Tea, Ghosts, and Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution
What is she trying to do? my friend asked me.
We had come to read in each other’s company, but our books traveled, and I wound up tearing happily through part of the first book of The Hunger Games series while my friend held my copy of Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution in her hands, turning it occasionally, shaking it a few times, as though she needed something to fall into place or else fall out of it onto the table between us where it could be revealed for what it was, clearly, by the light of the tea shop window. But if something materialized and fell out, what would it be? A tiny figurine of a Southern Belle wearing a hoopskirt, swigging from a bottle of whiskey? Maybe the tumble-out-prize would be a set of flash cards, each one bearing a name of a character on one side and, on the other, a corresponding list of ailments, flaws, tragic implications. Keep them close as you read, I would tell my friend, because compared to the tight, three-part schematic of The Hunger Games, the shattered mosaic of Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution is obliquely complex, constructed of poetic abstractions, a justified patchwork of words and appropriated text from a 1938 Confederate Ball Program Guide; then, vignette follows vignette to cobble together flash-brief but photographically intense images of familial history. In five parts, each bearing its own cryptic and encoded pattern, Saterstrom writes a tragedy, sometimes in first person, conveying a journey through both cultural and personal decay in a manner that feels like less like a novel—at least a novel in the way my friend was expecting one to feel—and more like flipping through the pages of an old and crumbling album of mementos and secrets.
The Pink Institution follows a Mississippi family as its members live out cross-generational violence and turmoil amid eroding social systems and the resulting squalor of the ruined land in which they live. Establishing a dialogue between place and personas, Saterstrom opens with graphic placards proclaiming the glory of an ugly past: “Unlike many past civilizations which acquired tremendous wealth these people, although gay and admirers of the beautiful in all things [ text smear ] remained deeply religious. Daily prayers were said by the master of the plantation in which all the household reverently joined.” With this smug, cloying voice on one side of the page, Saterstrom spells out misery on its opposite side:
“A mother shits the bed stomach pounding stuffed with too big a heart goes soft in the middle and it comes.”
Arranged for graphic impact, each word holds its space, its visual and syntactic significance, no matter its semantic depth; every moment of birth is as vivid as the birth itself. The effect is varied, but disturbing in that the form of a novel does not generally look like graphic art or poetry, though there is a story here that moves along clear, linear lines. The baby grows up to be a woman named Azela, who falls in love with Willie, who goes to war. Coming home to Mississippi, Willie finds his young wife has fallen into alcoholism, sexual avarice, desperate emptiness, and illness. These damaged lives unwind, intertwine while their toddler child looks on—the stuff of any good, Southern Gothic novel.
Do you think word pictures and cut outs can be a novel? my friend asks.
She waves the book around. Newspaper clippings, bits of decaying photographs, family folklore, stories told after one too many beers in the halting voice of failing memory, all float like ghosts through the air of our conversation. We tell each other a number of stories.
My friend had a great aunty who braided tufts of her dead husbands (plural) hair into a brooch and wore it to every family event. Maybe she wore it every day, though no one can be sure since few of them, maybe none of them, visited her aside from the weddings and funerals she kept showing up for, wearing the dead men’s hair. Did she wear because she loved them? Because she thought the ugly, hairy chords were beautiful, beautifully chestnut, black, silver?
I had a great uncle who lost a piece of his hand to a mule plow when he was young and a piece of his face to cancer when he was old. He would suck a burning cigar to the butt andbillow smoke, lips pressed shut, through the dime-round hole in his cheek. He would laugh at himself, at us. He would say, I’ve kept up with most of me.
Saterstrom tells many small stories to form one whole, her poetry and appropriation. Almost all of them are horrifying. Southernly so. The Gothic is classic, but her dialectic is something else.
But what is this? I was just getting used to the idea poetry, my friend points to the first page of the next section, which begins with the title, “I can never recover my object” and a list:
Saterstrom goes on to confirm what the poetry and iconography of the first part of her work has prepared us for: In a place where the days of slavery are commemorated with balls and pageants, where the dead thrive, where children are nuisances at best, chattel when there is opportunity to use them, and where parents are hopelessly lost in the obliteration of excess, there can be no lasting goodness.
