Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Winesburg, Indiana: A tasty casserole

"Everyone knows how to make a casserole," writes Marny Vanderrost in the Acknowledgments to Winesburg, Indiana: "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

The twist, of course, is that Marny is herself one of those ingredients, a character in a collection of linked short stories all set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Indiana, and penned by 30 different writers. Marny is the creation of Jim Walke, who knows how to top a casserole: "Some towns keep their crazy hidden, but we scatter it on top like potato chips."

The crazy comes out clearly in Winesburg, Indiana, which embraces characters who eat toenails, collect space-alien feces, or avoid barrels full of eyeballs, along with more ordinary people stuck in situations that challenge their quest for meaning.

Michael Martone and Bryan Furuness edited the collection and Martone wrote a baker's dozen of the stories, many of which include allusions to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio that range from the obvious to the obscure. Anderson experts will nod knowingly when they read a throwaway line about death by toothpick-swallowing or when a character named Clyde questions the reality of a town named Winesburg. (Note for non-experts: Anderson died of peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick, and his fictional Winesburg grew out of his knowledge of the small northern Ohio town called Clyde.) Further complicating the interplay of allusions is the book's subtitle: A Fork River Anthology. Let's see: Edgar Lee Masters wrote Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems in which dead former residents of a midwestern town speak harsh truths about their twisted little lives; Sherwood Anderson was a friend of Master until he (Anderson) ran off with Masters's mistress. 

Yes, it's complicated, but like the best stories, these remain compelling even for those unfamiliar with their influences.

The collection tackles the question of influence in Martone's opening chapter, written in the form of a cease-and-desist order from the lawfirm of  Biddlebaum Cowley Reefy and Swift (names familiar to readers of Winesburg, Ohio, which opens with a chapter focusing on the problems of a character named Wing Biddlebaum). The law firm claims that Winesburg, Ohio--the fictional town, not the actual town in Ohio named Winesburg, which Anderson didn't even know about when he wrote his stories--now where was I? 

Okay: the letter claims that Winesburg owns rights to "the distribution of dramatic monologues and third-person narrations to invoke the grotesque and map the psychophysiological and neurotic manifestations of its inhabitants in order to derive empathic and epiphanic pleasure and/or pain in a controlled hermetic setting," or, to put it more simply, "We have patented Madness. We own Trembling. We extensively market Grief."

Undeterred, these stories unleash their own versions of Madness, Trembling, and Grief, along with Absurdity, Illusion, and Despair. Kelcey Ervick Parker's "Limberlost," for instance, alludes to Gene Stratton Porter's sentimental tear-jerker A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), in which a young Indiana girl escapes from the swamp of provincial life to marry the man of her dreams, but such a fate eludes Parker's protagonist, who abandons her pursuit of a Ph.D. and becomes "an adjunct teacher in the department of Sure, I Can Teach That." After enduring a loss that carefully skirts the borders of the swamp of Limberlost sentimentality, she sees herself as a ghost, "A woman who wandered into this swamp of a town, got lost, and never made it out."

Beau Morrow (created by Robin Black) is also stuck, not in a swamp but behind a meat counter that separates him from his passion, "Flesh between our flesh, Death surrounded by desire." Meanwhile, "Manchild" Morrison, the creation of Porter Shreve, desperately seeks escape from his starring role in local sports legend. 

Despite their isolation, these characters, like those in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, occasionally experience fleeting moments of communion, such as when the adolescent protester in Shannon Cain's "Occupy Winesburg" sees her solitary cry of pain draw together neighbors in solidarity with her futility. Something similar happens when residents watch Constance H. Wootin paint the post office mural where those residents are painted into permanent togetherness contingent on continual change. She leaves her own figure unfinished, however, her face "an empty outline" until she completes "all of my studies of this little precinct of this unending, this infinite, heaven."

Michael Martone created Constance H. Wootin along with other distinctive voices that wobble along a fine line dividing heaven and hell, meaning and futility, absence and presence. Walt 'Helper' Voltz, for instance, walks a short line of railroad that connects life,  death, past, and present, while Ken of Ottumwa sees the future coming into focus right in front of his face. Ken, a photographer committed to making pictures using old-fashioned film and chemicals, arrives to takes yearbook photos of Winesburg's Smartphone-equipped students:
They make pictures of each other. They make pictures of each other making pictures. They make pictures of each other making pictures of each other. And then (I know it) they begin sending the pictures they have made to each other. I can hear the phones ringing, singing, buzzing, clicking as they receive the pictures. I can feel them, the pictures, being sent in the air around me like the floating after-images of all the real pictures I make of the same children on the spinning piano stool in front of the silver-white background strobing on the excited filmy film of my retina.
Martone plays even more complexly with self-referential images in "Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, Indiana," which is unquotable except in full so you'd better go read it.

In fact, you'd better read all of it. A few characters are less compelling than others, but as Marny Vanderrost reminds us, "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

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