From Driving Men Mad
Critics like to bandy around words like “expressionistic” and “minimalist” a bit too freely. If one goal of literary criticism is precision, then the more elastic terminology becomes, the less useful it is. It can also catch a critic up short (and here I include myself) when said critic does come across something that appears truly deserving of a particular term or designation.
That said, Elise Levine’s stories present a particular challenge to critical interpretation. The author is a sculptor with language, meticulously carving away anything extraneous or superfluous, and creating figures that appear at first glance disorienting and unfamiliar. She is an explorer of interior space, and the recourse to subjectivity would appear at first to place her work in the category of expressionism. Though if one were to consider the 20th century writers – like Kafka, Lowry, Hemingway, and Eliot – often associated with the term, it begins to appear as though Levine has little in common with any of them. (Her work bears some resemblance to Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, which has sometimes been categorized as an expressionistic novel.) In her voice and narrative approach, Levine’s stories are frankly sui generis.
This will prove difficult for some readers, since Levine tends to leave the interpretive responsibility in their hands. Her stories are often fractured, temporally and in their very language, and it is often in the interstices between incidents or characters that the locus of meaning can be found. She doesn’t create scenes so much as provide glimpses of moments that a reader is responsible for piecing together into a cohesive whole.
This is not to say that Levine is unwilling to write a more or less straightforward, chronological narrative. (See, for example, the paired stories “The Association” and “As Such” from her 2019 collection This Wicked Tongue.) But her most vigorous short fiction requires a reader to abandon any preconception about what a story should be or do and pay close attention to the movement of a piece on a word-by-word basis. She is a writer who requires patience and concentration and her best work is implicative, opening outward to yield meaning off the page, in the mind of the reader.
One of Levine’s stylistic tools is the declarative sentence. “Baby Jesus and the Intruder,” from her stellar 1995 debut Driving Men Mad, opens with a prime example: “Sometimes there’s so much dirt.” As an entree into the story, it provides little in the way of grounding for a reader: there is no context, no identifiable speaker, and no specified setting. The following sentence clarifies at least some of this – “Baby tells Lee there’s so much dirt he can’t get himself clean” – before immediately reversing itself with a clarification: “But that’s not here and he tells Lee that, too.” Note that we are still unaware of who Baby and Lee are. We know that Baby, with the stereotypically feminine nickname, is a man, while Lee is an androgynous appellation (it will soon become clear that she is a woman). We are similarly unaware of where “here” is, though the third sentence specifies that it is “Karla’s house” (and who, exactly, is Karla?), which is “where all that’s dirty are [Baby’s] hands from wrapping newspaper all day long.” Another reversal, since we have been told that Karla’s place is a place where Baby can get himself clean, though he admits to “licking the ink sometimes when he eats a sandwich from Karla’s fridge and forgets to wash.”
The story’s opening paragraph comprises seven sentences that collectively contain 112 words. Each successive sentence offers the reader a bit more information, teasing out context like an expert fisher sending out a line. And the rest of the story proceeds in a like manner, offering bits of background and character detail, reversing course, clarifying what earlier appeared opaque, shuffling back and forth in time. The full story is like those 3D images that come clear the longer a viewer stares at them.
The basic arc of the story is fairly straightforward. Baby (real name Saul Applebaum) is a musician who has returned from a tour of England and split with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Anita. He works with Lee sorting international alternative newspapers for Karla, a CIDA employee who runs a newspaper distribution company out of her house on the side. At the story’s close, an intruder enters Karla’s house through the sliding door that Baby has left unlocked and confronts Baby.
And that’s about it, at least in terms of the bald facts of what happens. Of course, Levine is not a writer who is particularly concerned with what happens in a story. She is much more interested in how it happens. And how things happen in a Levine story is always located on the level of language.
Take, for example, Baby’s stage name. A group of Karla’s friends bestowed upon him the name Baby Jesus Jackson after “hours spent drinking good red wine from nice wineglasses, listening to Smithsonian blues collections.” It is a hipster joke, in other words, a bit of fun bestowed by people who drink vintage wine and listen to the Smithsonian collection – not, that is, even remotely the kind of people who write or sing the blues.
The name at once hearkens back to the bluesmen Baby adores – people like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson – and connotes an aspect of resurrection that is germane to Baby’s trajectory, or lack thereof, in the story. “Once upon a time in a happily-ever-after land of forever-my-children amen, he saves everybody,” Levine writes at the story’s close, by which point it is abundantly clear that this is not that kind of fairy tale and that Baby will not find any ready-made salvation, but will remain as he always has, “[f]eeling not too dirty and never really clean.”
Levine refuses to explain any of this, because Levine staunchly refuses to explain. Dropped names of various locations – This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Cheaters, Dundas Street, the Oak Leaf Steam Baths – indicate the story takes place in Toronto in the 1990s. And here is how Levine informs her readers of Lee’s sexuality and background:
Lee knows the game, only a year ago escaping first Hamilton then Women’s Studies at York University (he’d been worried, they’d known each other since junior high school and that made her his oldest friend alive) to luck into a condo on King Street with her new butch mama.
And here is the same for Karla:
Karla’s mission – read, read, and the word my brethren is: Feminism, Marxism-Leninism, (I say) Eco-war (and do some) Deconstructionism, for you are the disenfranchised, monopolized disembodied-disembowelled multitudes and you are standing at my door and I shall feed you my babes in the woods for you have wandered far – all that smack-back in her puss.
That final clause comes as a jarring reminder that Levine’s story is told in the close third-person from Baby’s perspective. This should give a reader pause about how far to trust his assessments of the other characters, which tend to be jaundiced and bitter (though he is equally tough on himself). Though there is plenty of irony in the notion of the politically correct, jargon-wielding Karla hiring Lee – a dropout from a Women’s Studies program – simply because of her status as a lesbian. Baby mocks this, too, suggesting that Karla was none too pleased to discover Lee had entered into a BDSM relationship as a sub: “Karla deeply resents not being consulted on Lee’s change of status from marginalized gender-bender (resist!) to passive other in a bad-consciousness relationship (quel embarrassement!).”
If “Baby Jesus and the Intruder” traces a psychological movement on the part of the eponymous musician, even this is contingent by the story’s close. The presence of an interloper in a narrative is frequently used to push a protagonist toward a journey or a realization that was previously denied them; in this case, the intruder is an anonymous figure in a Moxy Früvous T-shirt (a freighted cultural reference from the perspective of 2020) who Baby denies remembering anything about when the police ask. (Here, he is aligned more with Peter than with Jesus, just as his real name aligns him more closely with the epistle writer Paul, albeit minus the Road to Damascus moment.)
The close of the story leaves Baby no closer to resolution than he was at the beginning. The final sentences are indicative of action that is about to happen, but which is withheld from both reader and protagonist: “This song he hears like he’s standing alone in the dark waiting for the spotlight to come on. A door sliding open.” We are left hanging in the moment just before an action takes place: a perfectly emblematic ending to a story by Elise Levine.