Girl Factory, Jim Krusoe. Tin House Books. $14.95. 208 pp.
A faithful rendering of events can tell us no more about existence than a preserved body in Pompeii’s wreckage: we observe the corpse but we understand nothing of the life it once contained. The imagination, with all its distortions, is always far more revealing, whether on the therapist’s couch or in fiction. Turn-of-the-century America, to take one example, was a thoroughly bleak time, notorious for diphtheria outbreaks that left entire families childless, arson epidemics, and general social instability. Yet, the most lasting literary work to come from this era is not a Sinclairian work of journalistic fiction but a fable-like work known to every child: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of OZ.
Like Baum, author Jim Krusoe is more interested in immersing the reader in his imagination than in crafting a realistic depiction of the world. It’s his great strength as a writer, and it’s one that’s on full display in his second novel, Girl Factory. It’s a book that creates a world as full of meaning as a dream, and like one it borrows odd parts from waking existence while remaining seductively elusive. The places we visit and the people we encounter in Krusoe’s novel—Mr. Twisty’s yogurt parlor, Jonathan, a charmingly naive yogurt clerk, and the blank canvas of suburban St. Nils—have counterparts that, no matter how surreal they become, we’ll recognize once we get back to Kansas.
Girl Factory begins as its thirtysomething narrator, Jonathan, is reading a newspaper article about a dog named Buck, genetically modified by the government for maximum intelligence—a little too much, it turns out. Buck’s “surly way and judgmental demeanor” have left him with few friends, and, a failed experiment, he’s scheduled to be destroyed.
As Jonathan admires the view from his balcony (“a small child was smashing a former table leg into splinters”) something congeals in his mind.
Well, Jonathan, I thought, there they are, your fellow countrymen, all products of some random, flawed combination of genes that, good or bad, thanks to the Constitution of the United States of America, are being allowed to play themselves out in perfect freedom on the highways and byways of our cities and states as best they can. And meanwhile a helpless animal, an innocent by-product of man’s tampering with the sacred code of nature, will not be allowed even a chance. It didn’t seem fair.
Lonely and catastrophically helpful, Jonathan decides to save the poor canine.
Things do not go well. The aftermath of the resulting debacle—involving a crowbar and Cub Scouts—sends Jonathan to hide out in the safe cage of his one-bedroom apartment. He soon heads back to work at the mini-mall yogurt parlor and shortly thereafter—shifting genres from dime novel to sci-fi—Jonathan discovers his boss’s secret science project. Stored in the basement are an assortment of his nude fellow Americans (all women) suspended in transparent cylinders of yogurt mixture. The ladies, “all young and all waiting for something,” come in six flavors: blonde, Latina, Asian, black, brunette, and “one who looked like an Eskimo (Inuit, I think, is the correct term).” The brunette, Jonathan thinks, may even be his college sweetheart, Mary Katherine, preserved in the flower of her youth by the concupiscent curds. Disastrously, Jonathan knows he must reanimate these sleeping beauties.
Strange and sexy as the plot may be, Girl Factory is no empty pleasure. The fairy-tale way in which Krusoe depicts the texture of the everyday helps him imagine suburbia anew. For instance, though Jonathan’s existence seems thoroughly circumscribed, in this dull enclave he nonetheless conveniently purchases all the items his crazy adventure requires (rat traps, dishwashing fluid, PVC pipe, duct tape, and an aquarium). If Jonathan suffers from depression, it usually takes the form of eating “the same frozen dinner, meatloaf with cheddar soup on top.” As the narrative progresses it’s clear that deep themes are at work—among them consumer society, free will, memory, and death—and, like the best fables, it’s of those rare stories whose form emerges only when the final note is played. In its last few pages, it unexpectedly broke my heart.
