Book Reviews · 07/18/2011

Unfinished by Lily Hoang


Jaded Ibis Press,

Here’s the deal: we know from the publisher’s description of Unfinished, from interviews with Lily Hoang and the initial call for submissions on her blog, how this book came about. She asked writers to send her their “abandoned” stories. She would finish them. The authors of the abandoned and Hoang would edit them together or not. Then the collection would be published.

But before we talk about what became of these finished pieces, we have to address Unfinished’s paratexts: Gérard Genette’s concept that every text that surrounds the main-text of a book creates a frame for understanding it.

Within the framework of paratexts, there’s the peritext: information in and on the book (text on the cover, the spine, the title page) and the epitext: the text that orbits the book, outside of it (interviews, reviews, etc.)

In the forward (a peritext) to Unfinished, Hoang writes of the stories, “I have co-opted and taken [them] as my own.” That kind of ownership isn’t necessarily suggested on the cover (another peritext), which reads “stories finished by Lily Hoang.” And the epitexts that surround Unfinished create what will become a useful confusion about ownership and division: Hoang is listed as the sole author of the book in its bibliographic reference online at the Library of Congress, and she said in an interview about the book at the Kenyon Review blog, “They’re now my stories”. But some writers of the abandoned drafts refer differently to the stories published in the book: John Madera calls his “The Museum of Oddities and Eccentricities” a “collaborative story” on his blog and Kate Bernheimer wrote of her draft that became “Kitty’s Mystical Circus,”: “I felt Lily was giving something to me, not that I was giving something up.” To complicate matters further, a story from Unfinished, “So Cold & Far Away,” was included in William Walsh’s Re-Telling, where both Hoang and Rooney are listed as writers of the story—though Hoang’s name comes first.

But back to the peritext. Hoang’s name is printed at the top left-hand side of each page of the book in bold multi-colored text that matches the font of the story titles. This placement is just where readers expect the author’s name to be. The names of the authors who provided the abandoneds are listed underneath the titles of the stories, in parentheses and italicized in plain black text. Their names are preceded by the word “from.” So we have “An Expansion of Land” and underneath “(from Ryan Manning).” But the “from” means many things here, and seems a very deliberately used open word. “From” as starting point? Clearly. But what about the definition of “from” as removal or separation? The stories were “given” to Hoang, the words taken from the original authors and re-claimed by her, but as she says in the same Kenyon Review interview where she claimed ownership of the stories, “the abandoned story starts are still on the original writers’ hard drive somewhere, still unfinished.” Or maybe “from” is meant as distance between things: the distance between unfinished and finished, the distance between one writer’s voice and another’s. Or maybe, more importantly, it’s the distance that disappears once we begin reading, when we, the readers as collaborators with the finished text, quit obsessing about the goddamn paratexts and start thinking about the stories.

Yet introducing these stories is difficult. Do I write, Unfinished begins with “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley”; or do I write Unfinished begins with Evenson and Hoang’s “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley” (as was done in Hobart 12); or do I write Unfinished begins with Hoang and Evenson’s “Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley”; or do I write Unfinished begins with “’Your Ballad of Milt and Stanley’ from Brian Evenson” like the table of contents suggests? Does it matter?

Regardless, the choice to begin with something “from” Brian Evenson is important. Because there’s a particular sound, an unfolding, in all of Evenson’s works that seems recognizable, particular to him. Are we meant to look for the seams, to see what doesn’t sound Evenson-like right away? Is this a challenge?)

If it is, it’s perfect. Because the story is told in the second-person. The “you” is an active participant from the second line of story, “What made you think, even for an instant, that Stanley had a chance with the cool kids?” We, the readers, are accomplices to something terrible that will happen. To participate fully, we who become the “you” have to let go of trying to separate Evenson’s words from Hoang’s, because we have to play the role the story demands of us. As we proceed, our “you” morphs into a double of ourselves: a character reading the story written by the narrator: “For Christ sake. Haven’t you ever read a fucking short story before?” Then the “you” becomes another double of the character “Milt,” with the same failed career in the electronics department at Wal-Mart, and is admonished by the narrator, “Because rather than reading the story like a normal human being, you start seeing yourself in every character.” Soon after, our “you” wears the same clothes as Stanley, changes his/her electronics department nametag to “Stanley,” until finally we arrive where we began the story: we, the reader, have provided the impetus for some classroom violence against Stanley so affecting it can’t be described and the story ends. The identity of the reader, the “you”, quickly emerges and disappears, is buried and begotten beneath layers, like the very palimpsest of authorship that the paratexts of Unfinished create.

I think it’s only natural to talk about the seamlessness of these stories—how the reader can’t “feel” the textures of Hoang’s words separate from the authors of the abandoneds. But I think there are exposed seams and they are vital to the success of the book: the seam between reader and text that can only occur because we are at times fused: reader and character.

