The Dollhouse Within

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What does it mean to be “in the house,” to be held in place in an age of motion, of fleeting relationships, realities, and contexts?

Disruption is often the element that keeps us from finishing a chapter, a story, or a line. It can pull us from a book, from the laptop, from the page, and send us quickly and fully into another state or task. We live in a culture of disruption, short attention spans, and the ever-present opportunity cost of each fleeting moment. So when a writer takes on these constraints by fusing disruption and narrative as a way to extend a story’s ever-widening themes, a new type of book is created that defies the word “collection” and achieves something less definable.

Meet Lynn K. Kilpatrick, author of In the House.

In the House is a book full of windows, of grammatical shapes and designs. Plot, conflict, resolutions, prepositions, stairwells, walls, cabinets. The kick-off story leads us to enter the book as though it is a house—one in which each room is an ever-expanding world. To name a few, “My Neighbors” is a kitchen full of characters, a rotating buffet of Stella the wino, Maggie the hoarder, John the meat enthusiast, Penelope the dangerous knitter, Sam the disappearing waif. “On Understanding” takes on a curious prose form that feels like scenes flying past the window of a moving train. This rhythmic movement is sustained throughout the book and furthers the exploration of relationships—people with people, people with structures, structures with ideas—in a domestic landscape that is always moving, changing, as though seen through a camera mounted on wheels. This form dissects and reassembles the idea of the “new domestic,” of domesticity in the new age of all-things-wired. What does it mean to be “in the house,” to be held in place in an age of motion, of fleeting relationships, realities, and contexts?

Kilpatrick’s wit pervades this house of stories, a dry voice weaving complex interiors with quirky exteriors, dressing characters with just the right hint of the bizarre, with their knives and wine and tiny dogs, their pageant crowns and brown bags. Recurring images are stitched like thread throughout the book: knives, holes, and openings. The house, it seems, is porous and penetrable at all times. “There is a particular equanimity inherent in knives,” Kilpatrick writes in “Knives in the Kitchen.” “No job outweighs the next or the previous.” This concept of fluidity, movement, constant change seen through multiple windows, vibrates through the relationships the author explores.

A seven-part sequence, “Dioramas of a Domestic Landscape,” explores a stagnant state of domesticity, a dollhouse of glued fruit, empty dishwashers, and the plastic happiness of miniatures, foldable skies and the simplicity of toothpick boys with paper-clip bicycles. This “neat” world, one in which structures themselves stand in for lives, is juxtaposed against the quirky, beating-heart mess, the movable feast of characters, restless women with watchful eyes, caged by the ideas of their enclosures. This series, woven like a crown of half-baths through the novel, continuously contrasts the real physical and psychological messes of “house-existence” with the sterile nature of artifice built by bricks, vinyl, grammar, prepositional phrases, and plastic red adjectives.

Kilpatrick carves a new spot in the long tradition of writers, from Gertrude Stein to Harryette Mullen, who have explored, in various styles and forms, ideas of domesticity and the trappings of interiors and exteriors—from skin to brick to fences. The collection is vibrant, eccentric, and all the while clear. Read it forwards, backwards, or in sharply cut cubes. Read up close and far away, pull and weave between stories, between walls, between rooms and the dollhouses within—all the while asking yourself what it means to be In the House.

Megan Casella Roth is an Alabama poet, a Michener Fellow at the University of Miami, author of The Green Guide to Daily Living, and always laughing at More from this author →