A review of

Frances Johnson

by Stacey Levine

Central question: Are you more yourself when you’re with other people?
Format: 230 pp., paperback; Size: 4 1/4" x 6"; Price: $12.95; Publisher: Clear Cut Press; Editor: Matthew Stadler; Run: 3,000; Book designer: Tae Won Yu; Typeface: Garamond; Publisher’s motto: New research and popular literature; Author also wrote: Libretto for touring puppet opera in Washington State; Representative sentence: “‘I am not quick on my feet,’ she spoke aloud dryly, thinking of a failed conversation so long ago after class with the attractive high school math teacher Mr. Luna, who had charmed Frances terribly once with a joke about a duck, and around whom she still felt awkward.”

In her introduction to the latest edition of the collected Jane Bowles, Joy Williams argues that reading Bowles taught her nothing about writing. With all due respect, I’m not sure that I agree with Williams, whose work I adore and which often bears the same reckless beauty and sentence-by-sentence surprise that I find in Bowles. In any case, someone who, it’s safe to say, learned plenty from Bowles is the Seattle-based author Stacey Levine. I’m not the first to suggest this; Levine’s current editor, novelist Matthew Stadler, astutely compared Levine to Bowles in a review of Levine’s first novel, Dra—.

All three of these writers—I’d argue that Levine picked up a few lessons from Williams as well—are galvanized by misunderstanding. Limited knowledge of the world can lead, and often does, to a greater self-awareness. Sentences accordingly swarm with nonsequiturs, and plots tumble on the slippery meanings of same. Causality and conventional sequence are often comically snubbed. Strangeness celebrated.

Levine’s latest novel, Frances Johnson, takes place in a town called Munson. Munson feels a bit like Guy Maddin’s Tölzbad or Lars von Trier’s Dogville, fictional burgs where mores are arbitrary and oppressive, denizens delirious with indecision.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Jason McBride

Jason McBride writes about books, movies, and music for Toronto Life, the Village Voice, Cinema Scope, and other publications. He lives in Toronto.

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