Nov 102014
 

Sam-Savage-author-photoPhoto by Nancy Marshall

A common feature of the five prose novels is that  Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion. Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub.
—Jeff Bursey

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It Will End with Us
Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
Paper, 150 pp., $9.99

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1.Sam Savage was born in South Carolina in 1940, and became visible as a novelist with his first prose work, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), published by Coffee House Press. (His first novel, The Criminal Life of Effie O.: An Entertainment [2005], is in verse). It is a first-person narrative told by a Boston-born rat, living in a bookstore, which can read, an ability that, unsurprisingly, ostracizes him from his fellows. This aptitude is insufficient to make him understandable to humans since he is not able to speak in a language they understand. Comic, at first, the tale darkens as the supports of life, such as family, shared experiences, finding someone to talk with openly and the bonds of community, depart or are denied, and the story moves into territory that is genuinely affecting without being sentimental. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011) and The Way of the Dog (2013) share those emotions as well as certain technical elements: one narrator, a restricted setting, a set of interconnected topics that are divulged slowly if incompletely, and exactitude of language.

In The Cry of the Sloth and Glass, instead of speech we are given typewritten letters and memoirs written by lonely people. Andrew Whittaker and Edna, respectively, sit and type whatever comes to mind, with a degree of articulateness that quickly shows itself as a disadvantage instead of an asset. Their precision, wit and energy provide no abiding pleasure or comfort and are useless when it comes to dealing with the real world, coupled as they are with obsessions, narrowness of vision and an isolating prickliness. Nothing good happens for Whittaker by the end; Edna has a moment of relief from the worst of her misery, but her ways of thinking will persist. In The Way of the Dog Harold Nivenson orders his thoughts on scraps of paper; most of his views are harsh about neighbours, former friends and others, but over the course of the novel a few people insert themselves into his life, against his will, and change things for the better, at least temporarily.

One might wonder if this is limited terrain. Savage addresses that in an interview with his editor, Chris Fischbach:

Chris Fischbach: Gilbert Sorrentino once said to me, “I just write the same book over and over. I don’t really have very much material.” Given the similarilies between Glass and your previous novel, Cry of the Sloth (the setting of each being a writer sitting at a typewriter in front of a window), would you say the same about yourself?

Sam Savage: I suppose that might be one of the reasons I like Sorrentino, that he keeps digging at the same vein. But I have to confess that I never noticed the similarities among his books, I just thought each time I opened one that here was another “vintage Sorrentino,” which was exactly what I wanted. Now that you bring it up, I suppose I would say the same thing about myself. Or maybe I write the same book over because I didn’t get it right the first time.

Savage persists, but his books do differ, and It Will End with Us is about more than it initially seems.

2.

A common feature of the five prose novels is that Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion (thus the revisiting of concerns, something present in the works of his contemporary, the sadly under-read Gabriel Josipovici.) Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub. Generally, the voice we spend so much time with is firmly located in an apartment or house set in a nameless suburb or city. The narrator of It Will End with Us, Eve Taggart, writes notes, though we’re not told to whom or for what purpose, on memories of her childhood in South Carolina. (In addition to being born in the same state as her creator, Eve shares her year of birth with him.)

She is not a first-time writer—“I once wrote an entire book that I called A History of My Suicides”—and this collection of reminiscences of the mid-20th century South, often of only one- or two-sentence paragraphs, are not strung together to present a clear history:

Now that I am at my desk again for more time than it takes to write a postcard, I am fond of mornings in particular, especially when the sky is clear and the white of the building across the way is splashed with sunlight, splashing back onto my face.

Writing on typing paper in pencil. A little something, even if only a sketch.

On the first page Eve reveals that this is not the first time she has tried to set down thoughts on what her childhood and family were like. “I wasn’t going to begin again, having stopped, apparently, and started up again, foolishly, too many times already, attempting to write about my family and Spring Hope and myself there with them and later there without them.” (The commas indicate lingering indecision.) We slowly learn about the gradual decline of her family: parents Iris and an unnamed father, both dead, and her two siblings, Edward (perhaps dead, perhaps missing) and Thornton. The family home in Spring Hope has flaking paint, holes in the screens and mushrooms growing out of the wood; the father runs a furnishings store and instead of being able to build upon the successes of past generations must, like his predecessors, start from the bottom up; the land the house is on, and in the region generally, is in rough shape.

Images of unpainted shacks and tumble-down sheds in small acres of poor-looking fields, mules in paddocks, hogs in makeshift slab pens, and strange dirty barefoot children my own age standing among the wandering chickens in the yards, looking up at our car, staring, unsmiling usually but sometimes waving, unsure, flow through my mind the way they flowed past the car.

