April 18, 2013

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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.


April 18, 2013

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