Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall

“Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall,” by Ken Sparling

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When Knopf originally published Ken Sparling’s Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall in 1996, it became a casualty of lousy timing. Gordon Lish, iconoclast and Dad’s editor and original champion, was fired during the editorial process; in the fallout, Sparling’s novel floundered from lackluster support. Since then, a number of other writers who were similarly left in Knopf’s lurch after Lish’s departure—Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt among them—have gone on to well-deserved acclaim and even mainstream success. Sparling’s post-Knopf career, though no less inventive, has been a bit quieter. After Dad’s remaindering, he settled into a job as a librarian in Toronto and for the past sixteen years, mostly in the minutes he finds before work, he writes the books he wants to write, marketability be damned.

The resulting work dares and confronts the boundaries of what novels are supposed to look like and do. For his second novel, Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt, Sparling and his wife hand made it to order. More recently, The Serial Library guts and re-appropriates old hardcover books that Sparling then loans out to readers via snail mail. Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall, however, is where the artistic trajectory of this under-read voice begins, which is why Mud Luscious Press’ recent reissue (with a new foreword by the author) is such great news.

In Dad, like Sparling’s other books, typical narrative markers whisper only at the peripheries. Minimal, sometimes hermetic, vignettes readily shift in time and perspective, leaving us to cobble together just the story’s gist. It goes something like this: Ken Sparling—author, narrator, protagonist—is locked in a dissolving marriage with Tutti. Some nameless break has turned their past of “so much love” into a present where Tutti feigns sleep to avoid conversation. Ken looks to Sammy, his young son, for connection, but the solaces are sporadic. Even the moments that should be easiest bristle with frustration and menace; as Ken notes one night after Sammy’s meltdown over fish cakes, “dinner comes along every night, relentlessly, like a bomb.”

Ken Sparling

Ken Sparling

These trials stoke Ken’s memories about his own parents’ separation, particularly those memories about his eponymous Dad, a figure of stunted effort and pity, and more importantly, a possible herald of Ken’s future. Ken remembers his Dad post-divorce, staring at the house his ex-wife and children now inhabit without him: “He stood at the end of the driveway of our new place with the snow getting on his shoulders.” And with Dad’s blurring of perspective and time, it’s like Ken’s looking at himself out there.

To say Dad is a sad story, though, would overemphasize story. And sadness isn’t a narrative here as much as it’s a haze coating the details of Ken’s daily life in Toronto. Dad’s deepest heat abides in these particulars, in the novel’s uncanny power as an arrangement of crystalline instants. At points Sparling names the world with such accuracy, even its most mundane corners turn unnerved, sharp-edged, and stunned. A car’s intermittent wipers talk metaphysics: “Every five seconds the windshield wipers sweep across the windshield and things get clear again for a moment.” Nascent moments of sexual development get the confusedly circular treatment they deserve: “It was having the boner that gave me the boner.” And Sparling catches and articulates the moment a relaxing day instantly, claustrophobically, telescopes into existential panic: “I was reading Chekhov one Sunday afternoon, and I saw Tutti out of the corner of my eye. I looked up. Tutti was looking at me. For a long moment I felt lost.” Family, deadpan humor, home, disappointment, and memory give these disparate snippets their tentative connective threads. And as much as Sparling denies—sometimes caustically—the conventional narrative modes, his recursive striking of these notes builds a signature momentum.

Dad ultimately sustains because it offers a bald encounter with a subjectivity shaped and defined by language, something other narrative forms just can’t do. In his foreword Sparling talks about writing as the site where the “wholeness of intent” meets the “fragments of story,” a dialogue that terminates when “the weight of the fragments pulls the wholeness of intention down and kills it.” Wholeness and fragment, intent and implication, love and its disintegrations: these same tussles split Ken and Tutti, Ken and Sammy, and Ken and his Dad. There’s sadness there. It exists intermixed with memory and quick flash cul-de-sacs of joy, but it’s finally, enduringly sad. And what Sparling knows so adeptly is how that sadness thrums through language, in the chasm that opens when words somehow always fall short of the exact names we might want or feel, even in the moments when the words seem just right.

Michael Jauchen's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and 3AM Magazine. He's also the book reviews editor at The Collagist. More from this author →