In delineated sections, beginning with “Childhood Objects” and “Maidenhood Objects”, the author offers glimpses of broken innocence, as when one daughter, Aza, hears her father confirming after having a blood test with surprise that she is, after all, his child. Aza falls back in apparent shock, dangling her braids into the open flame of a gas heater: “They went up in flames, then caught her whole head on fire.” The scene is starkly depicted, but, as an effect of its vignette frame, its trauma becomes itemized, added to the string of other traumas, worldly and apparitional: “The family gathered in the living room. They saw what appeared to be muddy footprints of a large man going across the ceiling. It looked like the man had been running.” Brutalities being equal to hauntings—sudden, dangerous, ubiquitous—Saterstrom creates an air of surreal but palpable misery. It is not the place for childhood, nor the place for a girl growing out of childhood.
This, my friend argues, is impossible.
Here is what she found impossible, from start to finish: “Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.’”
The objection: There has to be more. You can’t just leave this. The characters can’t just walk away.
But I find it perfectly plausible in that the man who threw the chair was known to be drunk a good deal of the time, was apportioned some power as a judge in this tiny town, and was himself at least as metaphorical as physical. The overlay of symbol and action is powerful, emotionally shattering in its own right, and in that sense, completely congruent with what I know is possible, on the page and in life. And of course you would leave immediately afterward. Imagine the harm staying could do. It is a glimpse at something only glimpsed, because deep observation would have been unthinkable. Here is a motto common to the Southern child, I believe, in one form or another: If it’s bad, live it quickly, walk away, don’t linger. Remember Lot’s wife.
And there was more to absorb. As Willie and Azalea fall into sexual exaggeration and male characters emerge as opportunistic abusers, the girls of Saterstrom’s saga grow into their own problems. The character who will become the narrator’s mother, Aza, begins to act out her trauma: “Aza swallowed an entire bottle of Vitamin B pills in a suicide attempt. Everyone found it amusing, even Aza. Three weeks later, she went to a bride, partially undressed, climbed over the railing, and got her toes close to the edge.” As the narrator enters the story and becomes an embodied witness to suicides, attempted suicides, and remorseless human waste, the mystery becomes less ghostly, more a matter of the problems inherent in expression and understanding under extreme conditions: “Kodacolor; c. 1976—ochre; chalking line; of hips inch fat; padded; soft whipping; reigns; re; semblances; us from the one; one name; the origin al; no one; can remember; […].” Isn’t this the very problem with memories and mementos, I say to my friend, don’t you always feel like you are seeing what really happened in fragments? Even in photographs—though we think of them as being so literal, so factual—the whole, round truth behind an image has to be reduced to a flat surface to be captured on film, seen afterward only superficially, as if the event itself rather than the view of it were something superficial. This made her frown and talk about a picture of her mother that she lost in a move. Her mother, who never let her children own any pets no matter how they pleaded for one, was grinning, laughing even, cradling a dachshund no one remembers by name or relationship. In the photo, her mother appears to be waving the dog’s paw at whoever was taking her picture. My friend says she never knew what she thought about the picture. Why? And does the story of the dog matter to the way her mother felt about dogs, or is it irrelevant? Does it alter your mother or alter how you see her? We cannot agree, so we go back to the work of the book between us.
In the final pages of The Pink Institution, Saterstrom’s narrator sees her mother awaken from another suicidal overdose after a coma. As the breathing tube is pulled from her throat, she says, “I can talk I can talk.” Miraculous rebirth, confirmation of existence, a test of reality, all of it at once, this is the moment that tempts redemption. But in the South, redemption is elusive as breath, exists in the point of view through which history is visited: “Girl (alone) on a dirt road. She walks in a tire rut gutter. Before and behind her, equidistant nothing. […] Her face drain: (a valve scamper). Then, the scene ends. Do you think she was losing her breath or catching it? I think she was catching it.”
I think Saterstrom’s protagonist was catching her breath, too. But the light started to slide down the side of the window we were sitting beside, the teapot was cold, empty but for the dregs, and I was out of money for more. We had talked about the South and memory, family and the way life happens again and again after it has happened. What is this? We were tired and needed, yes, we needed to catch our breath. Ghosts pushed their faces to the window, hoping we would leave a little breath for them.
Bruno Schulz—The Street of Crocodiles
The Incarnations of Metaphor – Part 1.