I remember looking out the rear window at a cloud of dust curling behind us, and coming to a stop and the dust catching up with us and rolling over the car.

While the father runs a failing business, and spends more time dismantling parts of the house instead of fixing anything, the mother, Iris, an artist in her heart who favours lavender-coloured dresses, fills notebooks with poems that are seldom published. “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature,” Eve notes. These two people—one mercantile and brutal, the other not temperamentally equipped for a provincial, hardscrabble life—do not comprehend the extent of their personal decline nor that of the surrounding area, and consider themselves above others, passing this false notion on to their children. “I remember always knowing that we were superior to other families of our acquaintance,” (86), Eve writes; “I thought of us vaguely as ‘illustrious.’”. Yet the evidence of their true station is everywhere: tattered fabrics or chipped paint can seem irrelevant when placed among other considerations, but in this way Savage shows, before being explicit, how Eve’s life in Spring Hope started in ruin and became worse, though she herself may have escaped becoming either her mother or father.

Told through haphazard recollections, It Will End with Us portrays the Taggarts as troubled by the father’s offhand brutality (arguments with his sons, bloodying Eve by dragging her across a schoolyard) and the mother’s unraveling mind (tearing out her hair, and almost daring her husband to shoot her), located within dire economic and environmental conditions. The myth of the fertile South is replaced with the reality of a parched region losing its resources—dusty land can’t bear crops, neither Eve nor Thornton produce children (the family line likely expiring with their generation), and the crumbling family home a rebuke to the prosperous Big House frequently featured in Southern history. Savage’s foray into Southern fiction bears some resemblance to Faulkner in its capturing of the deterioration of a self-important family and its host culture, but in Eve there is a larger theme at work, to my mind, than that of the decline of the South. She does not look back with self-pity. Whether we can trust her is open to question.

 3.

Like Modernist and Postmodernist writers, Savage prefers to dislodge certainty from its purchase rather than provide sudden plot twists. Eve sums it up: “If I had to describe my situation in a word… it would be indeterminate” (italics in text). To unsettle the narrative, Savage supplies details that look unrelated and, more obviously, removes the possible validity of Eve’s memories when, alongside having her say she imagines this or that or repeatedly uses the phrase “I remember”—books by Joe Brainard (I Remember [1970]) and Georges Perec (I Remember [1978]) come to mind—he has her confess: “I suspect a number of my early memories might actually belong to Thornton or even to Edward, and I just took them over, ingested them, so to speak, after hearing one or the other talking about them.” Iris is the name attached to her dead mother and to “a phantasm of no fixed or definite shape that draws and clusters to itself a host of other images like filings to a magnet [that was] born with the first opening of my mind onto the world and will die with me, finally.”  The concrete world vanishes, the real world is subordinate to what the imagination constructs, and we are asked to accept, and trust, a simulacrum of recall. What can be trusted when the memory is Eve’s and yet not hers, and who is Eve, really?

The integrity of the main character and of the story told, fascinating topics deftly handled, lead into another aspect of her that is equally rich. A character named Eve who focuses on a childhood when her family was intact invites us to entertain the possibility that this novel, certainly at one level about the mythical/real South, at a deeper level plays with religious myths through the creation of a Biblically-named figure from Spring Hope—a debased name for Eden—who is trying to retrieve a pre-lapsarian world that never existed. Throughout It Will End with Us we are told of dead bears, dried-up swamps, vanishing trees and other decimations of the natural world. After Eve declares that “National Geographic magazine is the saddest thing I have ever read” we are given lists of animals extinct and endangered, and ones more numerous in Spring Hope than the undefined “here” where Eve currently lives. Cats “kill two billion birds every year in the United States” creating “Dead Bird Mountain” on what Eve calls “Planet Dearth.”

Eve is the bearer of the names of creatures but does not bear children nor remember the names of classmates; her father’s killing of stray dogs illustrates the hardness of the male heart; and she mulls over the concept of the soul, eventually giving up this pursuit, but not before tying together the small and large themes of the novel with resignation: “The world seems to me such a poor and barren place, I can’t imagine what a soul would find to live on here.” This Eve, containing impressions of scarcity and imminent death—as the title suggests—and who is scarcely more, in her mind, than a mingling of “figments” named Iris, Spring Hope, and so on, is a figure we must consider taking seriously, and if we do, what happens then? Sam Savage, once more, elicits our admiration and aesthetic appreciation for reminding us not to be complacent, and to interrogate what Eve terms the “inner reaches”—our inner selves—and what we believe, in a compact with others, to be the real world.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010).

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