Anne N. Marino
You don't need a compass to navigate Anne N. Marino's debut novel, The Collapsible World. Larry is the drug-addicted, anesthesiologist daddy. Midge is the freshly absent mommy. Nina is the genius-turned-stripper older sibling. Lillie is the dyslexic alcoholic narrator. Stick them all in San Francisco's North Beach, wrap them up in a cartography metaphor, throw a few other oddballs in the mix, and voila! 171 pages later, you have yourself a little book. There is nothing clever here. Nothing even remotely show-offy or slick, just in-your-face minimalism, told in the first person, present tense, with a few brush strokes of crafty language, a few unique descriptions: "His mouth is a crusty paper-cut line."
The story takes place during the month of October, and the Northern California mist has moved out to sea, producing a relentless, heat-infested backdrop. Marino does get an A for avoiding all the usual San Francisco clichés. There are no cable cars, no Golden Gate Bridge rising from the fog, no detailed descriptions of Painted Ladies. (In fact the only architectural description is an off-hand, "My parents' Victorian-style house, a novelty in this neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings and boxy two-story houses, survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. The seams are showing on the inside while the outside gets painted every five years--purple, gold, blue, and black, the mysterious colors of charm.") Marino describes the setting intimately, with her narrator's particular emotional palette: "October. San Francisco is stale and still. The fog has evaporated and left the city dry and dusty like unused china. The sky is as sheer as smoke against a pane of glass. It is difficult to breathe."
The difficulty Lillie has in breathing, we quickly realize, is partly due to a lingering drunk, partly due to her fucked-up father having left a needy message on her answering machine, and partly because she's been up all night screwing a cop. Larry's message has to do with Midge. She's gone, and her absence is one of the major elements in the sparse narrative.
Lillie and Nina inherit the role of caretaker for Larry, and soon come across some evidence that the jig is about to be up. The hospital is on to him and his Fentanyl poaching. When finally confronted by his daughters, Larry offers disappointment in them as an excuse. After all, Nina has a photographic memory; she's a genius who once wrote the entire Webster's unabridged dictionary on her bedroom walls. What a tragedy that she's waving her tits around in an establishment called the Trap Door. And Lillie, well, she's a drunk who clerks in a dusty old map store.
Lillie does work in a map store. Not a touristy Powell's Travel Store kind of map store, but a serious house of cartography. The owner of the store, Thomas Finch, an avuncular presence Lillie has known since childhood, offers Lillie sanctuary in the form of "gold-brown, dog-eared maps and antique globes," and special treasures, such as, (metaphor, this way), "The Collapsible World," which, as its name indicates, is a replica of the earth constructed with gores of linen on a collapsible frame. Reading and spelling are difficult for Lillie, but, as with many dyslexics, she has the ability to see three-dimensionally, and can visualize place through the examination of its cartographic representation. Finch's Map Maker is the only place Lillie doesn't feel like a complete freak. This powerful gift of hers goes pretty much unexploited throughout the course of the book, or perhaps Marino's touch is just extremely light.
This is in contrast to when Lillie first describes her condition, her self-characterization on page 13: "As I got older, I got smarter. I learned to size up a person and chart him or her in my head like a map, a useful method to circumvent painful situations. But my ever-present sense of suspicion is costly, leaving me feeling alone in the world." That last sentence may be too self-aware for the beginning of a book.
There is a scene where the cop-boyfriend takes Lillie blasting, and it turns out she's a natural. It would have been an opportunity to delve into the whole perceptual-impairment thing via unleashed rage, but Marino doesn't go there. In fact, Marino doesn't go a lot of places, choosing her carefully charted course instead --the month of October; the cataclysmic deconstruction of the narrator's family; the map metaphor; and the juxtaposition of decadence and humanity.
The Collapsible World is a quick read. (I'm a pathologically slow reader and I devoured it in less than a weekend.) By the time you sprint to the end of the book, you'll discover that unlike the collapsible globe in Lillie's map store, Marino's novel is not bound by its perimeters. In fact, at the book's end, the reader is left between breaths, hungry for more, hanging in a balance as sparse and black as the universe.