(published in The Manhattan Mercury 1/24/2010)
If it's true that literature is an on-going conversation – a conceit too often repeated to be attributed to anyone – then before discussing a work of fiction, one should first consider a work that preceded its creation. This is actually much less contrived than it sounds, for when hearing of a new novel, say one that takes place in a single day, who of us doesn't think, “Ah, Woolf,” or “Ah, Joyce,” and then begin making comparisons?
I wasn't 10 pages into Darrin Doyle's new novel, when I thought to myself, “Ah, Donald Barthelme.” In particular, I was reminded of his story, “I Bought a Little City” (Ain't it Pretty), in which a wealthy man purchases Galveston, Texas. This isn't, in reality, a thing one can do, but that doesn't stop the protagonist from telling, in plainest detail, what he did with his new acquisition:
“I went out on the streets then and shot six thousand dogs. This gave me great satisfaction and you have no idea how wonderfully it improved the city for the better...Then I went down to the Galveston News, the morning paper, and wrote an editorial denouncing myself as the vilest creature the good God had ever placed on earth.”
We accept the circumstance, that he purchased Galveston, because it's immediately presented, and also because the story is interesting, well-written, and engaging. This is how Doyle's narrative works as well.
In the fictitious “Note From the Editor,” we are informed that from 1997 to 1999, the beautiful and famous eatist Audrey Mapes ate the city of Kalamazoo, Mich. The text of the book is supposedly a compilation of hand-written notes jotted down by her sister McKenna, notes purchased by D. M. Doyle. “There was no cohesion to the random jottings. No story,” the editor explains. “So Mr. Doyle sculpted it, trimmed it, molded it; like Dr. Frankenstein, he stitched together the necrotic segments in order to breath life into the rantings of this decidedly melancholy and plain woman.
The narrative then follows. Each chapter is short, easily digestible, if you will, and resembles a cleaned up note, one given both a thematic and narrative arc. They don't follow chronologically, but instead jump around, spending time with each member of the Mapes family: Grandma Pencil with her religious judgment of Audrey's obsession; Audrey's brother, Toby, whose own excessive eating aims at bulking up, at achieving the perfect body; her mother, Misty, listless but loving; her father Murray, a factory worker by day and inventor by night (his patents include, “the Clock Hat, the Squeezable Survival Kit...the Collapsible Ukulele with Hairbrush”); and of course Audrey herself, stunningly beautiful despite her birth defects – an iron stomach and two stumps instead of feet.
The finale is known from the beginning – “she was the gentlest earthquake, the softest tsunami” – therefore, Doyle shows us the path as opposed to constantly pushing us toward the destination.
As a metaphor, the possibilities are endless. A girl who can't sate her appetite for nonfood could be a stand in for obesity, alcoholism, sex and/or drug addiction, the lifelong search for love, faith, family. The story of Kalamazoo, its rise and fall, growth then total destruction, could parallel the fate of any number of Michigan cities. To investigate these any further, however, would be purely academic. We are concerned with the simple question, “Is it worth reading?”
I answer a resounding, “Yes!” Not because it is profoundly meaningful – it is – but because the story is sensational, worth telling, and executed with a concision and clarity that brings us into the fold of the narrative. Perhaps even better than the descriptions of her eating, are the reactions of the townspeople:
“All they could do was stare. It was shocking, deeply unreal. Physically numbing. Narcotic...and at the same time it seemed, for lack of a better word, expected. Comforting.
“Of course, their mind-blown minds said. Of course there is a shapely woman with the face of an angel standing in my living room, gorging herself on my coffee table. Why wouldn't there be?”
In a climate of literary plots that tell of “The time nothing didn't happen,” Doyle is audacious enough to write about “The time something did happen!” I believe this is a positive trend taking place in American fiction, and I applaud him.
As this is a time for predictions, I would like to lay down one of my own: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo will win the Pulitzer Prize this year. If it doesn't, this will simply be because the committee either didn't read it, or because they understood and enjoyed it too well.
Buy, borrow or steal this book; you won't be sorry.