Weird in the Telling: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

When it comes to weird fiction, it seems to me that many readers define “weird” in terms of plot or character or what actually happens in the story.  Said strange stories might contain monsters or the supernatural, or perhaps skewed realities that make us uncomfortable. This definition is only one side of weird fiction, though.  Weird fiction can take place in our reality and still be puzzling, still make us feel slightly weird.

Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is the latter sort of weird text.  In terms of story, the tale the words on the page formed, there was really very little that surprised me in this book (spoilers follow).  This is the story of a girl born to a family consisting of a single mother, an absent father, and a brain cancer-surviving older brother.  The girl and her family have been metaphorically diseased by her brother’s cancer, and it is this disease that affects the girl’s entire life.  Through a trajectory that seems inevitable, the girl is raped by her uncle, after which point she spends her life seeking out sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and others in order to cope with the extraordinary emotional pain she feels.

I think you’ll agree that this summary does not depict an altogether unfamiliar story, horrific and sad though it certainly is.  What, then, is so strange about this tale?  What makes A Girl is a Half-formed Thing weird?

If you’ve heard about A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, it was likely in the context of its publication history or its narrative structure.  The book had been turned down several times before being published (after nearly a decade!), and after McBride began to win scads of prizes, her novel received a good deal of press about how challenging the language is.

It is, then, McBride’s extraordinary language that makes her story strange.  A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is told in a style that might be best described in McBride’s words: it makes use of “stream of pre-consciousness, because it’s about gut reaction rather than processed thought, about before language has begun to form pre-thought.”

The novel, written entirely in this pre-consciousness format, can be said to authentically capture feeling, pre-thought. Take, for instance, this example:

“I the morning. I the day.  When the air was.  The air is.  Today.  Today.  When the bones hurt no I’m young.  When the everything’s sitting like.  Right.  What’s happened?  For the radio’s somewhere play.  In the house.  I’m the house” (171-2).

Here, we experience the moment when the narrator first wakes up; here, we’re in the space between dream and thought, where we’re too incoherent for words.  But it’s weird, right?  As readers we aren’t used to encountering sentences like this.  Heck, we can hardly be said to dwell in the incoherence that precedes our own thoughts.

So what’s the point of writing like this?  It makes a book difficult to read, to be sure, though no less rewarding, and I doubt this style was easy for McBride to write.  So what’s the deal here?  Why tell this story in this particular way?

I have two thoughts about this:

  • McBride has made use of storyline that is already somewhat familiar to us so that she can tell it in an entirely fresh way.  I’m not sure this story would have been as interesting if told in straightforward prose; however, McBride’s use of such novel language reinjects this story with urgency and desperation that I’m not sure would be there otherwise. The telling makes the story weird and unsettling (which, as we all know, is a good thing). In some ways, this book does what much weird fiction does well: it makes the familiar strange.  In the strange telling of this familiar story, McBride has energized this familiar storyline.
  • My second thought is that this fragmented language is essential to convey the extent of pain the protagonist feels in her life. Story is only partially able to convey this pain; the language is responsible for completing our understanding of this girl’s life, which has been a parade of misery.  To grasp this girl’s pain, why would we need to be told or shown anything beyond this: “There is no Jesus here these days just come all you fucking lads.  I’ll have you every one any day.  Breakfast dinner lunch and tea.  The human frame.  The human frame.  The human frame requires.  Give them something.  A good hock spit for what it’s worth.  They’ll say my name forever shame but do exactly what I say.  I’m a laughing skirt up around my knees and feathery boy rosen cheek between.  I found the shell I’ll rap until it breaks” (83)?  What else could fully formed thought, complete sentences, and prosaic prose contribute to our understanding of the sadness, the repression this girl experienes?

For McBride’s story, one of what is, in our world, a far too common narrative of abuse and pain, maybe it’s okay that the story isn’t new.  The language, the way McBride uses it, is fractured, it isn’t all there; still, the fragments let just enough coherence between the gaps for a reader to form a narrative, but the language is broken enough to mirror our girl.

The takeaway: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is strange.  It is uncomfortable.  It is worth reading to appreciate the full capabilities of language, and to see how “weird” might look in a realistic, not at all fantastical or otherworldly genre.

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Weird Rec: The Family Arcana by Jedediah Berry

To honor the formal constraints of Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, a story told in playing cards, this review is composed in 52 parts.

For those interested in a more experimental read, this PowerPoint presentation allows readers to play 52-card pickup with this review by randomly selecting which segment they read next. (Macros must be enabled.)

