This review of Mona Houghton‘s two novellas, Frottage & Even As We Speak examines each novella independently; first, Even As We Speak and second, Frottage.
Even As We Speak
In the beginning there is Laura, the one who opens Mona Houghton’s structurally intelligent and psychologically astute novella, Even As We Speak. Laura is our guide into the story, a regenerative force who lives a simple life in Questa, New Mexico, running a café with her husband Rick. When we meet her on the first page of Even As We Speak, she is listening to her husband’s breathing, “the velvet rhythm of this body next to hers that confirms her own presence in this place, in their home.” She met him forty or so years ago when she was a nurse’s aide in a V.A. hospital, and he was “just back from Vietnam, mad as a March hare.” She has something of the seer in her: When certain days arrive, “she feels from inside the earth like she comes from it, like the earthiness permanently soaked into her as a child….” Now, the narrator writes, she feels that earthiness again, so much so that “the inside the earth still seeps out from time to time, on days that tie into stories not all her own, stories tangential to hers that play through her—she the lightning rod that connects them somehow to the earth”—Laura accepting life as it is, yet prepared for stories that will take her back to the beginning.
In Even As We Speak, one of two novellas in her first published book, Frottage & Even As We Speak: Two Novellas, Houghton sticks to some of the most often-mentioned features of the novella form. At seventy-eight pages, it is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel and best read straight through. It adheres to a unity of purpose that showcases the strength and weaknesses of the characters as they combine and recombine in a closed world. It explores in depth the developmental transformation of the characters that lure you into their complex microcosm of hurt and grief and joy.
Houghton, however, ingeniously crafts Even As We Speak to stand out in a class of literature considered to be the novella form. For example, in the typical novella, one to three interacting characters take center stage, rarely more than that number, and the conflict is internal and psychological. In addition, multiple points of view or subplots that require the author to experiment with the structure to ensure balance and complexity are rarely employed. And the physical setting is symbolic or not actualized at all; the character (s) act within a circumscribed world, closed off from a cultural or historical perspective.
How does Houghton transform the novella form in Even As We Speak? Most conspicuously, she does not stick to two or three interacting characters; rather, she increases the character log to six major ones. Further, she engages these six major characters in their own subplots that she interweaves throughout Even As We Speakin a literary structure that is remarkable for its originality, entertainment, and insight. Within the individual subplots, Houghton sets the characters up for an inward journey that makes or breaks them: They must face either an external obstacle or internal conflict or both; overcome their inner limitations or fragmentation; and to try, at minimum, a different way of living that will integrate their new perspective.
Although the major characters in Even As We Speak are consumed with an inner turmoil that plays out in their individual subplots—Laura is the exception—Houghton invents a literary structure that not only carries the weight of these emotionally charged individuals but also supplies names of cities and states within which the characters act and through which they resolve their conflicts. This geographic context differentiates it from other novellas: It is central to whether or not each character will actualize his or her transformation. It goes to the heart of this novella and provides the means through which the characters take action, and eventually, meet up with each other. Coincidence also plays a part, but human will prevails over chance in this story. Thus, it is through the literary structure that Even As We Speak becomes a luxuriant psychological and philosophical tale that harbors order and disorder, motivation and consequence, stasis and transformation.
This is how Houghton liberates the novella: First, she increases the characters from one or two or three to six; second, she uses subplots to incorporate multiple points of views; and third, she invents a literary structure that accommodates the characters’ inner conflicts, as they act within a physical context that functions as an operational imperative.
