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I’m of two minds when it comes to Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel:

1. Lin’s doing something here, but it may be hard to recognize exactly what he’s doing because it feels like it comes from a realist, even documentary, place. Which is something I think I only recognize because he’s documenting what it’s like to be a twenty-something artfuck in a big city, right this minute in history. In the opening scene, Sam is talking on Google chat with what I call an ‘Internet friend.’ This is a person he’s met with in real life, but it wasn’t easy and fluid in an F2F context; they barely talked IRL. But online, they can take great leaps of intimacy, make easy jokes, and have a private friendship where they can talk about anything. At the tail end of the story, Sam encounters another person that he knows from the nebulous online world, and the time they spend together is a mirror for that first digitized interaction. Sam is motivated by a particular eros, a constant desire to come together with others in the hope that something will happen, and his brief stints in police custody (for shoplifting) are incredible by dint of the fact that these experiences are so easily adapted into his life of aimless coming together. It’s as if the men he sits in a cell with are almost (but not quite) objects or props in the perpetual performance that Lin is both observing and creating. The way that Lin refuses to give the reader a sense of depth to Sam and his nearly interchangeable cast of friends and acquaintances is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story that takes place completely on the surface, where meanings are interchangeable. Drinking iced coffee in the sun is pleasurable, but empty, just like the community service that Sam is sentenced to after his first arrest is something that passes the time, but there is no take away lesson and Sam shoplifts again, is arrested again. This total lack of a sticking quality, this slickness of being and experiencing the world is something that resonates deeply with me, and I can recognize in myself and my circle of friends. You can just say almost any fucked up shit for the sake of it:

“Luis,” said Sam. “What is happening. It’s Saturday.”

“I think we are going insane,” said Luis. “From not being around people. We are starting to go inside ourselves, and play around inside of our own mental illness. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What should I eat,” said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”

“Cereal,” said Luis.

And it might not matter. Even when Sam’s one time lover Sheila ends up in psychiatric care, it’s just another borderline meaningless thing. The characters often (and I do this too!) verbalize their feelings, especially if the feelings are positive. They say “I feel good.” Or, “I’m feeling really good right now.” As if the feelings themselves are noteworthy, more so than the circumstances that enable those good feelings. Or maybe it’s in part a reaction to the strange intimacies of text based friendships. Either way, it’s both chilling and strangely vindicating to see this aspect of my life presented [without comment] on the page.

2. But does this strange fealty to life, young and shallow artfucky commodified and digitized life, mean that a book like this is a good one? I haven’t read Lin’s other novel, or his poetry, but I like parts of his older blog Reader of Depressing Books. But I hope that Lin’s other books are nothing like this one, in shape or content. Because I would hate to think that there is more than one of these out there, more than one shallow and repetitive (real!) meaningless story about a person who has awkward and vague romantic or sexual relationships, wandering about in parks and libraries day after endless day, thinking about either being FUBAR or absolutely nothing. In a weird way, Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the best books I’ve read this year because it’s making me think really hard about why I don’t like it. I’ve read it twice, trying to figure these things out. I’m resistant to the idea that art should be basically meaningless and unaffecting, even if some parts of life are, or come to be seen that way. I want this book to be the only one like it in the world, in all of history, because by virtue of that watery singularity, I can manipulate my understanding of what Lin is doing here into something that coheres into significance, and then do the same with all of the aimless and subjectless G-chats and park coffees that have made up so much of my life. But that would be a lie on both accounts. Lin is like the antithesis of the big young 1990s writers, the anti Franzen, the anti Wallace; there is no reaching for depth, no human virtue glinting under the sharp light of meaning saturated prose, nothing sacred to worship or terribly trying to overcome. Things are just things, the world of experience is permeated with a knowing and ultimately neutral vagueness, and we endlessly repeat ourselves, without comment. So maybe the reason I didn’t like it is just that this isn’t the present I wanted back when it was the future. I’d hoped for so much more.

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Before You Suffocate Your Oxwn Fool Self book cover, Bookside Table, EMK Keeler

“It’s called love, shithead. You hurt people and then you make it better.”

Danielle Evans’ stories, collected here in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, are about families, both the ones you choose and the ones that have, through the mechanisms of fate, chosen you. They are about people, mostly young, smart, black women, who experiment with boundaries, loyalties, and the process of growing up.