Bruno Schulz is a known love mostly to graduate students and their writerly professors. An intensely shy man, forty something in 1934, Schulz published late and only after coaxing and much intervention by friends and friends of friends with a clear understanding of beauty and brilliance. Described as gaunt, homely, bleak, Schulz, an art teacher, was held by many in his time to be the greatest living Polish writer. For all of his quiet fame, his rational absurdity, his death was stamped by the ugliness of historically disproportionate violence. Either the Nazis targeted him for assassination on the streets of the Jewish ghetto in Drogobych, his hometown, precisely because he was an artist (according to Jerzy Ficowski, the Penguin Classics translator of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles) or he was caught in a sudden burst of random gunfire (this according to Michael Kandel who provides the introduction to the same 1977 edition of Crocodiles). It’s an unimaginably blunt end for such an intricate artist. His family and his home town provide much of the substance of The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz’s collection of mythically surreal stories told from the point of view of a boy whose observations of life are not jaded by a fastidious sense of reality; what the child sees and therefore describes as the narrator is open to the influences of all he knows, and much that he only guesses at. The child’s eye renders his world as alive, down to the last leaf and stroke of light, a quickening that imbues the world with a current of life and consciousness.
In “August”, the initial story of the collection, Schulz’s narrator observes life in his little village as house-gardens flourish in the final days of bright heat; as the summer’s sunflowers decline, the boy describes the picture of their society: “[…] the naïve, suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower’s tragedy” (Schulz 28). The imagery acts as a thematic pointer, a picturesque depiction of the disregard of the provincial towards the powerfully wild, a vein that will extend into the adult relationships the child observes throughout the stories to come. Here, the effect is to establish an air of overgrown and uncontrollable abundance, tangled with itself, busy with its own certainty and its own inevitable decline; even in the flowering garden, the grandiose sunflower passes its moment of beauty to become “monstrous” and yet evokes no sympathy from its prim companions (28). The intentions of the garden will be echoed by observations of family and acquaintances thus entangled.
As the year descends into winter, the boy’s father transforms—fathers cannot seem to help themselves but to transform— into a vaporous state. The man recedes from his life, his sanity, and his family. In “Birds”, the father’s new hobby, undertaken as an expressive mania, produces a doubling encounter with a condor: “It has an emaciated ascetic, a Buddhist lama, full of imperturbable dignity in its behavior, guided by the rigid ceremonial of its great species […] it seemed, with its stony profile, like an older brother of my father’s” (48-49). Like the aged sunflower, the condor occurs in a personified state that acts as a purposeful reflection of the peopled world; the bird is cast in relation to the father, its own grim implication and dignified placidity acting as a model, a persona to which the man might aspire to emulate. Instead, the father assumes the station of the sunflower, past his prime, too grand and colorful to comprehend.
Eventually, the condor and the father merge in the boy’s mind. In a later story, “Cockroaches”, the father’s absence is explained by the boy with varying stories of loss and transformation. The condor appears again when the child confronts the mother: “‘I have been wanting to ask you for a long time: it is he, isn’t it?’ And although I did not point to the condor even with my eyes, Mother guessed at once […]” (113). The sawdust stuffed condor and the father are one. The bird’s “senile head” and “solemnly hieratic air” evokes the mixture of disappointment and appreciation the boy has felt for the man. With this transferal of identity, Schulz insinuates the equality of the trade—the bird for the father, less volatile but no less mysterious, no less tragic, fading, and human. In this way, reality coexists with the fantasy the boy inhabits; his narration is reliable in a world that is alive, sentient, unparadigmed.
Bruno Schulz breathes life into every particle of reality, and therein reorders the boundaries of what is real, what is subjective. Just as the flower foretells of the fate of the father, the condor and his father become one and then, as time moves on, the father reemerges, unflatteringly human. The effect in whole of the child’s narration is congruent, as all is shaped within the same potentiality, the same world of possibilities, the boy being both the observer and the creator of this world—for observation is not separate from the act of origination. Schulz’s images are so pure, the child lives and thus does his creation.
Seeing the beauty of Bruno Schulz is itself an act of creation. I invite everyone who has not—or who has not for a long time—to read Schulz and to ruminate in the vein of his metaphorical mine as this strangely baggaged year begins.