The opening sentence of Alexandra Chasin’s Kissed By reads like a line from the first chapter of an odd sort of origin text: “I began as we all do, by wanting something, but I hardly knew what.” And indeed it is a fitting point of origin, because it establishes the creative impulse behind the rest of the work. With this sentence, Chasin introduces into the book the word want and its numerous meanings; includes us, her readers, in the wanting; and admits to a certain lack of knowledge on her part: what do we want? Those familiar with Chasin’s work, or with the writing of her fellow FC2 authors, will appreciate this honesty, for not only does it allow Chasin the liberty of seeking the what through the written word, but also it means that we are welcome to join her. If there is anything for which Chasin does not want, then, it is a sense of language and all of its possibility.
The book consists of eighteen experimental texts, each varying in degrees of accessibility, each exploring the idea of want. The more accessible texts rely upon basic structural elements to move the story along, as in a series of want ads or a letter to the editor, while the oddest examples sprawl across the entire page in their search for narrative, as in “They Come From Mars,” in which columns of four letter words march down the paper in a formation reminiscent of the video game Space Invaders:
Then they walk pour flow ooze down town rows upon rows flow
folk from Mars rows upon rows like ants Dont obey when City
Hall says dont Then wewe spec they want fear they want TAKE
OVER TAKE OVER Wewe spec fear that what they want they want
from usus Come from Mars this flow ants that want what wewe
have rite here What Dont Mars have nice down town nice life
As we read this particular story, the rhythm of the columns, the odd way Chasin breaks up multi-syllabic words into nearly incoherent fragments, and the recurring visual pattern on each page climax with an alarming hate rant against Martian aliens, which have actually, we soon discover, come peacefully in order to satisfy a desire to be a part of a better society, to make a better life for themselves. Where, then, does that place us, the readers, who suddenly find challenged our own expectations of good and evil? What do we want?
Here, Chasin wants to challenge our own expectations, our expectations about fiction, about meaning, about language, and she does so by involving us in the process. Each story asks of us to bring to bear upon its completion our own interpretive abilities. “ELENA = AGAIN,” “Potatoes, You Ask,” and “Towards a Grammar of Guilt,” the beautiful sentence diagrams of which had me revisiting my old 7th grade grammar textbook, are perhaps the purest examples of this urge to collaborate. Of “ELENA = AGAIN,” a text encrypted through the use of a substitution cipher and first published in the online journal DIAGRAM, Chasin writes:
As a rule, readers create a text in the moment that they read it; readers render a text meaningful in the very act of reading, regardless of the form of the text. This cryptogram is a formal experiment in pushing this axiom to its logical limit. It is an inquiry into readerly activity, whose results its putative writer will never know . . . paradoxically.
As I deciphered “ELENA = AGAIN” on a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper, I experienced the act of reading a story in a completely new way. The text appeared before me piece by piece, and despite my still lacking many letters, my experience as a reader allowed my mind to understand the narrative in its fullest sense, much like how the eye will fill in the missing parts of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle to create a whole picture. I was pleased to find that Elena was not only a key to the cipher, but also a character in the narrative.
Even the less experimental of the texts meet Chasin’s requirements necessary to create meaning because they leave enough for an active reader to explore on her own. The most touching of these stories is “Two Alphabets,” a story narrated by an estranged father grieving over the loss of his son to a drunk-driving accident and in which each group of lines begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Here in the W section, we find some of Chasin’s clearest, most emotional language in the entire book:
When I thought that his visits, filled with arguments but also camping and lessons in packing and laying a mud brick with hair and straw knit up in it, and, more recently, Scrabble, which he brought two trips ago—when I thought that those visits were proof that you can never lose a child even if you abandon him, I was as yet totally untutored in loss.
Even these simple details give us the ability to create meaning on our own. We imagine the narrator and his son arguing over the breakup of the family, and we understand how the mud brick symbolizes the reconstruction of their relationship. We picture the father and his doomed son kneeling over the neat tiles of a half-full Scrabble board, having suddenly assembled words out of the chaos of language, and we realize that here is a narrator sadly struggling to understand what it means to want, to be without, by way of reciting for us the alphabet of his life.
As an experimental work of literature, Kissed By is one of many such books that should inspire in its readers a desire to seek out a more active role in the creative process. Those hesitant to approach such experimental writing should know that Chasin has made room for them in her work. They should take encouragement from Chasin’s thoughts about the relationship between the reader, the text, and its author—these thoughts, which do not strike me as particularly experimental or innovative, suggest that she writes with a sharp awareness of her reader, an awareness that protects her work from the coldness of heart often attributed to failed experimental writing. And the more adventurous readers, who have come to this review expecting an affirmation of their thoughts, already know that there exist numerous opportunities in a book like this for the reader to learn the language of want. What these readers will find, then, is this: Chasin, its author, is a gifted tutor.
Ryan Call’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hobart, Avery, Caketrain, NO COLONY, and Sonora Review.
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