[close this layer]

by Joyelle McSweeney

Fence Books, 2007
Fiction, 137 pp., paperback

Reviewed by Nick Bredie


In his introduction to author Stacey Levine, radio host Michael Silverblatt offered the following observation:

To the extent that there is a New American Writing, […] it's one that takes the idea of the American Dream not as a goal but as something we have to wake up from, and this writing describes the delusional systems of the dream as if actual; it describes American life as a kind of dreamscape.

Whether this holds true for all New American Writing, and it well might, it certainly holds true in Joyelle McSweeney's latest offering, the novel Flet. While the book's jacket proclaims it a work of Speculative Fiction, Flet reads more as a dreamscape of the new American millennium than as a book that might include a ray-gun.

This is not to say that Flet's world is our world. The protagonist Flet is a personal assistant to the government official in charge of educational media/propaganda. She lives in 'Nation,' a land whose cities are designated zones of exclusion and whose citizenry lives secluded lives of synthetic foods and a steady feed of 'filetapes,' provided by the department of Continuous Heritage. The reason for this bunker mentality, we are told, is an event known only as the Emergency. Like its vacuous signifier, the Emergency was an a-contextual sequence of events that lead to the mass poisoning of Nation's legislature. The reader's mind immediately jumps to the events of September 11th, but McSweeney is careful to keep the Emergency free of geopolitical significance—or any significance beyond that which is attributed to it by the pervasive post-Emergency government.

When we first encounter Flet, she is a mildly disaffected cog in this government. She likes long drives, filetape surfing, and getting a little drunk. The next big thing for her is an Emergency Day reenactment her boss is orchestrating—as if to add another level of simulacra to an already unhinged world. That said, Flet, or the narration that surrounds her experience, is anything but unexceptional. For example, the following description of the sea, which occurs within the first 20 pages of the novel:

The black scarf knotted at her nape plots a green epidemic on her skull. The black skiff skirts a knotty sea, a needle in mourning weeds, a razor-edged reed, a toothed fish: a decision in motion. Not me yet. Whipping of the foam of the sea: a fate or a fait accompli. Who wants to be drawn out. Who would want to wear this crown. Poised on the crest, down in the flood, rests in the pit, hurled up. Aurora dolorealis, spider writing, green vernal ink, drawing branch. Scrawl from which I'll never rise up.

Just what this slip into poetic diction has in common with the dystopic socialscape of Nation remains unclear early in the narrative. It becomes more pervasive as Flet's interest in the Emergency grows.

Almost casually, Flet encounters dreamlike evidence that the dreamlike Emergency might not have been the reality it appeared to be. And, caught up in the role of hapless and helpless detective, Flet attends the Emergency reenactment only to find it less then a simulacrum.

At this point, the narrative arc of Flet twists in a manner similar to a Philip K Dick novel. However, the foil to the apparent reality of the narrative is not conspiracy or psyonics but the language itself. At the outset of the novel, the narration and Flet remain distinct; she is an actor in a world that is occasionally rich with language. As Flet comes closer to 'the truth,' she is gradually subsumed in the wisps and coils of the language.

The reenactment transforms her from a person to "a priceless icon tossed from a fleeing vessel, turning slowly and clad in a mantel of bubbles as it descends through the depths." She is "a wonder. Rather than reduced, she has become broad and long, an architecture of leg-bone and tarsal drawing itself out from any vanishing point." She "knows how information spreads, where it is bred, in the heart and in the head, on diodes and part per million, in matching caskets of gold, silver and lead, draining here blistering elsewhere, bottled up at its most fragrant, beestung and removéd Belmont." These cues give the reader the impression that our heroine has merged with the work's driving poetic consciousness, granting her and us an 'out' from Nation's constrictive socialscape.

McSweeney does not offer her reader this out. Similar to Samuel Delany's Babel-17, the lotus-like language is not a means toward liberation but a way to betray oneself. When "The Leader Speaks," he or she speaks with the same poetic slippages as the narration:

So all right pet of mine. The pet scan assures us that the brain is functioning fine, making a lanyard of thoughts […]What we need from you, Flet, is to survive. We need a face of Nation. And not just a face. A carriage, a carapace, a mien, a bearing, a photo-portable demeanor.

Later, the leader will narrate the cooking of a lobster during an address to Nation. If Flet is the dreamscape of 21st century America, its grimly beautiful portent is that the dream can only go deeper, crushing language and the individual under its pressure. There is no waking up.

Nick Bredie is a writer living in Providence, RI.