Described in the present tense in Even As We Speak to lend immediacy to their stories, here, then, are the characters, in addition to Laura, in order of appearance:
SUZIE. Suzie lies in bed beside her hung-over boyfriend Dave under sheets she wishes had the feeling of the outdoors in them, like her grandmother’s. It’s late, but the time of night doesn’t prevent her from bringing up the subject of an article she has read in the latest issue of Science News: the proposition that the universe could be finite. Dave dismisses the proposition, but Suzie won’t give it up. She imagines an unimaginably long arm penetrating the end of the universe and reappearing on the other side. Suzie figures that a finite universe “has to shift a person’s thinking no matter how hung over the person is….” Or how old. Fifty-five and at a dead end with Dave, Suzie knows she is more than what she sees in the mirror— more “feelings, moods, intuitions”—and she “wants to re-find those pieces, the parts that must connect her, must connect each person, to this universe that is now finite.”
BRANDON. Brandon is an eco-terrorist committed to the revolution to save the earth from corporate malfeasance. At thirty, he is married to Lilly, and together they have a five-year-old daughter, Crystal, whom he loves more than anything. He is also compelled to kidnap his young daughter because Lilly won’t forgive him for sleeping with Amy at her house, the first transgression of its kind in their five-and-a-half-year marriage. He was supposed to be at the nearby Motel 6 with his “gang of urban warriors” after a raid on a Hummer storage facility, but an unpaid parking ticket that arrived in the morning mail told Lilly everything she needed to know. Having suspicions for six weeks, she can’t take it any more. The marriage is over. She is going to file for a divorce.
BILLY and BOB. Billy and Bob, fraternal twins, own a small gas station and Billy and Bob’s Jerky Joint, a sandwich business, in Big Pine, California, along 395, just south of the skiing resort in Mammoth Lakes. They moved there fifteen years ago “to make a killing in real estate and to clean up from a decade of drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll,” then retire to Mexico. Things have not turned out anything like they had envisioned. Their lives are going south. Real estate values are plummeting. Their roadside business is in the doldrums. Billy is inching back to drugs after being straight for ten years; he is scoring, buying meth from Eric, a dealer in Bishop. His “soul is turning into a sharp edged lava rock and he can’t stop the transformation.”
KENDRA. When we first get to know her, Kendra is working toward a master’s degree in biology, with a focus in genetics. With this degree, she can get a job in a research lab anywhere in the country. She has a boyfriend Wayne who gives her hickeys. She likes the sex with him, but she’s not going to let sex mess up her chances of making real money and moving up. Her parents don’t like the hickeys or her sexual activity with Wayne. Kendra has turned down Wayne’s offer to move in with him. Her parents have warned her: Wayne or your degree. When Wayne picks her up in the student parking lot, he angles for sex but Kendra wants to be dropped off at the usual corner, a block from her parent’s house. When they arrive, “they can see police cars and fire trucks, lights flashing…in the driveway of Kendra’s parent’s house….” This scene changes her life for good.
Unlike characters in a generic novella, Laura, Suzie, Brandon, Billy and Bob, and Kendra act in and through a geographic context that grounds them as they separately take their road trips to end up, coincidentally, in southern Colorado, just north of New Mexico—a crucial development in how the story plays out and ends.
To illustrate: Under a heading titled “THE BEGINNING” on the first page of Even As We Speak, the narrator introduces Laura and Rick. They live in Questa, a small village located in north central New Mexico, along the southern border of Colorado.
After this brief introduction, the narration jumps to a heading titled “NOW.” Here, the narrator briefly introduces Suzie, Brandon (and Crystal), Kendra, and Billy and Bob—five of the six main characters—who, previously unknown to each other, coincidentally meet at the Wagon Wheel, a convenience store located “just north of New Mexico, not quite three hours east of Questa.” At this point, the narrator does not divulge anything about the characters or how they arrived at the Wagon Wheel, but the implication is that whatever happens here is going to transform their lives.
