There is something innately, and perhaps disconcertingly, satisfying in bearing witness to other people’s suffering. Not the Schadenfreude variety, like the cheer emitted upon seeing the Wicked Witch of the West dissolve into a smoldering puddle at Dorothy’s ruby-clad feet. I’m thinking more of those glorious passages by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that too-often overlooked example of aestheticized documentary he and the photographer Walker Evans composed after following three sharecropper families in rural Alabama in 1936. In delicious sentences that go on for lines and lines sans punctuation, Agee captures the beautiful sorrow in the visage of Annie Mae Gudger, one of the farm wives prematurely aged by overwork and undernourishment. He describes the movements of the men, women, and children as they embark upon a futile harvest under the blaze of an especially oppressive Alabama sun in a way that makes them seem like ballet dancers rather than hunched and grungy cotton-pickers. Reading about these lives should not be pleasurable. But it is—perhaps especially because this chronicle of poverty, suffering, and squalor is, beneath Agee’s pseudonyms and narrative interjections, real.
I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and Agee’s is certainly not the only book that evokes in its audience such an ambivalent—and morally ambiguous—reaction. Real life seems terrible enough as it is, so why do we actively pursue it in other sources, especially those meant to provide escape, like art? To my mind, it’s part of a desperate need to be reassured of our existence. Seemingly undesirable un-niceties let us know we’re not alone in our pain, and observing even a falsified version of ourselves confronting equal or worse demons than our own is gratifying on a Darwinian level.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, despite its inherent lyricism, is nonetheless nonfiction. Like watching the evening news, our reading of the families’ travails does not necessarily result in aesthetic distancing (although it often does in this case), and we can share in their humanity without having to stretch ourselves too far. What, then, are we to make of a book like Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.00)? This hauntingly devastating debut novel—a chronicle of a young girl growing up in Calle de las Flores, a trailer park in Reno, Nevada, in the 1960s—has no business being as authentic, and thusly satisfying, in its account of human suffering. Rory Dawn (“R.D.”) Hendrix is a product of Hassman’s skillful crafting, a talent no doubt honed while the author earned her MFA from Columbia. But Rory’s voice and her world read more like documentary than fiction. The book straddles the line between art and reality to an uncomfortable degree, and, as in real life, we can’t help but stare as the entire concept of normalcy at the Calle ignites in flames before our eyes. (Rory even provides factoids about how a real trailer would be incinerated, even how long it would take.) We devour every word, even though each turn of the page only breathes ferocious life into the blaze.
Even though we know it’s fiction, Girlchild’s heightened realism presents a complicated challenge to readers’ enjoyment. In part, this is due to the multiple narrative forms Hassman employs. All of the extremely short chapters are inflected with the voice and perspective of Rory, who’s far wiser than her eight years and eponymously controls the book. (Her grandmother affectionately calls her “girlchild” as a futile means to preserve her innocence.) But instead of through a continuous first-person narration, we learn about her family’s past and present from a variety of sources. The dated records of a welfare official, V. White, for example, tell us how Rory’s mother, Jo, was first pregnant at thirteen, has four children with different men, and abuses drugs, but, because she “seems to be in good physical condition” and is deemed a “fine-looking woman who lives in a well-kept, adequate home,” receives little of the necessary attention from the state; Rory notes this bureaucratic incompetence with both humor and disdain. We also see standardized test questions (with trailer park-specific answers), letters, recipes, obituaries and newspaper clips, court documents, and, most importantly, modified Girl Scout Handbook excerpts, all of which manifest themselves with alarming brevity. With no more than a page or so of evidence, it’s hard to determine what’s fact and what’s not, what’s a long-meditated adage or an off-the-cuff or snarky observation from Rory. She alternately assumes an intensely personal, pitifully self-aware tone—she declares, “My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock” on page five—and one of sarcastic reportage—we learn “The basic subsistence pattern on the Calle is commonly referred to as living paycheck to paycheck. . . . The Calle’s economic system is one of generalized reciprocity and enforces the interdependence of the group. Whoever has cigarettes left over after everyone else has smoked theirs is expected to share, with payback assumed on the following first or fifteenth” only seven pages but three chapters later. It takes a while to get accustomed to this voice; Hassman’s prose even comes off as inconsistent, scattered, overly ambitious in its literariness. Once we feel at home, we start to realize the potential unreliability of even external perspectives on her situation, and of Rory herself. The fictionality of the narrative collage shines through—an uneven, at times, human construct. And the momentum behind it comes from a child, whose innocence and particular vulnerability in her ever-narrowing world understandably limits what she can tell and show us.
