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Jamie QuatroJamie Quatro. Photo by Kristen Brock
Jamie Quatro and her new book, “I Want To Show You More,” are red hot right now in the literary world. In March she received a full-page review in The New York Times Book Review and three pages in The New Yorker.
At the Celebration of Southern Literature, Quatro is co-teaching a pre-celebration short story workshop with her mentor, Jill McCorkle, and is a featured guest at one of 11 fundraising dinners in private homes.
Reviewers have called her “outstanding” and “brilliant,” and praised the book—15 linked stories about religion, sex, family, death and running—as “horrifying,” “funny,” and “unique.”
J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review called the book “a strange, thrilling and disarmingly honest piece of work” and “perhaps the most engaging literary treatment of Christianity since [Flannery] O’Connor, without a hint of the condescension the subject often receives in contemporary fiction.”
No Personal Questions, Please
When I approached Quatro through her publisher, Grove Atlantic, her publicist asked me to avoid any personal questions. Why? Because there have been too many interviewers who have looked at the recurring female adulteress—it’s hard not to go biblical, there’s so much Southern religion in the book—and asked about autobiographical elements.
Fine, I said. I have no problem conceiving that a woman could write about a woman having an affair without it being a covert confession. And I’m not much interested in finding secret keys anyway.
Sure enough, other interviews I read online sooner or later got around to asking about autobiography. It’s true, there are a lot of other non-salacious details that seem straightforwardly drawn from life. In addition to the recurring character having an affair, another group of stories revolves around a woman dying of cancer. Others feature a woman who moved to Lookout Mountain when her husband took a job teaching economics at Westminster College, much like Quatro’s husband took a job teaching management at Covenant College a few years ago.
Running with Art on Her Back
The women afflicted with cancer and the affair are runners. Another woman runs a bizarre, doomed marathon with a statue on her back? That’s how all marathons are run in the surreal “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement.” Some statues are tiny, some huge. Some are schlock and some are “true art.” Most are overtly sexual and grotesquely phallic, like the Greek art they don’t tell you about in high school. Ditching your statue mid-race gets you banned for life from the sport.
This story began with images Quatro saw online of long-distance runners carrying giant crucifixes. “I started to wonder: if I had to carry something on my back while I raced, what would it be?” she says. “I don’t know why the answers in the story turned out to be either (a) hideous phallic statues or (b) gorgeous objects d’art, but there it is.”
What did she intend to say with this piece? “I have no idea. Drafting is like watching a movie. The characters run the show.” She’s heard interpretations of this story ranging from the artist’s role in society, the writer’s fear of failure, grace vs. works, Protestantism vs. Catholicism, Southern heritage and the role of tyranny in modern society.
“Who am I to say what the story ‘means?’” she asks. “When reader and text collide, it’s nuclear; a third thing is created that is separate from authorial ‘intention,’ if such a thing exists.”
The running continues in “Holy Ground,” when the unnamed woman having the affair leaves her husband and kids to go for a run, saying she won’t be back for a few days. “We’ll stay on this couch until you come back. You won’t have to worry about our safety,” he says. This woman runs down from the mountain and finds her way to some missionaries in downtown Chattanooga. She wants to help the poor, she says, or maybe “just sort of hang out with them.” The poor end up helping her, and she tells them a story.
She’s Not There
Some stories don’t seem to have a possible Quatro avatar at all. In “Demolition,” a historic church on Lookout Mountain starts shedding pieces of itself. Panes from the stained-glass Bible scenes start falling one at a time after a mysterious stranger arrives. Before long the congregation bulldozes the building to find sanctuary of a different kind in the woods and to find God embodied more tangibly in each other.
Despite their connections now, the stories all arose separately.
“I planned nothing in advance,” she says. “Most of my stories begin—to paraphrase Donald Barthelme—in a place of ‘not-knowing,’ with nothing more than an itch, an image, a line of dialogue. So everything happened organically, on the page. I was just writing one story to the next, hoping to tell the truth with each one.”
Quatro worked with her editor and agent to select the stories in the book from a larger pool. Some only became linked in the editing, through adjustments to names, illnesses and setting. There were more infidelity pieces that didn’t make the cut because it was too difficult to make them work as part of a group.
When other interviewers asked the autobiography question, she talked about examining what constitutes infidelity in the digital age, or about how it’s easy to assume stories written in the first person are autobiographical. But there’s something more than an author choosing fictional topics going on here.
The “me, not me” quality of these characters is at the absolute heart of what Quatro is doing in this book. Her subject is not herself, but she uses herself as a crucible, throwing in these fictional characters that share some of the facts and shape of her life, then heating them until they become more.
The long-distance affair, the lover’s corpse in the bedroom, the race carrying priapic statuary, the aching loss of a husband or a wife—for me it all adds up to something more subtle and moving than a novel that tried to encode the same stuff into a longer narrative.
The book’s title comes from one of the long-distance affair stories in the middle of the book. Just before mutual texting of foot photos escalates to semi-nudes and full frontal, the female character says, “I want to show you more.”
The final story, “Relatives of God,” is a tiny coda of sorts, reprising key themes of the book: the mostly disembodied but intensely physical affair, the very present love of husband and children, religion weaving through everything. This is the day the woman releases the object of her affair.
I think what Jamie Quatro has done in this book is a weirdly beautiful blend of revelation and concealment, looking through herself as a lens to see something bigger but leaving the reader with a fascinating double vision. I understand why interviewers can’t let the autobiography question go unasked. But the book itself is the answer, and negotiating a conversational vocabulary for this ethereal stuff misses the point.