To understand how the factual, physical setting grounds the characters and acts as a critical player in the evolution of the story, consider how each character has arrived at the Wagon Wheel. Suzie has driven from Southern California through Nevada—where “Bad Suzie,” the addicted gambler, overtakes “Good Suzie,” the recovering gambler— and Utah, on her way to find Rick, her high school sweetheart, in Questa, New Mexico. Brandon, running from the law and camping out with Crystal in different locations, decides he cannot take Crystal with him to Canada: He will drive to Questa, where he will leave Crystal at his parents’ house. His parents, Laura and Rick Hughes, have not seen or heard from their son Jack, aka Brandon the eco terrorist, for fifteen years—they have only seen a picture of their granddaughter, Crystal. Kendra has driven from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she used a computer at the University of New Mexico to write a letter to her Uncle Jack who is now in jail, having recently murdered her father (his brother) and her mother, Uncle Jack’s lover. Her trip is an attempt to put her life back together. Billy and Bob, having driven across the country from Big Pine, California, now find themselves at a small convenience store called the Wagon Wheel, which they plan to rob. They are high on methamphetamine, and Billy is hot to get laid.
This geographical information is gleaned from each of the characters’ subplots, which are cleverly arranged under a heading titled “BEFORE NOW.” This section of the novella comprises nearly three-quarters of the novella’s seventy-eight pages, and it describes the characters’ motivation for change, the internal conflict that ensues, and the personal development that transpires once the character is on the road. Each character’s subplot is interwoven with the stories of the other main characters, and each is separated by subheadings: Think of these subplots like mini-chapters separated by white space. Take the first ten pages of “BEFORE NOW.” The narrator introduces Suzie under the subheading “Suzie and Dave Are in Bed—“, and it tells Suzie’s story in a little more than two pages. Then, the narrator introduces Brandon under the subheading “Brandon and Crystal and Lilly—“. The narrator relates his story in three and a half pages. Bob and Billy’s story follows Brandon’s; Kendra’s follows Bob and Billy’s. This pattern repeats successively until the narrator returns the characters to the Wagon Wheel under the heading “NOW” where the characters have first been briefly introduced.
Although this structural arrangement might seem confusing and complicated, it is anything but. Like mini-chapter titles, the subheadings function as entrances into the characters subplots where their inner lives are rendered and turned inside out for all to see: Here are their dilemmas, conflicts, and rationalizations but also their willingness to learn and change. Their road trips provide the impetus and grounding that each of the characters needs in order to find out who they are, as Kendra herself experiences after she leaves San Antonio, Texas, and wild sex: “As she moves deeper into the campus proper [the University of New Mexico] the pieces of her self reestablish their places in the puzzle, kicking out the imposter parts, that assemblage of fragments that dominated in San Antonio….” The road trip allows the characters, if they are willing, to assimilate truer parts of themselves that have strayed and are now being uncovered, rediscovered, and brought back into the fold, just as the gathering at the Wagon Wheel provides the climactic moment when they cannot escape each other or their own stories.
The last three sections of Even As We Speak round out the novella and return the reader to the beginning. Under the heading “NOW,” the novella reaches its climax: Pointing their guns at the customers—Suzie, Brandon, Crystal, and Kendra—and the clerk, Billy and Bob do indeed rob the Wagon Wheel. Billy wants to take buxom Kendra with them, but Bob objects and Suzie offers herself instead. Brandon, who is in big trouble if the police arrive before he gets out of there, tries to push Crystal onto Kendra, but Kendra says she will go with him. He wonders if she’s on the lam too.
The section titled “AFTER NOW—“ puts Suzie trudging up a dirt road about five miles off the highway after the robbers have dropped her off; Kendra and Crystal at a gas station waiting for the police to take them back to the Wagon Wheel where Kendra has parked her car; and Brandon changing the license plates on his Corolla and fleeing to Canada. At the Wagon Wheel, Brandon had told Kendra “and Crystal that if they didn’t want all hell to break loose, the best course of action, if Kendra were willing, would be for her to drive Crystal to Questa, New Mexico.” Then, under the subheading “Kendra and Crystal and Suzie—“, Kendra and Crystal are on their way to Questa; Crystal sees Suzie on the side of the road, “standing under a battered Buckle Up sign, a bottle of water tucked under one of her arms”—a gift from Bob. Kendra slams on the brakes, and they pick up the “other woman from the Wagon Wheel.” Meanwhile, at the café in Questa, “Laura’s senses are on alert, a coyote on a scent, something’s headed her way and so during the mid-afternoon lull, the arrival of the two women with a little girl between them isn’t totally unexpected. In fact when she sees them, Laura knows she’s been waiting for them, in some way, for a long time.”