But what’s on display here as documentary is not a world with rules or even a firm idea of “truth.” It is Rory herself: the “girlchild” who is also the book. A comparison with Nabokov’s Lolita is particularly apt in suggesting the metafictionality of her account, that with which we grapple as we determine how much empathy to feel for her. Rory’s most horrifying experience in the Calle is not poverty or hunger or a lack of an education: instead, like Dolores Haze, she is the victim of truly appalling sexual abuse, here by the “Hardware Man,” who rapes her in the back bathroom of his store, encouraging her to be quiet while her favorite new rainbow tee-shirt gets stained in more ways than one could ever see on the surface—even more than what the red rash blooming around her mouth belies. Indeed, if Lolita had a voice, it would probably sound something like Rory’s (perhaps with a slightly different accent and vernacular). We see the same suffering, the same anguish, the same irrevocable damage to a little girl’s self-esteem.
This is all the more difficult to read when we see Rory trying, in her earnest first-person, to take initiative to improve her lot. She becomes a troop-less Girl Scout, reads library books, does well in school, takes care of her mother. The fact that nothing comes from these endeavors is not all that surprising, but it still comes as a personal blow when we witness her failure and disappointment happening in seemingly real time. When she becomes a finalist in a spelling bee, she deliberately makes a mistake so as to save her family the expense of her advancement: traveling, new dresses, and a fundamental distance between her and her mother. It’s also not surprising that the word she misspells is “outlier” (which she deconstructs to o-u-t-l-i-a-r). To hope for success—the fictional happy ending we all root for for her sake, that which would make her an “outlier”—is a lie she is unwilling to tell herself. It’s certainly not something of which an ordinary child—or even most adults—would be able to convince themselves, and certainly not something someone make-believe would ever have to.
Instead, Rory’s story is one where innocence is never made manifest. The most difficult chapters to get through are those where thick black lines—as if the text were covered by black correction tape or an extra-wide Sharpie marker—tattoo the page, scenes of rape censored not for our sake, but for hers. The reality of it all is not mitigated by this visual silence, but heightened. What she’s going through is more intense as an off-stage, blacked-out attack, the purest document we could have of her mental state in those torturous moments. At that point, seeing two whole pages of this evidence is no longer insufficient, but too much. Far too much. In the same way that Lolita’s resounding silence constitutes her entire person in Lolita and allows Humbert Humbert to narrate and title the book as he does, this refusal of language unquestionably conflates Rory with the pages of Girlchild. The clever design of the physical book enhances this impression: the spine is adorned with a Dewey Decimal System number, and the front cover depicts a nearly-full check-out card that should be tucked safely inside. Rory has taken out her own self-titled book in order to live it, exposing her viscera with unabashed clarity. Only there is she the “girlchild” her grandmother hopes she’ll be, the pure and innocent eight-year-old with such promise and poise. But in so doing she admits awareness of this unreality. She’s not sure what to believe about herself—what to have faith in and what to disregard as fiction—an uncertainty she invites us to read about alongside her.
We never give up hope for Rory, even as her situation goes from bad to unbelievably worse. Hers is not a happy ending. She and we know and accept what’s coming. We reach the end cringing, knowing that our heroine is ultimately alone in the world. She escapes the fate of teenage pregnancy, but she does not escape sexual violation. It is doubtful she’ll ever go to college like the social worker—the “man in the suit”—suggests in the final pages, when she’s nearly completed high school and about to enter “the real world,” as it were. The fact that his shady presence insinuates continuing pedophilia highlights how sordid this fictional landscape actually is. Rory may have given herself Girl Scout badges in “God’s Eye” and “Puberty,” but such recognition has no meaning outside of her one-person troop. Like the makeshift Handbook she religiously follows and Girlchild itself, hope is the fiction that we never quite attain.
But the fact that we keep reading, plodding through the suffering of each page, is too much like reality to disregard. It’s what makes us seek those moments of compassion shared in the space of literature, even when we have to endure lots of pain to receive only some pleasure. We let our rainbows, even those silk-screened on tee-shirts, be occluded by thunder clouds because we believe, deep down, they’ll eventually shine through.
Jennifer N. Kurdyla is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf.More Posts by Jennifer N. Kurdyla