Late in Selah Saterstrom’s second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, the unnamed narrator describes a movie she would like to make. She’s rebuffed: “That is a terrible idea for a movie. . . . It isn’t entertaining.” This follows:
Why does it have to be entertaining? I ask. You can’t expect people to pay 10 bucks for something that is going to make them feel weird or awful, Ron says. What we need, Ron says, is light. We need light in this world, not more darkness.
And yet, though The Meat and Spirit Plan has an abundance of darkness, it’s an extraordinarily moving and entertaining novel.
Saterstrom’s first novel, The Pink Institution, was an impressionistic, poetic look at several generations of women in the American South. The Meat and Spirit Plan is a thematic continuation: it’s the tale of a girl growing up in a barbaric little Southern town where the schools have been desegregated and Baptists run the movie theaters, ensuring that “no good movies were ever shown.” The girl later studies abroad in Scotland at the Postmodern Seminar for the Study of Interpretive Uses, and during all of this she makes and loses friends, drinks, uses drugs, sleeps with men and women. Throughout, she bears witness with a wit so dry it’s almost not even wit; it’s as if what she experiences is so banal its banality isn’t even worth commenting on.
What Saterstrom achieves here is really rare: it’s moving, entertaining, challenging, serious, and deeply, almost unbearably funny. The situations in which the narrator finds herself aren’t fantastical or slapstick-y or adventurish but commonplace and so concretely grounded in youthful bad decisions that it’s delightful despite the subject matter. It would seem to appeal to a wide range of readers: for those who read for plot and character, the little that “happens” here is dark, unbelievable, and gripping, and the narrator is one of the more engaging and endearing characters in recent memory; for those who read for style, Saterstrom’s terse, staccato sentences, which never elevate any one sentence over any other, are a perfect syntactical mirror for the dulled experience and wholly under-excited nature of the narrator. On the whole, The Meat and Spirit Plan is well-written, utterly deceptive, and subtle. There’re no show-offy passages or extraneous writing or missteps.
Saterstrom’s attention to detail is key: seemingly throwaway remarks actually reference the narrator’s very skewed experience of the outside world. In one instance she says, “I wear a gray sweatsuit resembling Ken’s I got from a charity shop that sold stuff to save Africa,” and at another point, describing old photographs she buys at a market, “For Ruth’s birthday I give her one of a baby dressed like a pope. On the back it says: Birdie’s Last Easter.” What’s striking is how the emotionally destructive implications of both of these sentences isn’t explored by the narrator: she’s been through so much at this point (rape, miscarriage, sickness, alcoholism, absent mother, kicked out of reform school, etc.) that her worldview has equated anything outside of herself (and in herself, really) as dull, removed, blank.
But much like Gilbert Sorrentino, Saterstrom writes about the bleakest material with vicious humor—an understanding that even the most serious topics can indeed be funny, and are usually most effective when they are. Take, for instance, this quotation from when the narrator survives a violent, alcoholic adolescence only to arrive at college, where nothing seems to be changing for the better:
My roommate is Susan who has severe arthritis in her knees and must walk with a cane. One day I return from class and Susan has moved out. On mint green stationery she wrote that she needed to move to a room on the ground level (arthritis, etc). She hopes I have a great semester! May God bless me.
Every sentence, every paragraph in this book does much work, hinting at further, deeper understandings of every other facet. Moreover, the novel contains a sincerity and raw sort of sweetness that are deceptive in light of its content, which, despite misanthropy and hopelessness, is never really mean-spirited or actively miserable. Without any linguistic acrobatics, Saterstrom shows us a disconnected psyche afraid to probe too deeply into the meaning of things; notably, the effect of this is that the reader then begins to explore these depths, quite unwillingly. Unlike, say, a Michael Haneke film, which aggressively confronts the viewer, leaving her with no escape options, The Meat and Spirit Plan is almost polite in its confrontations, like “it’s okay if you don’t want to think about these things, it’s human not to want to, but they’re here for you if you do.”
Scott Bryan Wilson is a frequent contributor to The Quarterly Conversation. Read his review of Vain Art of the Fugue and his interview with Chris Andrews.
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