My experiments were never that inspiring but I certainly thought they were—volcanoes erupting with the magical properties of food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar, a suspension bridge made out of balsa wood and kite string that could hold a heavy brick, a microscope set up with a dark red smear of my blood on a carefully prepared slide—simple experiments that made me feel like I had accomplished something innovative, even in the face of the far bolder experiments around me. The allure of the science fair is not only that you get to experiment with varying degrees of success; you also have the opportunity to see how other people blend science and creativity to accomplish something innovative, to test the boundaries of the unknown.
As I read Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City, I could not help but think about a science fair and this idea of being able to experience a wide range of experiments at the same time, in the same place, and how overwhelming that can be. This Is Not Your City is an overwhelming book—overwhelming because of the level of craft in every single story, because of the range of experimentation the writer demonstrates across these eleven stories, and because of the way each ending leaves you a little breathless for any number of reasons.
I was at the Indianapolis Museum of Art recently and made a point of visiting the Contemporary Art wing. As baffling as I find contemporary art, I love everything about it. I love the confusion I feel as well as the nagging sensation I could, for example, stretch a piece of yarn from one corner of the room the center of the floor and call it art, as one artist did in a bewildering installation involving string and negative space. I love how contemporary art, more than anything, leaves me speechless, perhaps even slightly stunned, but also, surprisingly, moved.
One of the museum’s recent acquisitions is Terrain by Julianne Swarts, an entire room with floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking a small outdoor amphitheater. The room is empty save for two benches. Hanging from the ceiling is brightly colored electrical wire holding tiny black speakers. From the speakers, there is sound, not very pleasant. I stood in that room for a good ten minutes listening to a strange series of sounds piping in and fading out intermittently. I stood there because I wanted to understand. I wanted to understand why the installation was art and what kind of statement it was making and how I was supposed to feel and what I was supposed to learn from the experience. I wanted answers where, likely, there are none. Though I moved on to the next exhibit with no answers, I did know I was seeing something wildly experimental and I was moved. I felt as much as I thought.
I am interested in finding ways to answer the question what is experimental writing. What does it mean when writers challenge literary conventions, make innovative and daring stylistic choices, or use language in a way I did not think possible? When I think of excellent experimental writing, writing that challenges and thrills me as much as it confounds me, I consider writers who really stretch the bounds of literature as we traditionally understand it—Michael Martone, David Schneiderman, Blake Butler, Lidia Yuknavitch, Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, Elaine Castillo and others—writers who are bold and fearless in the ways they manipulate language and form, writers who are openly and exceptionally experimental. When I read their work, I know in my gut I am experiencing something that has not been done before, that could only be considered an experiment.
We have a tendency to treat overt experimentation as the only kind of experimentation. I doubt you would hear many people refer to Caitlin Horrocks as an experimental writer but her debut collection makes a strong case that she is, indeed, an experimental writer and a remarkable one. Her craft and the way she experiments in This Is Not Your City are subtle, quiet even, but truly elegant. It is not that her writing breaks the rules of literary convention. Instead, she seems to reshape those rules over and over to best fit the stories she wants to tell.
If there is a common theme binding these eleven stories, it is a profound sense of displacement—women who are separated in some way from what they want or need, whether what they want or need is a place, a person, the better or lesser parts of themselves, the past, the future. In each story, the women Horrocks writes are trying to make sense of that displacement, trying to endure it with some modicum of grace or dignity, trying to shift that displacement into something else, trying to rid themselves of that displacement completely.
“It Looks Like This,” the second story in the collection, is about a young woman in rural Ohio who has to write a paper about her life for her English teacher so she can pass the class. Like every story in This Is Not Your City, there are many layers of complexity and nuance. The story is told as a list, in fifteen parts and includes pictures from the narrator’s life as she not only tells her teacher what her life is like, but also reveals what that life looks like. Horrocks’s choices about what to tell and what to show are really smart and these choices create a real poignancy. What elevates this story is the voice and how fully the writer inhabits that voice— the narrator is a young woman who knows everything and knows nothing, who is unabashed in her plaintiveness and how she sees the world. That narrative voice pulls you into the story completely. You genuinely believe you are reading a high school student’s paper. Even as the narrator tells her teacher about her life, she’s also telling stories about the people in her life— other teachers, Elsa, a young Amish woman she drives to sell her quilts every few weeks, her sick mother who she takes care of, her prettier older sister (“She’s the pretty one, not that I think I’m ugly or anything, just that it’s true, she’s prettier.). The narrator shares these small, heartbreaking observations amidst charming details like, when she writes, “Please show Mr. Martin that I do math everyday now, more than I did when I was in his class,” and includes a drawing of the Pythagorean Theorem. “It Looks Like This,” negotiates the balance of impossibility and innocence in a manner that lodges the story in your throat.
In “Embodied,” a woman is living her 127th life as an auditor in Des Moines and when she gives birth to her first child, she recognizes him as someone who wronged her in a previous life. We know early on that the narrator no longer has her son, Jacob, and as the story unravels, we learn why as well as who she was in her 126 previous lives—intimate, elaborate histories recounted with the wisdom of someone who has lived and lived and lived.
“As lives go, this one’s okay. Des Moines isn’t fin-de-siècle Paris, or Old Kingdom Cairo, but there’s enough to do and growing up in Sioux Falls would make about anywhere look like someplace worth spending a few decades. Anyway, it’s not really as confusing as you’d think, being the 127th version of yourself. I remember my other lives the way I remember that I need to buy milk on the way home from work, or that I need to pay the water bill, or call my father on his birthday.”
“Embodied” is written so believably, with such unwavering consistency to the story’s premise, it is easy to become convinced we all have past lives reaching forward and braiding themselves into our present. The narrator has been men and women, royalty and common folk. Time is managed seamlessly. The past is the present and the present is the past and though the narrator does not discuss her previous lives chronologically, when you consider the story as a whole, you can see who she has always been and will always be. A quiet horror pervades this story, a horror that builds and builds as you realize what has happened to the narrator’s son and the why of it and the dispassion with which the narrator relates that quiet horror.
Most writers have a story and they write that story over and over again. We forgive this obsession in good writers because they know how to tell that one story damn well. Good writers, great writers, they know how to make the same story seem different and remarkable each and every time they tell it. In This Is Not Your City, no two stories are the same. Every writer has obsessions, but you have to look harder and work harder to find those that Caitlin Horrocks nurtures. Where many short story collections are uneven, This Is Not Your City is one where the quality of the writing and storytelling are consistently excellent, innovative, and endlessly compelling, even sometimes infuriating as you realize the writer has, yet again, upended your expectations of how she can tell a story.
This is not to say the writer’s hand is undetectable from one story to the next. Instead, while each story shares the same mark of exceptional craft, each story also does something unique with setting, the manipulation of time, structure, plot, character, point of view, or style. Horrocks writes about a woman who is complicit in her boyfriend’s petty commerce in selling stolen dogs; a Finnish woman who takes a trip to Estonia with her neighbor only to find they are not taking the trip with the same intentions; a Russian mail order bride who doesn’t speak the same language as her husband and has to help her only child out of a terrible situation; a middle-aged woman who gives into a careless romance with a young, drug-addicted boy while vacationing in Greece; an older couple with a special needs child trapped on a cruise ship that has been captured by Somali pirates. The plots of these stories are intriguing and, at times, seemingly outrageous but never, in Horrocks’s hands, do these stories feel implausible or absurd. These eleven stories are experimental in the truest sense of the word—they are crafted in ways that test and reshape and challenge conventions for the purpose of discovering something unknown.