The “END” brings the characters back to the beginning where Laura has already “seen” the stories that unfold in Even As We Speak: She takes “the deep, deep breath that will push her back into the night-space dream-land where a single tree can simultaneously bear apples and figs and avocados, mangos and limes and oranges—each fruit as big as a basketball sometimes or as small as a tick—depending.” As they bounce around the country and find themselves together at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, looking for parts of themselves that they left behind or are trying to uncover and change, the characters do not accomplish their transformations alone. Each of them is part of the tree that Laura has seen in her dream. Each of them needs the other to find his or her way. Even Billy and Bob, who, unfortunately, blow themselves up in the Badlands while cooking their first batch of meth.
Artful, inventive, and entertaining, Houghton has written a smart novella that continues to surprise with its literary structural integrity, its psychological acuity, and its mythic overtones. It is almost as if Houghton knows a little too much about the human condition. The characters in Even As We Speak have, if we watch closely enough, a little of us in each of them, and, if we want it badly enough, as Suzie believes, “you might exit this universe and come right back in on the other side, but, just maybe (timing is everything) you might exit and slip into a whole other universe just because it happens to be sliding by the one you are escaping, the one you’ve played all the games in that can be played, the one you’ve earned the right to exit for good.”
Claire will make your heart break. She does not play on your heartstrings, nor does she mean to draw you into her drama. She may not even know you are there, eavesdropping. But even if she is aware of you, she will not blink an eye because her focus is on someone she does not yet completely trust, but to whom she slowly, cumulatively, reveals her story. It may not be fair to Claire to eavesdrop. You are breaking the confidential privilege between patient and doctor. But how else are you going to learn why Claire sits across from her therapist, Paul, twice a week—Mondays and Thursdays—peeling away the layers to tame the “child sex-monster who lives inside” her?
A smart, strong, capable woman, Claire probably would not want you to know. She is not the type to tell all, especially family secrets she has lived with for most of her thirty-nine years. Something has compelled her, however, to seek help for what one could call an addiction she has no control over. She has, somehow, found the strength to begin the excruciating process of getting “used to the idea of putting words on these buried things,” things that mutate and adapt, and after days or weeks or even a year “one hears a crying out, some guttural noise, and if one has the stamina to keep listening, maybe, just maybe, the cry-out turns into a word, a phrase. Maybe later a sentence comes and one writes it down and maybe it turns into a paragraph.”
In Frottage, you learn why Claire has sought Paul’s help. In a letter dated January 5, the fifth of one hundred fifteen letters she sends to him over a period of sixteen months stretching from November 3 to February 17, Claire writes that she has come to see him because she sleeps with men other than her husband. She adds, “Don’t be telling me to have tea with my mother”—a linguistic hint of her defiance and wit. When she begins her sessions with Paul, she is not very cooperative, and, is in fact, downright antagonistic. In a letter dated January 8, she chastises him for talking about anger. She retorts: “Up yours and your 60,000 dollars worth of privacy. I’ll be angry wherever I want to be angry,” and adds, incongruously, a P.S., “He said he wanted to eat me like an eClaire.” When he tells her that she keeps her husband John “in the fog,” she writes that her “husband is perfect,” describing his physique in detail: “He has a beautiful body. Good shoulders, a nice chest with nipples that are flat and just the right color against his skin that one might call olive…. His stomach is flat, he has a nice ass, and yes, since I am describing him and you have 60,000 dollars worth of privacy surrounding you, I’ll tell you his penis is above average on all counts….” She ends the letter: “Is he standing in sunshine now? Is he there for you?” Claire insists “John is not part of the problem” and wants him out of the picture: “He’s my husband. He exists. That’s all you need to know.”