Evans uses either a very close indirect or first person voice, and though there is a lot of variety in the characters that populate this collection, her prose and characterization are consistently engaging. Though many of these pieces tackle dense and emotional themes (“Snakes” explores racism in a mixed race family, “Harvest” is a small and revelatory revolt against a system that privileges the desire for white babies over black ones, “Robet E. Lee is Dead” describes the complicated relationship that young, black, middle class southerners have with histories of place), Evans’ powerful and compelling style almost always handles these potentially disablingly deep fissures with a gentle touch; these stories are first and foremost works of art, and while their setting and subject matter are charged they are not the faux literature of the crusade.

Besides, just as the title (taken from a poem about being in the middle, about being black in a white world, by Donna Kate Rushin) suggests, for the most part these characters, facing very different struggles, have a tendency to obstruct their own paths. Each story seems to grow out of a pivotal moment, a man returning from military service, a teenager losing her virginity, a college freshman trying to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,  and Evans’ subtle and detailed prose is a near-perfect conduit for these momentary tensions that stretch out and shape the lives of these characters. At its heart Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is made up of a dogged and anxious love;  a love for a future that can never quite deliver you out of your past.

“I watched my feet as though they belonged to someone else. I looked up at the sky, feeling grown and full of something sad and aching to be known.”

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.

Emily M Keeler, Super Sad True Love Story, Bookside TableSuper Sad True Love Story was one of those rare books that entered my life at the absolutely optimal time. It’s made maximum impact on how I’ll remember the way the world looks right now.  Gary Shteyngart’s  satirical dystopia, published only last year, is terrifying in its acute diagnoses of a consumerist-nihilistic-techno-fascist future. It’s also a joy to read, for Shteyngart’s hilarious bubble-bursting and total mastery of this apocalyptic post-American prose landscape.

While I don’t want to rob you of the joy of discovering the details that Shteyngart invents, I have to tell you that this novel is exceptional for the pulsating pleasure that goes into them. One detail that tickled my cynical fancy was one character’s university degree; she majored in Images with a minor in Assertiveness.

Excellent books, films, and songs, take you to a new place, or a new vantage point for seeing a place you know well. Art, for me, is an invitation to freshen up your perceptive sensibilities, and it is exhilarating to bear witness to the incredible and deliberate delight that has gone into creating this space of the new. Because Super Sad True Love Story takes place ever so slightly in the future, Shteyngart has created an entire cultural lexicon that is etymologically related to our fractured present. The new words he coins are recognizable splinters from current linguistic turns. Everything is a stark acronym, an erogenous zone  objectified, everything an instance of synecdoche, flattened and reappropriated nouns.  Language recedes from  its voluptuary qualities, becomes a set of modular components, and loses so much weight to fit into a mediated world where windows only open for the extremely rich, absurdly young, and morbidly thin.

There is no space in this world, in this future, for the 99%. One plot point of Super Sad True Love Story includes an occupation of central park by what, in Shteyngart’s nightmare, are called “Low Net Worth Individuals.”  These people have been left behind by the banks and the state, by the perpetually advancing technorati of the profit hoarding private sector. They are in every way malnourished, and they live in central park, demonstrating their refusal to be erased in a world that refuses them basic rights. So they do the only thing they can: They take up space; they refuse relocation; they organize.

Obviously, this scenario has now leaped off the page. And unlike Shteyngart’s uproarious take down of the nightmare future we’ve all implicitly set our sights on, the demonstrations taking place on Wall Street, and in solidarity the world over, are absolutely real. They represent an eruption in the smooth and shallow surface of the American dream. In Shteyngart’s work, the demonstrations only cease once America is literally dismantled for parts and sold off to the countries that form a new financial reign, a new world order. In the waking world, where we currently find ourselves, there is precious little evidence that the end will be so neat, simple, or swift.

The Odious Child book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

These stories are dark. Some of them are shot through with the surreal, and all of them operate in a space of intensely self-aware psychic intimacy. Maybe self-aware is the wrong choice of word, or it’s only the right choice if we’re using it in a layered way, for the self, and awareness of the same, is presented in a layered triplicate in The Odious Child. There is a sense of Carolyn Black’s self awareness, her ability to know when to recede into the shadows of the text and when to present a full face to the world, when to provide you with the shimmer of her mindful prose and when to leave a thought unhinged or unsigned. There are the almost oppressively self-aware characters that populate these eleven stories, each of them demonstrating a strange metacognition that distances them just enough from their experiences to let you come right into the middle distance between their thoughts and their circumstances. And of course, there is the expectation that you gradually bring your own awareness, indeed your own self, into the fray. Because so many of these stores, “Serial Love”, “At the World’s End, Falling Off”, “Martin Amis is in My Bed”, for starters, are about women who spend their days collapsing things into words,  the book invites you to try and untangle experience from language.

