Discomfort by Evelyn Hampton
Ellipsis Press, 2014
The stories in Evelyn Hampton’s story collection, Discomfort, do not so much confront the idea or emotion of discomfort, but take it as an operating principal. Discomfort is the subject position from which these stories observe the world. As with much experimental fiction, when it is interesting, when it is successful, these stories deny the reader certain comforts—assumptions about character, plot, language—in order to open up other, stranger, narrative possibilities.
For many of the stories in this collection Hampton employs an almost obsessive first person narration, a series of inward-looking narrators who recursively circle back to their own puzzling existence. In “Boy,” for example, the narrator tells us that the unnamed boy of the story’s title “was some aspect of me, a projection of my most disparate elements, so he was in every sense a contradiction.” The boy in the story is elusive, and there are several explanations for what or who he might actually be. As the story progresses, the certainty of the narrator’s initial claim, that the boy is her own projection, begins to erode, and it becomes increasingly clear that she too is a projection—of the boy, of her mother, of others, etc. Ironically, though, it is when that certainty is called into question that the narrator begins to take on depth, as if only through struggle, through grappling with the question of the self, can the self truly emerge.
The story “Office” finds Hampton employing a similar narrative voice. “Office” follows a woman trying to figure out what she will do with her home office. And it isn’t difficult to recognize that the question, What should I do with my office? is a stand-in for the question, What should I do with my life? But this simplistic interpretation does not get at the depth and complexity Hampton finds in the situation. It is in many ways the voice that allows her to plumb the depths that she does:
When I come home after being out, I feel sad, as if something that had never had a chance to begin has ended. In my office, I have tried to think about my origin, but the place I come from—the roads through it and the roads leading up to it—seems nondescript and vague, without clear boundaries, and I don’t really know how to think about something that seems limitless. Looking from where I sit in my office through the columns of my neighbor’s porch and seeing at the same time through the slats of my father’s chair, I feel that I occupy two times at once, and since in each of these times I have a body, I also occupy two bodies at once. It’s an uneasy feeling, so I sit very still, uncertain which body will respond when I next decide to move.
“Office” shares with “Boy” an obsessiveness of narration, as well as certain themes—alienation, a lost child, attachment—but these two stories represent one narrative mode amongst many that are employed throughout the book. The stories in Discomfort are often grounded in strange and fabulist premises, like the grandfather scanning his grandchild’s thoughts at the edge of a frozen lake in “EEG,” or the wonderfully bizarre organic/parasitic installation piece described in the opening story, “Chute.”
In “Nowhere Hill,” the narrator opens by telling us that, “There was a particular place in a particular park where a person could stand, at a certain time, on a certain day, and cast no shadow.” The story then follows a group of children as they follow one boy up Nowhere Hill to the magical spot. The story’s narrator, like many of the characters in the book, occupies a space just on the outside of the group, observing, but seemingly unobserved. Part of the group, or at least wanting to be a part of it, yet not of it. The narrator is worried about a watch, a Mickey Mouse watch that he keeps hidden, so the other children can’t see it, so “they couldn’t break it or take it away from me.” In many ways, the feeling the story is exploring, the fear of others, inseparable from the desire to be with them, is a familiar one. But the familiar is always embedded in the strange:
Hidden inside my pocket, the watch felt like a heaviness in my clothing, like sweat, and while I was aware of the heaviness that wasn’t sweat and yet felt like sweat, the heaviness wasn’t uncomfortable. Yet it didn’t bother me until I began to think I could detect an odor coming from the heaviness.
What is interesting about “Nowhere Hill” is its indeterminacy. While many of the stories in this collection, like “Blondlot’s Transformation,” or “The Largest Unobstructed Area Given to Ham,” present themselves almost from the first sentence as not being of this world, of not coming out of a realist tradition, “Nowhere Hill” is more difficult to pin down. The place in the park where a person doesn’t cast a shadow could be magical or enchanted, or it could be a geographical/topographical oddity. A smelly watch may be an object behaving in a way that objects don’t behave in this world, or it might just be a smelly watch, or not smelly at all but a manifestation of the narrator’s self-consciousness. Where another writer might ground us in one world or the other—the fantastic or the mundane—Hampton lets the indeterminacy stand, lets it become the story’s discomfort. That unknowability, the possibility without proof that something magical or otherworldly might be happening—that, too, recalls something familiar.
Author Brian Evenson said of Discomfort, “Hampton cannily reveals the uncanniness of all we think we know, and shows that that uncanniness belongs as much to our own minds as to things themselves.” The discomfort we often come up against in these stories is the discomfort of encountering the uncanny. Hampton’s prose is often enchanting, and the stories in her collection have the ability to transform this mundane and familiar existence into something strange and sometimes scary, but exhilarating and beautiful as well.