Over the course of the therapy, she lies to Paul about her actual sexual encounters and her sexual fantasies. She warns him that she does not want him “nosing around in” her libido; it has an agenda different from her rational mind. In a letter dated May 11, she writes: “I do not want you to save me, Paul, from myself, from the, what do you call it, sexual horse that pulls me around….” Taking her language to the edge of seduction, she describes in sexually explicit words the erotic dreams she has about him, fantasizing about his private life, imagining herself in his “king sized(?) bed” nestled “up against your back which I imagine to be covered with a soft, down-like fur.”
She derides Paul’s attempt to get her to go back to her ten-year-old self. She tells him, in a letter dated March 24: “Is it against the rules for you to simply ask? Not that an answer exists, no clear and utterable response, or is it reference to something written down that stops you, that renders you artless, stuck in your paradigm of talk therapy?” She takes him to task for being hooked on textbook answers, for being reductive and putting “names and words around these things that I, as patient, experience as amorphous and uncontrollable events and sensations, so eventually you, dear doctor, have only succeeded in being reductive because, bottom line, you can only categorize.”
Claire opens up, and when she does she enters dangerous territory—the source of her psychical weeping, her feelings of unworthiness, and the stains on her soul. On April 16, five months after she first walks into Paul’s office, she writes that she has “read somewhere once that the relationship an individual has with his/her sibling or siblings determines more about how that individual functions/interacts with peers than any other relationship.” And thus begins the real story about Claire, who had epilepsy as a child, and her relationship with her older brother Richard, also an epileptic, and her younger brother George.
In letters to Paul over a period of almost a year, from April to February, Claire describes Richard’s incestuous relationship with her and with George. The incest is not the subject of every letter, but it underlies the narrative, “a gruesome peeling away.” Richard, five years older than Claire, began to molest her when she was four or five years old, and he had sexual intercourse with her when she was eight. She writes in a letter dated 9/6: “So what if Little Richard fucked me a couple of times. He’s dead, seized right out of existence. He’d buggar Georgie, too. Little Richard didn’t care, long as it was warm…. George and I understood. Understand. I know exactly how Georgie felt—cheek against cold tile floor, pants pulled down to his ankles, little Richard’s knees pushing his legs apart. And I know how Little Richard felt too. Subservient to snake haired monsters, grisly, voracious mouths eating at him, a bite at a time, right behind his belly button, every conscious moment of his conscious life. Laura and Vince [their parents].”
On October 5, Claire defends Richard, claiming he did not hurt either her or George physically—he “gently manipulated” them. Until six months ago, she had believed, even into adulthood, that their intimate, physical relationship was nothing unusual between siblings. Two weeks later, on Oct. 19, Claire writes to Paul that she “almost threw up today on your pretty blue carpet.” Blaming herself for participating in the abuse, she describes a hypnotic voice that would call her and she “would walk into this other dimension…like walking through a gelatin wall, and once in the new space, I’d be off seeking Richard, like a doggie in heat, coy. That’s what makes me want to throw up. My actual participation, despite the fact that from the outside, even from my outside and even from Richard’s, it always appeared to be his idea, his action, his doing. And it’s not the participation that makes me sick, it’s the pretending that I didn’t. Same sort of games go on in my head today.” Three days later, on Oct.22, Claire wonders how she can tell Paul “the things I tell you. Is that what the vulnerability is about, the helplessness? It opens the floodgates, somehow, and all this stuff gushes forward, spills itself on the paper, the sewage.” She fears that he will walk away and shout, “‘Enough.’” In one of the saddest sentences Claire (or anyone) could ever write, she admits to the depth of her suffering: “I will stand up, head hanging, and walk slowly from the room, knowing full well that you are correct, that I am indeed unworthy, that no amount of therapy can cleanse this soul.”