And good luck with that. Black’s prose is sometimes spare, cerebral, and cool overall. But there is real warmth in these stories. Her work here reminded me of Sheila Heti and AM Holmes, with her ability to craft these bracing urban fables. But don’t get me wrong, Black’s voice is distinct; there is a great deal of wonderment and an empathetic sense of curiosity about the people at play in these stories. “Tall Girls”, about a man who is in the process of learning what it feels like to imagine something, to fantasize, reads like a celebration of the mystery of the mind, creepy and jubilant in equal parts. The titular story, about a woman who is so distraught and shamed by her beastly child that she fails to notice that her neighborhood is in the middle of either a massacre or an uprising, is striking in its elegance and distressing by virtue of its social prescience.

The collection is strong overall, and the stories sit well together, forming a quilted pattern of the alienation and anxiety of urban life. The Odious Child is an alluring portrait of the magic of the mind to twist and tense under the conditioning of a fractured city. Black’s work here evinces the kind of spirited control that gets my gears turning, and her ability to zero in on details, the myriad tiny fragments of thought and life, ensure that in me she has enchanted a perpetually devoted reader.

I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

33 1/2 series, Let's Talk About Love Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

Taste is a tricky thing. There is a shifting hierarchy of preferences for each player in pursuit of taste, which ideally develops as a process of greater and greater pleasure. But then again, sometimes the things we take pleasure in are in poor taste. In Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson succinctly boils down part of the problem with taste: if ‘good’ taste is an elevated ideal (especially one reached dialectically), then very few people can have it, because good taste would have to be practiced and developed. Good taste requires a specific means of access, the structural and personal resources needed to educate oneself about the markers of aesthetic quality, and the opportunity to try a little bit of everything in order to create an evaluative schema. This is, plainly, not fair. Also, it’s inaccurate. Especially this late in the game of culture, and of cultural studies. But let me back track a bit: what the fuck is taste? And, in development of Wilson’s project, is there an end to it?

Taste is a means of experiencing the world. The word is sensory in nature, but even in it’s etymological origin story the word confers critical evaluation: based on the Old French taster, the Middle English verb tasten means to touch, taste, or test. To develop a sense of taste is to test the quality of whatever it is you are tasting. Wilson is quick to point out that we all have our own subjective “taste biographies” and throughout Let’s Talk About Love, he gives the reader a clue into his own; as a 14 year old living in a mostly white industrial town he hated disco, and later learned to rock his adult body to the glittering beats in Montreal. Our abilities to test for preference are shaped by our social environments, sure. That personal taste is subjective is not exactly a novel idea. We like what we like for myriad reasons, but mostly, I would hope, because what we like is an avenue for pleasure.

However, because what we like is shaped by our experiences, it’s easy to mistake a basic familiarity with a person’s ‘taste biography’ for knowing about the kind of experiences they may have had, and then that for the person they themselves may be. Taste, then, provides a handy metric for measuring other people’s compatibility with ourselves, and each other. But it also works the other way around too. I, for one, have learned to like things, first in the posture of enjoyment, then sometimes the real thing, to negotiate access to a group or person. Don’t tell me you’ve never once been overgenerous in your estimation of some cultural artifact if it meant getting laid, or getting the job. Sometimes, the degree to which you like the person makes you like the thing they like, even if it doesn’t rate well according to your taste rubric; sometimes love or infatuation can obliterate that rubric all together. Taste is an identity marker, and we use it to gauge and manipulate ourselves and others.

But Let’s Talk About Love is not a ‘taste biography’, an index of identity culled from the matrix of pop culture; Wilson’s project is much more subtle, and for my money, much more interesting. Two important things to note: 1.Wilson is a professional music critic. 2. While taste may be social, criticism, taste’s highfalutin’ cousin, is historical.

