Stirring Coffee with a Feather

Reviewed By

Margo Berdeshevsky’s work straddles the line between fiction and poetry. Her characters grieve, dream, punish themselves, and try to find harmony between who they are and who they might still be.

Beautiful Soon Enough is the kind of book that, growing up, used to make me fearful of reading books. It’s intricate—I’d call a lot of the sentences “sentences” only because I’m not sure what else to call them—and not a whole helluva lot happens.

What’s important to consider is that, growing up, I was also stupid. I thought “unison” was a place, like Ithaca or Home Depot, because I’d always hear TV announcers say that crowds were “standing in unison.” I owned a pair of Zubaz pants and a jacket I made my mom sew fringe onto, because that’s how pro wrestlers dressed, and they seemed to have things pretty well figured out. When I hit middle school, you could’ve drained my hair for product and made drilling in ANWR a quaint little Plan B.

Margo Berdeshevsky

Which doesn’t mean Margo Berdeshevsky’s first book of fiction—winner of the FC2 American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize—is a candy-coated peanut of a book that you can pick up with a few hours to kill and expect to fully absorb. Far from it. But to read Beautiful Soon Enough is to take part in the always-compelling conversation about the nature of fiction, what it can do, what it needs to do better, why it should bother, and what we readers can bring to it ourselves.

In twenty-three brief stories and twenty-eight interrelated photographs, Berdeshevsky’s women (always women) grieve, dream, punish themselves, feel the drag and drive of sex, and try to find harmony between who they are, who they could have been, and who they might still be.

Berdeshevsky is a poet (her previous book is the collection, But a Passage in Wilderness), actress (she toured the country as Ophelia), and photographer, who has lived or traveled extensively in New York, Hawaii, Cuba, Paris, and post-tsunami Sumatra, where she worked in a survivor’s clinic. Miraculously, she brings all those skills and all those miles to Beautiful Soon Enough; her photographic subjects, women never framed in full view, amplify the book’s themes of alienation, loss, and regret. She’s a wizard with written image, as well—“I sit in the stern and stare at the water. The water’s eyes are closed”—and has a wonderful knack for weaving the senses together for optimum visceral effect. She seems as comfortable wringing a few new drops from Shakespeare as she does relaying the scent of “homeless piss” in a hallway, and often does so in the same paragraph. It makes for a layered, loaded landscape, a world where all sense is hypersense, where emotion doesn’t just glow, it crackles like lightning.

By her own admission, Berdeshevsky is not a master plotter, and so small moments must bear the load, primarily through intense focus on language. And her language, while exotic and wily, can often consume the stories through sheer force. As a result it can be difficult to express what these stories are about, what happens, something that will be a turn-off for some readers.

A few common threads emerge. The tone throughout is that of a fable—timeless, yet infused with the detail-heavy sensibility of realist literature. Berdeshevsky writes killer last lines, cappers that give you not just chills but frostbite. A number of stories are about the inner lives of actresses—one of the standouts, “A Friday Desdemona,” tracks the relationship of a young drama student and a seasoned, ravenous Othello attempting to teach her to act more, feel less: “Be a warrior, woman,” he tells her. “Lovers do not last.”

When poets write fiction, it can sometimes read like a transfer student trying to navigate the unfamiliar hallways of a new school. Sometimes this works to brilliant effect, as the poet can put a fresh shine on the fiction writer’s familiar tools. In Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love, the sentences feel brisk, bright, exact, like blocks of ice chiseled into smooth, brimming faces. Conversely, Berdeshevsky’s sentences seem to ache for line breaks, for the leaps and turns vital to a poem but often detrimental to fiction: “There’s a noise she is not waiting for. Scratching like—a light knocking—and again a scratching, as of unsheathed nails on her door.” Craft-wise, these bursts of language are fascinating; yet they have the net effect of poetry: they stop time with their beauty. They can bring a story—which relies on forward momentum, on cause and effect—to a halt.

Of course this begs the question: Does making such a stark distinction between poetry and prose really matter? For my money, it does. Fiction comes with expectations, just as poetry and hip-hop and meatball subs do. Some authors thwart those expectations to great effect: look at Padgett Powell’s newest, for instance. The paradox is that books like that thrive largely because they feel as though they must be fiction, as though the function demands the form. I’m not sure Beautiful Soon Enough works the same way. Consider a beat from “For Flame and Irresistible”: “She’s stirring coffee with a feather.” As an image in a poem, this is lovely. In a story, it upends the scene. Part of me couldn’t shake the feeling, while reading, that I hadn’t ingested a collection of stories so much as I’d been denied a phenomenal collection of poetry.

It seems oddly fitting that I’m typing this review shortly after reading The New York Times Magazine’s excellent piece on James Patterson, whose business, it seems, is to make books as widely available—and as easily disposable—as candy bars. (And also, to make scratch. Lots and lots of scratch.) I’m not sure anyone could be farther at the other end of the spectrum than Margo Berdeshevsky, whose pages brim with crude tapped straight from the well of capital-A Art. Of course, this same quality can sometimes make her work impenetrable.

But that’s the thing about innovative fiction: You have to know going in that you’re going to alienate some people. Which is cool. Even if you could please everyone, if you were an artist with as many gifts as Berdeshevsky, why would you want to?

***

all photographic images c) margo berdeshevsky

Images from “Beautiful Soon Enough” by Margo Berdeshevsky
(University of Alabama Press/2009)
(c) margo berdeshevsky


Brian Beglin's short stories, book reviews, and interviews appear in a variety of journals. You can find him online at www.brianbeglin.com. More from this author →