As a reader of Claire’s letters, you are not only eavesdropping but you are also witnessing her healing. As she struggles to integrate the fractured parts of herself, she realizes that her relationship with Paul has evolved into a non-sexualized relationship with him. Claire announces, on January 12, a year and two months after she begins therapy, that this day is a celebration of sorts: the anniversary of her decision to trust him. More important, she declares, the year is worth celebrating because she is “having a sort of non-sexualized relationship” with Paul. She “can look into a mirror and not be completely startled by the reflection. I can, metaphorically speaking, feel your presence inside me, a surrogate parent (?), a person whose hand I can hold, who will hold my hand (metaphorically speaking), and together, hand in hand, the deep abyss bridged by that link, I can conceive, I can picture walking into a future, you incorporated into me, making it all possible (again, metaphorically speaking). So thanks, Paul. Love—Claire.”
The change from the Claire of November 3, the date on which she writes her first letter, and the Claire who admits to a non-sexualized relationship with Paul, a little over a year later, is striking. Two days later, on January 14, she clarifies why she writes to him: She misses him between her sessions, “And so I miss you and so I write to you, something, something casual, something easy and fun, and then other times, it’s different, instead I’m practicing, for some tellings must be practiced, verbalized in different ways so that they become palatable, like saying to someone, ‘XYZ happened to a friend of mine,’ when it really happened to you.”
When Claire and John visit Morro Bay a day after Christmas—a year after Claire begins therapy with Paul—they find themselves alone at the campground, where they have “the forest, the shore, the ocean, the inlet” to themselves, where she begins “to understand, walking those walks, hand intertwined with John’s.” The next morning, she hikes down to the cove and sees the birds: “the Green-Winged Teals and the Spotted Sandpipers and the Double Crested Cormorants, the White Fronted Geese, the Surf Scooters, Red Throated Loons” floating “silently before their mirrored images.” She sees, as in an epiphany, the ripples the birds send “out of the cove and into the place where all such ripples meet, where ripples converge, join forces, and then wait for the ocean to exhale, heaving up that accumulated power, tidal waving it back over the land, like everything in life, and yet we people, we scream, amazed when we find ourselves awash in all that is us. That’s it, that’s what I wanted to say. I’m screaming.”
On one of their walks, Claire and John find a trailer in the forest beyond the beach. It is unattended, unoccupied. Finding the door unlocked, they enter. Inside, they see a manual typewriter on a desk, and typed on a red piece of paper they read “the first two lines from a poem by Rumi”: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,/there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” It seems here, at Morro Bay, Richard would not make an appearance. Not his evil twin, not his grand mal seizures, not his institutionalization, not his death at seventeen when Claire was twelve, not the family tragedy that sucked up the attention of Laura and Vince and contributed to their failing to see what was happening inside their home.
The epistolary structure of Frottage could not be more different from the script-like structure of Even As We Speak. It yields advantages for a character like Claire: She can control the narration, and in doing so, determine the scope and detail of her letters—what she will include and what she will omit—as well as convey her intellectual heft, attitudinal wit, and utter despair. She is both narrator and author, and, arguably, the only character in Frottage. You see and understand the other characters—Paul, Richard, George, Laura, and Vince—through her eyes. Her perspective might be tainted, as in her defense of Richard; defiant, as in her rejection of Paul’s first observations; or distorted—early on—as in her denial of the trauma surrounding her childhood. But the story is hers alone, literally walled off from the outside world, either in Paul’s office or in her letters to him—an emotional, psychological, and spiritual one, albeit one of the most difficult to heal.
Houghton uses the epistolary structure—with its confessional nature—to great effect. You are both eavesdropper and witness to the story that Claire tells in Frottage. You might need to turn away for a minute or so—it feels so real, so honest and profound—but you will be right back with Claire, not wanting to leave her side.