Tip of the Iceberg
Emily Carter’s first collection of interlinked short stories sparkles with knifelike prose, carving out a world that, on the surface, should be hellish. Instead, Carter reveals the momentary comforts and consolations of infernal suffering, and mediates in language that shines like polished pebbles the experiences of her narrating persona, Glory.
Glory lives in Minneapolis but grew up in New York. Her narratives are a mixture of memories and half-realised desires, sometimes seemingly inconsequential, other times bursting with barely suppressed energies, always lucid, gripping and mordantly funny. She tells of addiction and dependence, of weaning off, of relapsing, of supplementary addictions, of the lifestyle “choices” enforced on addicts, of the company they must keep, of the society of addiction, of the beliefs and self-beliefs that fuel or crash them (the last word of the book is “religion”). At the same time Glory’s world is one of resilient solitude, in which the radio’s voice can become a vatic, authoritative monotone laden with threat and significance:
At the hour in the middle of the night when there is nothing moving, your digital clock radio will come on all at once, for no other reason than it’s as you’ve always suspected: inanimate objects aren’t inanimate at all, but are instead possessed of soul and will, and mean you no good. At first it will sound far away, tinny-soft and static, like an orange-and-yellow meringue floating out from behind corrugated bodega awnings, or like a memory of listening to music in a Jersey seaside town with its striped revival tents, stone canals, and long-gone-from-high-school students manning the arcades by the Atlantic with their shag haircuts and pebble-gray eyes. Then the sound will become audibly swollen, and even though you try to switch the dial, switch it off, yank the plug, let the gadget sail clacking and clattering into the wall, its chatter won’t stop.
This is high quality writing, rhythmic and superbly paced, full of meandering but disturbingly relevant detail that adds to the tension incrementally, form imitating content as the sentences extend into tangible breathless terror.
Glory’s world is one of highly ritualized, undesirable but essential activities, all constituting a massive displacement from the core themes of her existence. To add to the mix of the necessary and the unwanted, Glory is HIV-positive (she advertises her romantic, that is, sexual, availability in a magazine called Positive People), a condition that imposes its own specific constraints on her behaviour but which she refuses as an identity category, a burden defining her life by its own weight. How much of Emily Carter’s writing is autobiographical one dare not tell, but these stories gleam with the inner light of authenticity, right down to the emotional register upon which Glory effortlessly plays. Her voice teases the mind, turns soothing and vivacious, austere and luxurious, rhythmic and jagged, and the reader is softly insinuated into a world where everything slips slightly out of kilter, all shows itself awry, and people speak askance. Carter’s writing demands to be turned in the light to display itself to maximum effect, and shows in this turning her exquisite prowess with words and their properties.
Glory occupies pole position in this world, as its narrator, its mediator and its central protagonist. While her maturing consciousness presents itself in different ways as the collection progresses, it’s clear that in the opening stories she maps out for us her territory, describing Minneapolis itself in terms that evoke both the teenager’s crypto-paranoid take on the world and the weary-experienced adult’s cynical shimmy:
The rush of invisible homebound traffic on the other side of the sound wall carries the future in its drone and whisper: Listen, the traffic will tell you, this is a town that isn’t going to be a town much longer, soon it will become a theme park whose intention is to recreate the days when there were towns, and men had jobs in them so they could buy small houses where their families would be relatively safe, except from whatever went on inside them, including the secret familial events not useful in illuminating the theme park’s basic premise which will be this: America Is Full Of Towns Just Like This, Foaming Happily With Hardworking Citizens Who Know Their Way Home. This is the oracle droned by the sleeping sound of the cars on the main artery out of downtown and into the suburbs, a monotonous and irresistible song.
This is Stepford or Orange County territory, a bland mixture of the urban and suburban, the immediate and the mediated. It remains somehow external to Glory’s life, merely a backdrop to her activities, which are almost wholly focused on the conscious exercising of self-control. Consequently, the domestic dramas that constitute short tragedies like “Bad Boy Walking” or “Zemecki’s Cat” are charged with a kind of dispassionate distance that’s evident both in the narration and in the dislocation of the characters. Carter’s writing is at its most perceptive in allowing the words to imply much more than they say, and in making this a theme of her narratives:
She broke the silence. “Your friend Dooley doesn’t really care about you,” she said. “He means well, but he’s kind of an asshole.” She was the kind of person who spoke only the tip of her iceberg, letting the thoughts build and float in the water until they were solid.
Without him realizing it, something invisible and gentle, but irresistible, like a tide, was carrying him, and he found himself lying with his big head on her lap, reminding her, he was sure, of Precious in one of his sweeter moments.
Glory Goes and Gets Some contains many such half-spoken icebergs. It’s a deeply felt, deeply thoughtful meditation that consistently points us in the direction of certain truths we’d never find on our own, and vitally warns us about others that would certainly sink us if we ignored them.