A rare Marrow review of prose that poses questions about genre: Trisha Cull’s memoir & Heather Haley’s novel

The Town Slut’s Daughter (Howe Sound Publishing, 2014) & The Death of Small Creatures (Nightwood Editions, 2015)

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Initial disclaimer: I don’t usually write prose reviews. Although I read reams of fiction and non-fiction and write quite a bit of it, I rarely feel as compelled to critique it in the same way I do with poetry. Occasionally though I make an exception, as I did for the poetically-composed collection by Amber Dawn called How Poetry Saved my Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. And now I felt the urge/urgency again with these two texts by a duo of warrior women, Cull’s a beautifully grueling recollection of addiction and self-abuse and Haley’s bouncy novelized account of one “chick singer’s” descent into the pit of never quite “making it” in the world of punk rock, her route cut like lines of coke into various debaucherous, pitiful and finally crucial deviations. But first, I am fascinated by the naming of genres here. Neither book is called Creative Non-Fiction, the latest institutionally-branded genre-baby, a moniker that implies fact imaginatively threaded with fictionalized elements, as if there were such a beast as total truth. Cull’s book is memoir. Associated words that spring to mind are raw and honest. Haley’s book is ostensibly a novel, written for the most part in the salacious stylings of a tawdry but yummy page turner like Jackie Collins’ Rock Star, though it regularly treads the edge of memoir by incorporating the real names of bands and clubs (DOA, Smilin Buddha) amid thinly-cloaked characters such as the protagonist, Fiona Larochelle. But in the end does what we choose to call the genre matter in terms of how we read, what we desire from the narrative?

While there is no definitive answer, I must say I would have preferred The Town Slut’s Daughter if it had been closer to an overt memoir, its powerful themes (among others) of sexism, control, addiction, sexual violence, erotic transgression and autonomy laid bare as one woman’s truths about her surmounting of and ravaging by both her upbringing and by the Hollywoodized music world. This is not the book Haley wrote. And, overall, I enjoyed the story she told. But that didn’t stem my yearning. Reading Cull’s blow-you-away-with-vulnerable revelation only emphasized this ache in me for as many texts to exist like this as possible, not in any sensationalistic way, but in order to effect again, in Muriel Ruykeyser’s query and response, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” I don’t know of course just how much of her truth Cull is exposing, but what she does relate of her crash is so harsh, from her substance abuse (pharmaceuticals to crack), her Sexton/Lau-reminiscent transference issues with her psychiatrist, her at times pathetic obsession with her bunny rabbits, her stays in the mental hospital after bouts of cutting and her unhealthy attachment to improbable partners, that I felt fully apprised of her torments.

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Most crucially, this narrative is well-crafted. Cull can undoubtedly write, whether it’s of flowers, “The crocuses that line the back wall of the house are illuminated by moonlight on one side and by the warmer glow of the kitchen window above them. Each flower tapers into a narrow tube, cup-shaped, protruding from three stamens. Its mouth, the way it curves at the stem and dips, evokes a sense of want. It is a flower of longing. I pluck one from the dirt,” or of daily routines on the psych ward, “Life here is ultra-functional by virtue of its uniformity, the mealtime schedule, the slippery, ergonomically correct lounge furniture…they insist upon this ultra-functionality in order to counter the psychotic nature of what exists within it, because it makes them uncomfortable.” Shifting between journal entries, lists, clinical notes and recountings of travel, marriage and family enables Cull to provide a more expansive picture while consistently maintaining readerly interest.

Readerly engagement was also sustained throughout much of the zippily-paced romparama of screwing, strumming, slapping and snorting in Haley’s book, the division into sections, chapters and starred breaks between paragraphs assisting the flow. Temporality could have used a bit more anchoring however, especially later in the book when the years slip by so quickly with Caleb, the husband/music producer/addict character, that it seems unclear just how much time passed until she escaped him. Haley can also write effectively, as evidenced by lyric moments in a sports car that clung, “to each curve in the road, a sudden mizzle diluting the spiny perfume of spruce” or even when the protagonist is fucking her hubby with a dildo and the syntax slows to sharp anaphoristic plunges: “Caleb raising his ass, moans, drowning out the music…in awe of his faith, In her. Beyond gender. Beyond fear. Beyond flesh….but that was yesterday.”

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At times though, the style sounds undecided, as if Haley wanted to blend all the registers and idioms willy-nilly. For instance, a rap band is found “absconding” with the microphones, an overly sophisticate word for the circumstances. Or a potently tough image like “craggy scrawl of piss” is followed by the oddly scholarly tone of “implicated winos huddled in vestibules.” Although there is an awkward charm to such writing, it tends to jar one from the narrative to ask why, which is unlikely to be the author’s intent. There are also cliches (eagle eye, rock hard, flicked her off like a fly) and an initial stiffness of dialogue that can make supposedly radical punkers sound a little like robots: “They keep trying to shut us down, but we are not going away.” Despite these slips, Haley’s tale reels you in and because it does, I wanted her to go deeper, to somewhere closer to where Cull courageously arrived, telling it like it was, as herself, unadorned by the masks of fiction (as I also hungered for in Miriam Toews’ latest “novel” that fictionalizes her sister’s eventual suicide). Of course it is the author’s choice. But I feel some stories need to be told direct from the mouth of suffering and survival. It simply seems more necessary.

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