Traci O. Connor, Recipes for Endangered Species, Tarpaulin Sky, 2010
Reviewed by Matt Dube
Hormones have produced as many writers as trauma ever did. Chemical bombs go off and transform our perspectives, forcing us to notice different worlds, hurling us into different bodies, our own and others. And then, hormonal and high school traumas behind us, we settle back into ourselves, into worlds and bodies that are manageable, stable, and safe. Traci O Connor's stories in Recipes for Endangered Species suggest a writer who never did settle but who exists instead in frenzied emotional and physical spaces that, till now, seemed unsustainable, experiences that send us back to bed, twisting sheets against our pliable bodies.
To read Connor's stories, I want you to understand, is to return to that world of permeable existences, where points of view shift and tilt, almost imperceptibly, and bring you to understand identity differently than what you previously allowed for: these disparate voices, these parallax views, the linguistic franks belong together, the stories say, and the way Connor bends and warps language in humid paragraphs, doesn't let you argue. But enough with metaphor and generalities: these stories succeed on their particulars, and it is on their particulars that we should discuss them.
Take "Van Gogh Dreams," the story in this collection I am most familiar with, since I published it back in 2006. The story is, on a surface level, the interior monologue of a woman with a crush on her neighbor so strong that she feels jealous of the stray cat that nuzzles up against the object of him. This overflow of emotion is matched by a sense of formal overflow as well—in this story, that means that excerpts from the letters of Van Gogh are interspersed into the narrative flow, without any acknowledgement of their place in the story (for example, telling us that one of the characters is reading the letters); instead, we must find our own way of reconciling these pieces—perhaps the narrator's mental state somehow mirrors that of Van Gogh, one must hypothesize, especially when the language of the letters feeds directly back into the present-day narration. When the stray cat meets its grisly end, it happens off the page, and while the woman at the story's center doesn't seem entirely surprised the cat is gone, she, or maybe it's Connor who decides, doesn't narrate the scene but instead leaves it out. This moment instead transpires in some weird overheated ellipsis where memory is foggy because the reptile brain is in control—it happened in a textual blackout.
The way the stories elude conventional structures of identity, temporality, and disclosure makes them experimental in the truest sense; these are not stories that lend themselves to Freytag's triangle or Genette's levels of narration, at least not in any way I could discern. But even in the absence of traditional markers of academic interpretation, the characters and events bear more than a passing resemblance to people you know—each story generates flashes of recognition that guide you through; I've felt that way, you say, and though you couldn't consciously identify what that feeling was, it carries you through to the next emotional node of meaning. It helps, too, that Connor's sentences pulse and groove, are fully embodied things. Take this passage from the story "Zombie":
Imagine being, let's say, eight years old: push out pull in, in and out—your feet punch punching the sky. The winking sun. The sand moving beneath you. Your hands full up with chain. And, at just the right tempo, how you could marry, for a few romantic seconds, again and again, a total stranger. (51)
The use of the second person pronoun here is incidental to the effect, one many stories here sustain, or carrying you forward into these stories that, when describes, might feel forbidding but which, when read, become all encompassing.
A final note: noting the hormonal tendencies of Connor's stories should not in any way be taken to suggest that her mentality is frozen in those teenage years. On the contrary. These are adult stories, concerned with the traditional adult concerns of vocation and community-building. Instead of feeling like a voice from the past, Connor's stories suggest a separate path, one all of us were tempted to follow but which few of us had Connor's courage to steadily pursue.