Not merely because of the fate of character
“…I had seen you, I had been seeing you: in dream, in flashes, in the in-between.”
Imagine everything that you have let your eyes forget manifesting for a moment. What do you see? Who do you become? In not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, Jenny Boully imagines characters escaping the fate of becoming a character and lifts the veil
of their narrative to reveal the unknown that is ever urging one to become something other. Boully shows us that even developed characters can still question who they want to become—that choice still exists within the margins of a
proper name. Boully continually explores how self is both a home that we bury deep within ourselves but are also in relentless pursuit to dig up. A beast of our own making, character is made up of what one does not know about oneself or one’s relationships with others.
While Boully has chosen names for her characters that feel familiar to the reader, they are not names that necessarily help the characters to better understand who they are or where they are going (after all, naming only serves to position something through definition, and the definition of proper names is slippery at best and completely dependent on embodiment as well as context). Instead of shying away from this mystery, both the reader and Boully’s characters pursue the unknown. The reader is in search of a narrative in the book, while the characters are in search of who or what they are. Both reader and character are dependent upon one another. The reader cannot go in search of narrative without a name or a place or an object to go forth from, and a character cannot understand more about his or herself without building off of something that defines him or her, such as a name. However, since Boully’s character names do not actually help to define her characters to either the reader or to the characters themselves, both the reader and the characters are situated (or perhaps lost) in a realm of the in between or the undefined, hoping, or at best, pretending that there is something known that can be depended on to move forward from toward a narrative— toward a “real” story. Boully thus shows the reader just how fragile (or temporary) a narrative truly is as it merely begins from a point of something that we deem to be familiar. This makes a narrative subjective, but more importantly, completely capable of becoming something other than what is anticipated.
Therefore, Boully’s book sets up a unique opportunity for a reader to explore the idea of how one cannot pursue narrative or understand character without relying on definition. Furthermore, if reading a book that is essentially in search of its own narrative (or toward a truer, more “real” character as the actions taken by Boully’s characters reflect) then where does that place the reader? Could it be that the narrative structure of Boully’s book is perhaps the main character, the beastly unknown that the reader is both pursuing and being chased after in the act of reading? Boully’s book subtly reveals how we engage in the act of creating narrative through our reading in order to find our own place within a narrative—in order to be placed within a narrative ourselves—in the same way that we place characters via our definition of them. This makes narrative a kind of place that we look to find ourselves within or that we try to settle ourselves within. We seek it out like a home because it feels familiar or because it began from the origins of something that felt familiar.
Of course, if we are in search of a narrative structure that we can depend on to be there to carry us through the course of the book then Boully’s book will not let us find one. Instead, we must be satisfied to continually seek out a home in an unstable narrative or through characters that move beyond the walls of habitual name and narrative. If Boully’s main character is the book’s narrative structure then “The Home Under Ground” sections are this main character’s most prominent characteristics or its roots. These sections function similarly to how Boully’s characters function in the book, and both represent an ongoing need to declare what is believed to be real in order to protect against the potential unreal or unknown that can threaten a character’s existence.
It is important to notice how “The Home Under Ground” sections function like footnotes upon first glance (a stylistic move also found in Boully’s The Body) but then slowly take up more page space as if staking (if not stalking) more space for their presence on the page. However, even this idea must not be overlooked. Are these sections truly in competition for recognition with the above text on the page, or again, is this just the way we habitually read a narrative structure? Furthermore, are these sections only deemed as footnotes because we are reading them as sections that are separate from the above text? This stylistic move is interesting because it shows how the naming of a section by means of a title automatically triggers the reader to seek the occurrence of another narrative taking place on the same page, in the same book. Boully counts on how titles affect a reader’s interaction with a text in order to make the reader become acutely aware of his or her reading of this book based on the choices that will have to be made when reading it.
There are so many ways to read the text on these pages that the reader is nearly overwhelmed by them, and this creates a tense juxtaposition as the characters in the book have limited to no choices themselves. Although a reader may develop a system of reading the text above the titled sections, this system is sure to be interrupted by the way a section is positioned on the page as the layout can cause the reader to forget which part of the page he or she read last. Ultimately, such reading seeks to awaken the reader to the problem of trying to read these two texts on the page as separate narratives. Slowly, if the reader begins to forgo separating the texts on the page, the page can read as a unified whole that produces substantial and different meanings.
Such reading also serves to remind that it is always the reader who is searching a book for its narrative like he or she would a home, and in the process buries what already exists, or rather, what is already real and present. If anything, the constant references to death, killing, and being buried in “The Home Under Ground” serve as hints to how readers do exactly this through a linear approach to reading a text. When faced with this idea, the reader also has to face how his or her reading of a text essentially hides characters just as much as it tries to reveal them. In other words, if a linear reading of a text is performed to characterize characters in order to make them be what is expected of them then as readers, we must take responsibility for burying these characters alive. Similar to the overlooked objects that Boully points to in the book, such as the spoon, an overlooked character exists on the page before the reader comes along to impose narrative. This is a fascinating responsibility that is in much need of the reader’s attention, and Boully makes the reader well aware of it.
Just as the book’s narrative structure is so subtly represented on the page that it is overlooked at first, the objects that the characters in her book interact with are equally represented to the characters in a subtle way that they are also overlooked. That is, the need to be seen as real in the face of the unreal may also be understood through small, everyday, overlooked objects in the characters’ living space, such as through forks, spoons, or even a thimble found in a room that reflects the characters’ search for an emerging aspect of their character: “These things may fit inside a thimble: a pinch of salt, a few drops of water, the tip of a woman’s ring finger…A thimble may protect against pricks, pin pricks, needle pricks, Tinkerpricks, but not hooks, never hooks.” By looking at the simple, overlooked object of a thimble more closely, the reader can see how the object addresses the real (or that which can physically fit within a thimble such as a pinch of salt) in order to address the unreal (or that which could never fit in a thimble because it is either too large such as a hook, or it is imaginary such as a Tinkerprick). But, of course, in calling all these items into consideration, they are being included or made to fit, to coexist within the thimble even if just for an imagined moment. In these small objects and subtle moments in the book, the reader is given the chance to see how aspects of character are being addressed, or rather, how Boully’s characters are identifying with a sense of a new definition of what can fit into their character (or proper name) within overlooked details or objects.