In almost every story, we, the readers, are asked to become characters; the narrators often speak to us. The narrator of “Birthday Cake”, who watches Samson, a man who has baked a cake and left it for someone to find while he hides, waiting to witness the intended recipient’s reaction, knows his thoughts. This narrator makes a remark to the reader in parentheses. And even though it’s a fairly mundane comment about the numbers of windows needed in a room “(preferably two, but one will do),” and arises out of Samson’s surveillance of his hiding place, this aside is still an important moment. The narrator knows we are watching the narrator watch Samson.

In the exquisite “So Cold & Far Away,” a kind of “translation” of the “Book of Ruth,” there’s a similar moment: “He is a quick one, this Boaz,” says the narrator, stepping outside of the narrative, clearly making a comment to the reader about Ruth’s husband, who realizes something’s wrong with Ruth, who has been hiding in a closet.

The narrator in “The Man and His Treasure” has the same moment of contact with the reader: “Remember: the treasure is tucked in the man’s corduroy jacket” we are reminded, about a never-explained treasure the man takes great pains to conceal.

When we, the readers, become characters, when we fuse this division of outside and inside, we create the story, just as the original writer of the abandoned drafts did, just as Lily Hoang did when she finished them.

But many of these stories are also about the failure to divide, the failure to blend. In “Whore’s Machine,” there’s a physical line that cannot be seen that separates two worlds, there’s a failed attempt of language, to separate the all-powerful force of an “it” into its disparate, there’s the world that “migrates towards the interior,” but is in constant, uncomfortable contact with the “she who does not belong.” In this story, what’s separate is what’s dangerous.

In “The Story of Two Sisters,” the removal of difference creates a despair. The physical and magical differences between two sisters, “Ana” and “May,” disappear at the end of the story. The girls “make a little slit on their forefingers and rub their blood together,” and in that decision to blend is the danger; it’s the moment when they abandon what separates them from everyone else in the world that they lose their individual power, even their names: they become “AnaMay.”

But there were moments when I stepped completely outside the stories. While reading “A Birder’s Guide to the Wibble-Wibble,” I couldn’t help but think about how wonderful it must’ve been to get this draft from Michael Stewart, to get to play with it. But even while I thought this, I never lost my connection to the kind of tension between counterparts that permeates the book (finished / unfinished; separate / fused). In the “Guide,” we learn that “Once you are quite certain you have sighted a Wibble-Wibble, you should approach while banging a pot with a wooden spoon in a variantly syncopated pattern. The Wibble-Wibble will dance, allowing you to venture closer.” Yet we are warned in the parenthetical editor’s note that follows that: “The Splotched Ruth may also dance like the Wibble-Wibble when approached this way, but if you come within a thirty-food diameter of it, it will attack. This is when the method is particularly important. There are no known survivors of a Splotched Ruth wound.”

And there’s more still; certain stories seem to comment on the process of making the book. In “Eight Ball,” three co-workers at a department store make a film; one of the actors, Kyle, says after seeing the finished product, “It’s totally perfect.” But Zane, who directed the film, says, “It was my vision, not yours….It’s shit. You made it shit.” Then there’s the mission of the Museum of Oddities and Eccentricities, in the story of the same name, which states, among other things, that it exists to “encourage and develop the study of dead starts and false ends.” If we aren’t supposed to see these two statements as meta-remarks, the first as a self-conscious comment on Hoang’s process, the latter as a kind of declarative goal of the project, well then I’ll eat my suncovers.

After twenty-one stories, Unfinished ends with an image of a puzzle piece and the words “finished,” just as the cover of the book shows the negative image of a similar puzzle piece, and the words, “unfinished.” The visual metaphor of the process that created the book is represented beautifully by Anne Austin Pearce’s collaborations with artists (some professional, one 9 years old). Many of the thirty artworks show their finishing boldly: the layers of authorship we can’t see in the stories are made manifest in the art.

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Lily Hoang is the author of The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues Press, 2010), Changing (recipient of the 2009 PEN Beyond Margins Award, Fairy Tale Review Press), and Parabola (winner of the 2006 Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest). With Blake Butler, she co-edited the anthology Thirty Under Thirty (Starcherone Books). She serves as an Associate Editor at Starcherone Books and Editor at _Tarpaulin Sky.

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Jess Stoner’s novel, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a division of Hobart), will be published in February 2012. Her choose-your-own adventure chapbook of poems, You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent (Fact-Simile), comes out later this summer. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Alice Blue Review, Everyday Genius, Caketrain, Juked, and many other handsome journals. Jess currently lives in the sweat and brisket of Austin.