  1. Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana is a gothic family drama told in playing cards, revealing the strange life of a sprawling, insular extended family one card at a time.
  2. In this family, siblings may be baked into pies or pickled.
  3. Some members arrive having been lured away from five-and-dime stores, while others disappear, never to return.
  4. Mother sleepwalks, father strokes his moustache.
  5. Uncles may be imposters, and aunts are not to be trusted, either.
  6. The most untrustworthy  figures in this story, though, are the mysterious “bank people,” who are trying by whatever means possible to wrest the house from the family’s grip.
  7. The bank people seem to have limited success, however, as they’re much more likely to wind up entombed in a wall or buried in an unmarked grave out back.
  8. In this respect, the bank people add a curious, contradictory pressure to the story.
  9. Though the danger of losing the house is very real and immediate–it’s suggested the family will die if they are forced to leave–this threat is also strangely defused by the ease with which the family seem to thwart the bank people’s attempts.
  10. Though this is not a world without consequences, the repercussions of an action are never quite what you might expect.
  11. In another story, it might be easy to fault a lack of tension, or a sense of indirect cause-and-effect, but in The Family Arcana, atmosphere is paramount to plot.
  12. There’s so much to love about the rich world this family inhabits, from one sister’s prophetic dances to the dead whispering secrets from within the walls.
  13. This is a realm I’d love to explore further, though as an interloper, I have to admit I might not make it out alive.
  14. Berry’s vignettes are little masterpieces, as well, executing maneuvers that are by turns tender and surreal.
  15. In the course of a paragraph, he’ll reel from the commonplace to the fantastic, slipping in unsettling touches with the lightest of hands.
  16. Lists are one of Berry’s most effective tools, allowing him to slide in surprising details here and there while remaining grounded in the quotidian rhythms of daily family life.
  17. Though Berry is deft at building the nuance of these vignettes, this is not to suggest that The Family Arcana is at all tentative in its strangeness.
  18. This story does not just relish in the odd and unexpected, it takes it for granted.
  19. Indeed, familiarity plays a significant part in the strangeness of The Family Arcana.
  20. These are characters who know each other so well they don’t have to explain, and their intimacy leaves the reader, inevitably an outsider, deliciously at a loss.
  21. Their off-handed manner, the acceptance with which they mention their outlandish family practices, creates a pleasant confusion, unsettling the world of the story even more.
  22. The family’s house is a place where everything strange is accepted and allowed to thrive.
  23. Marvelously, the same is true of Berry’s story, which opens up and grows richer the weirder it gets.
  24. However, it does seem at times that the story is more successful as a set of atmospheric vignettes than it is as a conventional narrative or a formal experiment.
  25. When I first read The Family Arcana, I read it straight through as it’d been packed in the box.
  26. Though the story in this order hardly had what might be called a climax or a resolution, it had (it seemed to me) a pleasant momentum, slowly introducing this unusual family and turning up the heat on their strange predicament.
  27. On subsequent readings, once I’d shuffled the deck, the fragments seemed much less clearly related to one another.
  28. There might be little runs of meaning reading the story this way–small resonances from one card to the next–but on the whole the vignettes didn’t seem to connect in the way they had in that first reading.
  29. Overall, subsequent readings left me with the feeling that I was experiencing a sequential story out of order, rather than a story that could truly be read in any order at all.
  30. That said, I found myself fascinated by the affordances of this medium of storytelling.
  31. When I read the story by playing a game of solitaire, I was both delighted and frustrated to find parts of the piece remained inaccessable because I was playing an unwinnable hand.
  32. I’d be very curious to know what this story would be like experienced as a game of bridge, or poker, or twenty-one.
  33. (For those interested in the idea of playing the story, a supplementary pack is also available for purchase, which includes instructions for a trick-taking game, recipes, and other treasures from the world of the story.)
  34. But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of The Family Arcana‘s formal conceit is the multiplicity of versions it presents.
  35. Like any deck of 52 playing cards, The Family Arcana has roughly 80 quintillion possible permutations.
  36. In other words, there are more ways to arrange this story than there are atoms on earth.
  37. This means that if you read a version of this story dealt from a well-shuffled deck, you’re likely reading a version that no one has ever read before, and even if everyone on earth continued to reread it for millions of years, there’s a good chance that no one would ever encounter that exact permutation again.
  38. In this respect, The Family Arcana recalls Raymond Quenau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèms, a book of ten sonnets published in strips so that each line can be recombined with every other line, producing 1014 possible poems.
  39. This is a truly staggering number of versions of this story.
  40. As wonderful as the piece is in its own right, the stunning mathematical complexity of this conceit almost eclipses anything else that could possibly be said.
  41. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that the form of The Family Arcana, though exceptional, felt a bit removed from the subject matter of the story itself.
  42. Unlike Mary Morris’s “The Cross Word,” which integrates the form of the crossword puzzle self-consciously into the telling of the story, or Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which leverages its medium in the narration of the piece, the form of The Family Arcana seems to hover just slightly above its content.
  43. Though there are little glimmers of resonance (a magician neighbor, a wonderful deck of cards produced by an uncle), overall I wasn’t sure I understood what the story’s form had to do with its content, beyond its novelty.
  44. Ultimately, though I thoroughly enjoyed The Family Arcana, I don’t think I was perfectly satisfied by it.
  45. If found myself longing for a story written in this medium that truly capitalized on its form.
  46. How could a story-in-playing-cards enrich and complicate the incredible potential contained in a humble deck of 52 cards?
  47. How could this form be leveraged to explore the knowledge that any text is different every time we pick it up?
  48. What might that story look like?
  49. I don’t know, but I’m delighted by the possibility.
  50. I admire Jedediah Berry’s ambition, too.
  51. Even though I felt that The Family Arcana didn’t fully realize its promise, it’s a thoroughly delightful piece.
  52. I look forward to revisiting the world of The Family Arcana again and again, and finding something subtly different every time.

