The odds are good that you’ve recently laughed at a joke, giggled over a forwarded e-mail or even twittered at a newspaper story filled with mangled, bungled or outright ridiculous English directions or translations. Whether we’re laughing at the (apparently baseless) claim that Jack Nicholson’s last movie, As Good As It Gets, was retitled Mr. Cat Poop for Hong Kong moviegoers, or at the "Ladies are requested not to have children at the bar" sign in a Norwegian cocktail lounge, we enjoy the distance between what we imagine and the realities making these descriptions absurd. This humor need not rely on national or cultural differences for its impact; the words of children are also great grist for this reflex.
Carla Harryman’s newest (and appropriately titled) novel, The Words, mines this discrepancy between the language of childhood and the stable, predictable social rules of adults, both for its humor and its insight. At its best, her writing immerses us in the joy, irreverence and unhinged creativity that sits at the cusp of childhood, without indulging in false nostalgia. For it is out of the words of adults, if not a full understanding of their social rules, that children and novelists develop their shadow worlds. No one imitates anything that is not present to them.
Lurking just behind a more rational and familiar reality, these shadow worlds are always inseparable from it: They both motivate our actions in the real world and redress us for the disappointments we meet there. In one memorable passage near the end of the book, Woemess, a recurring character, walks with the author. As they talk, their mutual attraction is articulated in a series of surprises and differences. The relationship between what we take to be real and imaginary is thereby encapsulated, but not exhausted: Both sides need the other, passionately and perhaps desperately so.
It would be unfair, then, to say that this novel doesn’t live in the real world — it’s merely that the reader looks in (or out) from the imaginary side of the fence. Which is not such a bad thing: After all, this is the side where the fun stuff happens.
But the fun stuff is always changing its clothing too. What’s fun one day is tomorrow’s embarrassment: like wanting to be a ballerina, or a cowboy, or a wooden sewing spool. Harryman’s narrative takes such movement into account by failing to produce, in the magical surrealism of childhood imagination, a stable set of actions performed by a predefined cast of characters. Instead of a plot per se, the reader is set afloat on washes of bright conjecture, insights of questionable validity but considerable humor, and codes of action, position, substance and relationship which borrow as freely from the reader as from the writer.
No names, no identities, no songs, just empty pie shells calling me up because they said they came from me as if I were a town or a house or something bigger. … This, she said, looking at the child now sleeping on her lap, is not a parody. It is what really happened to me; although someday, what really happened may seem very much like a parody.
There are characters, then, and actions. But much of the real work — or joy — of this book is in the playful progress through an imaginary, associative environment where characters like the spool babies are formed, ad hoc, out of verbal detail, conjecture and sheer preadolescent contrariness. Other characters — such as All Done, All-the-Loss-That-Ever-Was and the Stranded — are written in as effects rather than as actors, with more than a slight smirk at the overdrawn importance of the very young or the very serious. The failure to draw the reader’s attention to one lead character is even glossed by the book itself: There is more than one of us; therefore, we can not stop to pin down the river or a dream.
Rather than read for characters, or for events which overtake them, one reads for situations in The Words, and the swift shifts of focus Harryman produces with sharp, unexpected changes in thought, language and perspective. Our contours of perception are frequently undercut by bizarre juxtaposition, humor, new insight, retroactive positioning (as a thought or observation is attributed to a character) and by the sheer task of imagining a world in which assertions of the ridiculous can be true. These chapters romp through a cultural field which is ephemeral and highly distributed, with no monolithic base of knowledge, and no stable yardstick with which to assign importance or possibility: In the field of the imaginary, there are very few limitations.
At first, this nonstandard mode of narration may produce some readerly resistance: How are we to read and what are we reading for, if not stable characters and the contours of the social world we know? And while a singular set of things to read for may not be forthcoming, the process of shuffling back and forth between ideas about how to understand this work does produce an effect, in the reader’s own thoughts, of being within an imaginary landscape not unlike the one narrated. Something of this is addressed in Chapter 9:
Banality in the landscape means the viewer. Banality means the viewer is dead to the landscape. … The viewer has ceased to replenish the over-determinations of the landscape with the necessary salves and medication to reawaken appreciation for it.
This novel, as one awakens alongside its text, does replenish us. It returns to us our own pleasure of thought, and the joy of surreal and nonparallel forms. And although it’s only a hundred pages long, watch out, because like the most challenging movies, you may find the need to experience it more than once, to find out what thoughts, details, threads and foreshadowings you missed in the density of the first wash.