Boully goes on to show that both the reader and the characters that one reads about can create a world within the unknown, embodying this world in a way that only the naivety and innocence of a child can. By inviting the reader and characters to participate in the creation of a new world unfettered from societal expectations, both the reader and Boully’s characters are able to catch a glimpse of how they are one and the same. It is as if both character and reader notice the overlooked relationships that they have with objects in the room for the first time. Boully shows the reader how important it is that characters might be able to see themselves as quotidian objects like the spoon or the thimble, but objects nevertheless, capable of being used, of serving a purpose, and so, equally capable of moving beyond that which they are imagined to be. Boully encourages these characters, and therefore her readers, to question who they are beyond their habitual definition.
Interestingly, for as much as Boully seems to encourage her characters to break away from rules that society imposes upon them, she still embraces certain rules herself, albeit ones that are defined by the imagination, such as dreaming something up into existence. Of course, if rules are dictated by what the imagination deems possible, then Boully sees the importance of tapping into the power of the imagination to create a new world of language rather than trying to harness one that has already been altogether made. It is this imaginative language that we feel slowly encroaching upon us throughout the book.
What is this unspoken, unseen, or unheard language? Perhaps it is one of the pain of otherness—the pain of not knowing or having access to that which is missing or cannot be approached. Regardless, it is an urgent and shared pain of wanting to know a new or other kind of self. Boully depicts this urgency: “Tootles says that he would like to be a father, and if he can’t be father, well, then, he should like to pretend at being baby…” or “But, how do you know? How do you know, Wendy?” Such moments show how Boully holds a looking glass up to these characters so that they might see, if only for a moment, that they can move beyond the character they have assumed or have been blindly adhering to play. In fact, these characters’ questioning of characterization shows their awareness of being something potentially other, and as the book progresses, this awareness is heightened: “I say, Wendy, always if you see me forgetting you, just keep on saying ‘I’m Wendy,’ and then I’ll remember.” Here, Boully emphasizes the fate of the character who has to be named to be recognized; for to be named is to be placed (and placed within a narrative at that), and in order to exist, a character must be named—positioned and then repositioned within a narrative like a piece of furniture or an object in a room. Knowing this to be the character’s fate, Boully works within a character’s marginal definitions to reveal fleeting moments of characterization that accord more to the character’s own terms of self-definition. In this way, Boully reveals that characters in a narrative are not only able to identify with a sense of character based on their own terms, but they can also maintain roots in this characterization even if it is only spoken of or realized in pieces.
If anything, what is darkly unnerving about this unknown imaginative language or naming is just how much we identify with it. Be it an unknown name and therefore a definition of a character or location of a place, this unknown haunts the way that we think we are communicating because it reveals that by nature, we must forget in order to speak. Building off a general understanding that communicating and speaking are two different things for humans, Boully helps us to think more about how we respond to each other as though we were characters defined within a narrative. In considering this, we are reminded to pay more attention to those moments in our lives when we feel that something has gone amiss in the way that we understand ourselves or each other. For what is communication if it is kept safe, or kept in a place unchanged, or merely just kept? When speaking, it is in our nature to forget—in fact, in order for our brains to process a word to speak it aloud, each letter is automatically forgotten or consumed by the following letter as quickly as it is recognized and called to mind initially. The process just occurs so rapidly that we are able to stitch together the sound of the word with minimal effort. Yet, we overlook this intimate relationship with words. We have forgotten that to speak a word is to trust it into a fleeting existence— to summon it into the moment. We have forgotten that to speak a word or name is to forget it over and over again—to highlight a loss, and in doing so, we forget that definition is mysterious and flexible rather than fixed. We have forgotten that the unknown always comes before the known.
“That’s the way it will end: it will end simply because someone forgets…”
Identifying with the unknown in Boully’s book is to see this loss and to attempt to understand why we have trouble relating to ourselves, or in other words, finding a home in ourselves that we can depend on as being real and stable. Boully’s book suggests that if we have trouble remembering our intimacy with language, we can begin to remember it by realizing our intimacy with objects we normally disregard.
“The pillows insisted on one bout more, like partners who know that they will never meet again.”
It is not only important to understand how expressions of intimacy are carried in objects that we interact with on a daily basis, but also how our relationship to objects might simply serve as a reminder of where intimacy resides—in noticing. Such intimacy makes for a language of its own— or rather, a kind of home that sensually envelopes us, but is not deterministic.
Perhaps, then, we speak not to find our own language, our own home, but to chase after the absence of one— to revel in the potential for encounter and thus create roots in our refusal or inability to choose.
And, if home is what we bury deep within ourselves then it is something that we are constantly reminded of and are trying to both mend and make amends with. But, perhaps we should just leave it be. Or rather, perhaps we should just let it be the “hole” that Boully possibly imagines it to be—a hole of tangled roots that will naturally grow larger over time.
Karen Hannah is a poet and a freelance editor. Her work or projects can be found in Telephone, feedbag, Little Red Leaves, Delirious Hem, and Fulcrum Annual. Additionally, she works as an apprentice to a letterpress printer, creating poetry broadsides and chapbooks under the imprint of her own fledging press, Zumbar. She currently resides in San Francisco after having lived in South Korea for several years.