The Family Arcana is published by Ninepin Press. An audio edition is also available, featuring 52 different readers.

Weird Rec: “Ancient Ham” by Meredith Alling

I may not want Meredith Alling to cook dinner for me anytime soon, but she can write me a story any day.

In “Ancient Ham,” a delectable morsel of flash fiction, Alling tells the story of a magic ham with predictive powers.  “Once a year,” we’re told, “the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions.”

People flock to the Ancient Ham to ask it yes or no questions.  How, you might ask, does a ham answer such questions?  Well, one simply pokes the Ancient Ham with sewing needles laden with offerings, and then the Ancient Ham bobs left for no, right for yes.

“Ancient Ham” is especially brilliant in the way the story’s heart emerges in the last few lines.  I won’t spoil the ending for you, but just know that it has me bobbing to the right, just like the Ancient Ham.

Yes, you should read this story; yes, this writer is fab; yes, I am salivating over the prospect of Alling’s forthcoming debut collection.

Click here to read “Ancient Ham,” published on Tin House‘s blog, The Open Bar.

Weird Rec: “The Merm Prob,” Kelly Magee

The merms weren’t dumb, just feral. Wild things whose wild had disappeared. Or overheated. In our good moments, we felt bad for them. We imagined them imagining their watery homes, their windswept rocks, their transfixed sailors. We wondered if they missed weightlessness. If there were things you could only think at certain depths.

— Kelly Magee, “The Merm Prob”

I picked up a copy of Gulf Coast’s Archive Issue last week and, let me tell you, it’s good. The issue features the winners of the 2015 Barthelme Prize, judged by Steve Almond,  essays by Traci Brimhall and Andrea Lee, a selection of poetry curated by Eduardo Corral, and stories by Leslie Jamison and Stuart Dybek. So basically, you can’t go wrong. But one piece that stands out to me in this uniformly stellar issue is Kelly Magee’s “The Merm Prob,” a brutal, funny story about what happens when a peaceful seaside community is overrun by a group of vicious, sex-crazed mermaids.

If that description alone isn’t enough to make you want to pick up a copy right now, there’s more. Not only are Magee’s mermaids a welcome antidote to the familiar image of the seductive siren, they also raise some valid questions about the logistics of mermaidery. If you keep a mermaid in your swimming pool, will it wreak havoc on your filtration system? How do mermaids reproduce, exactly? This is a story that commits to its premise and explores those consequences in sharp, concrete detail.

Magee handles the cascading ramifications of the mermaids’ arrival with wit and careful language. The voice of her collective narrators (the women of the town besieged by the mermaids) is reminiscent of George Saunders’ deadpan, jargony narrators, and much of the humor of the story, as is often the case in Saunders’ work, comes from the protagonists’ understated telling of the bizarre events at hand.  But the matter-of-factness of Magee’s narrators belies  a subtle longing they have trouble expressing, and uncovers a seam of unreliability that runs through the story. This, I think, is what endears me to “The Merm Prob” most. It’s a story that surprises not only the reader, but even the characters telling it.