To the extent that critics can engage in the validation of taste, they are bound in their abilities to shape the future by the time in which they work. Some songs, some albums, are released and go unappreciated until the right critic, attuned to the temperament of culture, can revive them, or restore them, to relevance. Wilson gives the example of disco and metal, as genres, and their rebirth as legitimate markers of cultured taste after their hey day had come and gone. With the passage of enough time, the cannon can be reevaluated, so “The Monkees are now as critically respectable as Jimi Hendrix.”

After giving a brief overview of rockism’s critically anti-pop orientation, and citing a few examples of reflexive, reclaimatory turns in the history of western music, Wilson ends up with some ponderous questions about the effect of this ‘second thought’ criticism: “If critics were wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Brittany Spears now?”

Let’s Talk About Love is an exercise in a new form of music criticism, one that evaluates the place of an album in the larger cultural sphere but also situates those songs within the critics’ own taste biography. Wilson includes one chapter that reads as a straight up review, a longer piece that functions to critically engage the tone and texture of an important, though critically unsatisfying album. His review is standard, well written, relatively nuanced, and evocative of the sound a listener might expect. But the rest of Wilson’s work with this project evinces that this is not enough. This late in the game, you can hear a sample of any album on iTunes, you can read read your friends yea/nay response to any song on Face Book, or you can read a blog post to get the jist. Wilson recognizes the democratization of criticism, and rather than rail against the tide, he posits a potential path for the future: one where the professional critic may look beyond the canonization of their own taste biography. This book is a celebration of taste’s peculiarities, of the democratic forest of love and pleasure: “Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.” Wilson, in the end, is afforded an opportunity to connect to something outside of his taste, and so also outside of himself. This work of new criticism tells us about more than just an album, more than just a song… It invites us to acknowledge that our tastes, personally and culturally, go beyond the qualities you can test for. They run deep enough to tell us a little more about ourselves, and about the other side too.

David Sheilds, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

A little while ago I was telling a friend about my mother. I love my mom, and I love to talk about  my mom, and I’m fascinated to no end by not only her person but our relationship. She embodies my origin story, in that I was once a part of her body, and she raised me to become whoever it is that I am. Her influence over my life is pervasive, moving forward through our shared genes and backwards through our family history. My friend and I began to see that one of the reasons we talk about our parents is that it provides a way, in some senses, to talk about ourselves.

David Shields is on to this; The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead is a work of both cultural and personal memoir on what it means to live, to be given life, and describes Shields’ fascination with his father’s apparent deafness to the ever tolling bell. Let me say plainly that I adore David Shields’ work, especially here. He writes with his own words, and (as you may have heard) with those that came from many others. The Thing About Life is, like life itself, a collage. Relying on quotations from artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers, Shields  also uses biology to describe the way our bodies run their course. He includes other physiological metrics to describe the life of that strange animal we call a human being. At 10 years old, we are physically in our prime; Every year after our 25th, our brains get a little smaller; “[b]y age 35, nearly everyone shows some signs of aging, such as graying hair, wrinkles, less strength, less speed, stiffening in the walls of the central arteries, degeneration of elevated blood pressure.”

Sheilds’ dad is obsessed with preserving his vitality. He eats, perhaps even enjoys,  a sparse and fibrous diet and exercises fanatically. When this book was released, in 2008, he was 98 years old. And still swimming every day. He had a heart attack on the tennis court and played the set through. Shields, at the time of writing, was 51 years old, living day to day with chronic back pain. Watching his father’s body, his own body, decay gradually, Shields confronts death head on, without a trace of romance, or even angst.  His investigation into his own origins, and his fascination with our common fate, becomes a surprising celebration of life itself. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead takes the guts out of you, but manages to keep giving you a reason breathe.

Bookside Table, A Sleep and a Forgetting book cover, EM Keeler

William Dean Howells’ novella, A Sleep and a Forgetting, is touching and discomfiting in equal measure. A young doctor takes on an unusual charge when he meets a young woman and her father outside of a hotel in San Remo in the early 20th century. There’s something so charming about doctor stories from the past, perhaps because medicine has, as a science, changed so vastly in its scope and method through the years. I love the idea of a doctor advising a patient to ‘take the air’ in a mountainous or Mediterranean locale to cure if not the cause of their sickness, then at least any affliction’s accompanying melancholia.