Though Girl Factory seduces the reader with its fabulist narrative, upbeat existential hero, and potboiler plot, these are inextricable from its careful, frequently beautiful prose. As Jonathan stares transfixed into the yogurt vat for the first time he sees a woman,
her pale hair floating like strands of egg white in the mysterious liquid that suspended her, her blue eyes open wide and slightly crossed, her nose straight and thin, her breasts white and symmetrical, her knees knocked, her feet slender, with bluish veins running along their tops down to her toes like mountain streams pouring out of a glacier.
The morbid, irreverent, and humdrum overlap in the book’s unusual details (“Elberta’s hair was red as the inside of a watermelon in August, and eyes were as blue as antifreeze”) and its endearingly tender tone that are emblematic of its deadpan style. Krusoe takes particular joy in repurposing clichés to cobble together new meanings, but the irony—and there’s plenty of it—isn’t about inoculating emotional connection; it’s about embracing both the comic and tragic possibilities of life. In Krusoe’s world both frequently superimpose. The gentle people, the caring people, are often the most misguided.
As time passes for Jonathan—”Each day smeared into the next like a scoop of Rumba Raisin left out in the sun”—he projects more and more of himself onto the girls in the vats. When he gazes upon “the Latina” (who he dubs Rosita), Jonathan’s limited imagination is on view: he supplies her with an appropriately spicy personality and savors her insults during imaginary conversations. “You . . . mere individual, you . . . you . . . you . . . gringo . . . you shopkeeper. Do what you will. I am beyond you.”
The book is at its most impressive when dealing with memories—as Jonathan’s calm disposition is the result of complete resignation, he lives in the past. Much fun is had with Jonathon’s remembrances of his halcyon State College days, when he and his girlfriend would retire from the coffeehouse “still under the spell of bongo drums and a lone guitar,” make love, and “like most young people . . . sit around every morning reading poetry out loud and drinking black coffee.” But though the book satirizes the undue hold memories have over people, it doesn’t understate their power. Girl Factory becomes absolutely arresting when it deals with those horrifying times in which we were just a moment too late, left to pay for it the rest of our lives in memories. Krusoe makes palpable their undertow, and the strange exhilaration of prodding the wound to summon the trauma, to bring the experience back to life in a single afflicted moment.
Such a moment comes, with considerable force, in a chapter when Jonathan watches his salty old sea captain neighbor watering his plants and recalls a disastrous trip to Mexico with an old flame. The captain’s hose cuts rifts and valleys through the sand; one feels Jonathan’s memory overflowing its banks, inundating him. As the narrative alternates between the present and the past it embodies the paralysis of remembrance, of being stuck between two places and being unable to act in neither one of them.
Though Krusoe’s body of work may take on otherworldly dimensions—including tragic interspecies affairs, fishing trips in blood-filled lakes, and suicidal cowboys who find love in the least expected places—it nevertheless comes laced with a melancholy particular to America, the sickly sweet fluid we’re all marinated in. Moreover, it is always more about texture and imagination than interpretation, and so, like The Wizard of Oz, it’s almost endlessly interpretable.
But in the end, what I appreciate most about Krusoe is his quiet sincerity, his voice that puts its arm around your shoulder, embracing the many possibilities of the world while also acting as an intervention against its ugliness. It’s a voice halfway between laughter and tears, perhaps best summarized in a line from one of his characters: “What a world this is, I think, caught as we all are between jokes and sorrow, with neither, strictly speaking, appropriate.”
Like the best works of fiction, Krusoe’s is wedged between paradoxes. In Girl Factory we are confronted with a world full of American optimism and hopelessness, saturated with the pain of crushed ambitions and lives that didn’t live up to expectations. The story itself is deliriously full of possibility, with decisions spiraling out of control from their intended outcomes and, just the same, this sequence of unexpected consequences asks questions about the extent of anyone’s free will. Its main character is idealistic and full of pain, with his own desperation to help others often leading to cruelty. It is, in other words, a world a lot like this one.
Robert Silva writes about film in New York City. His fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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