Carrying the Body

Dawn Raffel (Scribner)

I am a big fan of stylistic experimentation in writing. I thought the stream of consciousness in Ulysses was interesting (although way too long) and Denis Johnson's poetic narrative in Jesus' Son created one of my favorite books of all time. The cutesy, repetitive, and oblique technique used in Dawn Raffel's Carrying the Body, however, doesn't work at all.

Raffel is working with a fairly interesting, if depressing plot. A young mother returns to her childhood home with her sickly young son. Her older sister still lives in the house with her bemused father, who has been absent since the tragic loss of their mother. The older sister is bitter, lonely, and drunk, yet only 30 years old. The younger sister has come back in search of something in the house. A pretty good story, but honestly, one I can only retell because I read the dust jacket.

Raffel's writing is horribly cryptic, and yet excessively repetitive, especially for a "novel" only 126 pages long. I read the book in about an hour and a half, and spent most of the time confused, thinking back to the jacket summary: "Oh, she must be looking for the gem," I would think. Or, "oh, this must be a reference to the child's father." Never was I consumed, never did I think the book was clever. I was either bored with the repetition of the few overused themes--the dead mother, the smell of flowers, and the story of the three little pigs--or the constant repetition of the words "of course" (I believe to denote a character thinking).

The book is so obsessed with its self-conscious style that the story goes in circles rather than forward: "Night at last, the aunt thought. The child, at least for the moment, at rest, embraced by a dream or stillness, the aunt thought."

It's amazing that Scribner would publish such a seemingly unfinished and uninteresting work. I never felt as though I learned anything about any of the characters, I never related to them or felt sorry for them or even really understood what was wrong with them, or for that matter, what was right with them. So what's the point? You could argue that the work has some poetic value or that it crafts words and images in an artistic manner. But imagine an entire book filled with paragraphs like, "Cheek. Chin. Blown breath. A bundle of fabric." The only thing Raffel excels at is the art of disregarding the reader. KATIE SHIMER