The affliction faced by the young woman in this story can not, alas(!), be cured by salty sea air or walks through well kept gardens: she is trapped in an eternal present, having experienced the selective obliteration of her memory after witnessing the gruesome death of her mother. She retains her abilities to read, write, and converse, with some eloquence at that, but nothing sticks to the perpetually slick surface of her mind. Her father, happening upon the young doctor, insists that this qualified stranger join their party in San Remo and work on developing a cure for his daughter.

One of the virtues of the novella’s form is that it provides a knowing sort of space; while a short story must be read multiple times so that you can get your bearings, and a novel can use the exciting carrot of story or plot to persuade the reader down a specific path, a novella tells you exactly where you are without ever handing you a map. Howell uses the form well, and sets up the events he describes in a way that mirrors the strange facts that face the doctor. Howells also uses a distantly omniscient voice to tell the tale, and he seldom gives us much of a peek into the interior lives of these characters. Here again the framing mirrors elements of the young doctor’s struggles: he can only marvel at the young woman’s condition, and though he can offer endless interpretations of this malady he is at a loss to solve another beating heart. He will never solve the mystery of her life, even as he becomes increasingly involved therein. In his heart, this doctor is, just as we are, powerless to ever know the mind of another.

EM Keeler , Bookside Table, The House Without Windows book cover

It is certainly much too late in my life for anyone to describe me as a child prodigy, though I have, at times, somewhat arrogantly felt that my rather short list of achievements is out of balance with the abundance of my talent. I have plainly mistaken the vague and formless desire for greatness for the thing itself.

Humbled by this realization, I have begun to investigate instances of greatness in the world. One such instance can be found in the story of Barbara Newhall Follett, who wrote the original draft of The House Without Windows at the unlikely age of eight. The novel is about a little girl and her nearly infinite capacity for awe in the raw beauty of the natural world. Eepersip Eigleen runs away from the country home of her parents and makes a life for herself in the great vastness that is nature, the house without windows. Butterflies, chipmunks, the sky and the sea become her intimates. She toughens the soles of her feet and leaps through the forest, taking joy in the naturalness of her ascension, the abilities of her animal body to fly with the wind through the grass.

Follett wrote this paean to the animal freedom of childhood when she was eight years old. According to the afterword, written by her father, the original manuscript was lost in a house fire, and she re-created the text from memory at the age of twelve. The prose is sometimes repetitive, but lovely, and occasionally splendid. A very impressive achievement, especially from someone so young. But for all of her gifts, Follett made clear sacrifices for this extraordinary talent. She locked herself in her room to pound out this story, forgoing the free play and friendship that would be afforded to all little girls in a perfect world. My favorite parts of the novel examine the peculiar loneliness that Eepersip feels for other children, most clearly expressed in the two instances where she risks capture to play with a golden haired boy and her black-eyed younger sister. She is drawn to their beauty and their recognition even as their company poses a threat to her wildness. The tension of these scenes speak to the ineffability of the compromises that love entails, the desire to be singular and wild and free always in conflict with the bondedness of affection and recognition.

Because this is a rare book, now long out of print and largely unavailable, I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the ending: Eepersip lives in the meadow, dreams in the sea, and gradually becomes unable to take any joy in others, animals or people. Her step lightens, and in the end she lives on a diet of pure mountain snow. Eventually, she transcends what remains of her humanity and becomes a fairy, relegated to the invisible world of magic. Never again will she have to contend with the threat of captivity, and she is unbound from the human world of recognition.

Follett herself went on to be, for a time, magical in a darker sense. Her childhood achievements were celebrated, and her work was recognized, however briefly, by the public eye. She wrote a few more books, which were received well enough, and her father left her and her mother to start a new life with someone else. She was forced to prematurely join the tedious world of work, and was married before she turned twenty years old. Shortly thereafter, facing down the burdens of debt and despair, she would disappear indefinitely. Her body was never found, as if she too eventually could not be contained by the constraints of this human drudgery, looking only through windows out onto the world. Instead, her work remains, like the world, a window in on itself, bound only by the magic of a child’s freedom. The potential of her prodigious gifts goes unfulfilled, and so retains its promise indefinitely; like the nymph Eepersip becomes, Follett is invisible and, perhaps tragically, completely free.

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If you would like to read more about Barbara Newhall Follett, Lapham’s Quarterly published a lovely essay on her life, which you can read here.