; and in The Dominant Animal Scanlan credits Diane Williams’s influence and editing. Moments of experience are misaligned and fail to happen, desire is thwarted, even the expectation of desire, in the dull thud of our own lack and shortcomings. In Scanlan, the needs are feral, the comforts are not only unsatisfying, they are brittle, expectations are spiked and turned in on themselves. Hunger is literal as a couple hide food from each other. Lovers are rejected, as are parents and children, a dog replaces its owner and is seen cavorting with the new one, ‘basking in a love like the biggest fuck-you yet seen’. Her sentences look simple, effortless, but are meticulously crafted. It seems nothing is there by accident. Words, lines, punch above their own weight. The crux of a story is condensed into a single line.

            Her writing explores the mundane, ordinary, domestic. She is drawn to these ordinary suburban places because, she says in interviews, there is space to create there. It offers a ‘blank canvas’. In these spaces what surfaces is the malaise of getting through the day, a sense of menace moves and shifts, domestic appliances conjure uncomfortable intimacies – ‘the light suctioning sound of the refrigerator and freezer’. Violence resides alongside a free buffet, entertainment is found through looking at the unattainable lives of others, a playhouse and house are ‘like two of the same animal’ as malevolence is carried across generations.

            The sentences startle in their simplicity – and carry weight because of it. The unsettling moment is distilled from the ordinary, pulsing under the reader’s skin. The mood turns on a sentence and carries the emotional power of the story. The tangled messiness of existence is reduced to a simple sentence, in the way that the meaning of our lives hinges on a few details, a few episodes and encounters.

            There is pleasure and fondness in the temperaments and idiosyncrasies of horses and humans alike, a pleasure in letting a character be themselves. Sonia has an attraction to the underdog; from the horses she adopts – all the hopeless cases – Rowdy, Dark Side, a ‘skin and bones’ mustang named Chico: ‘I got some weight on him, some calm’ – to the incarcerated men in Onakona State Penitentiary – ‘serving twenty years for a marijuana cigarette’ while ‘officers smoke dope in the parking lot on their lunch break’ when she ‘tries to be a normal person’ and gets a job in a prison. Elsewhere, we learn that the first prisoners of the Penitentiary quarried the rock it is built from, ‘walled themselves in’.  The power of the book is carried in its form, its semblance. The construction – like the construction of her stories – radiates with a power, compresses the seemingly insignificant moment in a significance beyond itself. The emotional reduction in the narrative amplifies the effect, and works with the form of the book, which Scanlan has meticulously edited, arranging the composition as a sparse meditation on life – writing in which all the rice is flipped and only the beans are left.

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