- Speaking the Grotesque:The Short Fiction of Gayl Jones
Most [of the stories in White Rat] are written in first person and most deal with tensions in relationships, dynamics of psychology—psychic landscape—and... the 'inward.'—Gayl Jones in Rowell, "Interview," 49
Several reviewers of Gayl Jones's first two controversial novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), sought to interpret the books primarily in terms of their dark violent and even gothic qualities, muffling the formidable aesthetic dynamics of those works beneath the sensational, problematic vividness of their respective brutal episodes.1 Critics of Eva's Man in particular used the novel's literal and psychological violence to accuse the text of social and aesthetic irresponsibility. For example, Loyle Hairston attacked the book for its "squalid appraisal of the souls of Black folks" (133), while John Updike lamented, "[T]he characters are dehumanized as much by her [Jones's] artistic vision as by their circumstances" ("Eva and Eleanor" 75). Summing up the majority of early critical reactions to the book, Clarence Major characterized Jones's second novel as a "sad, dark chant ridden with sex and blood" (834). Amid this stormy climate of reviewer condemnation (only a year after the publication of Eva's Man) appeared Jones's first collection of short stories, White Rat (1977). Not surprisingly, at least one reviewer was quick to equate the slender volume of short fiction with the perceived philosophical despondency of Eva's Man, Carol Pearson arguing that the stories "suggest no alternative to solipsism and despair" (1678). Yet, this assessment did not herald a chorus of critical censure. Noting [End Page 74] 74 the book's narrative power, one anonymous reviewer labeled the collection an impressive demonstration of "forcefulness" ("Review of White Rat," Booklist 140). Weighing the collection's unflinching and potentially disturbing subject matter with Jones's aesthetic craftsmanship, Barbara Bannon adroitly extended the "forcefulness" reading, concluding, "The excellence of her [Jones's] creations increases their impact and the result is literature, no matter how the stories affect the sensibilities" (63). Subordinating the connotations of potentially problematic subject matter to the dynamic "impact" of Jones's telling, Bannon dubbed the collection an undeniable literary success.
In her condemnatory review of White Rat, Carol Pearson makes an important observation about the general tenor of Jones's imagery, arguing that, rather than attempting to establish any kind of humanistic vision, the stories "are characterized instead by unrelieved distaste for the body, for sexuality, and for human life" (1678). Although it was not the result of conscious intention, Pearson's remark suggests elements of the grotesque and could even serve as a partial definition of that important and evasive aesthetic form. Other critics generally have ignored the explicitly grotesque qualities of Jones's work. However, Keith E. Byerman evaluated the gothic qualities of Eva's Man2 before identifying its grotesque characteristics in a later essay, which dwells on the symbolic implications of Eva Medina Canada's crime: "a symbolic liberation from the particular grotesqueness of her society" ("Intense" 452). For Byerman, Eva's Man is a work of the grotesque in terms of the way it renders and interrogates the ugliness of racist, patriarchal American mores: "The supposed normalities of American life are shown to be absurd and ominous distortions" (447). Byerman's important observation serves as a foundation for other avenues by which the value of Jones's work—and her short stories in particular—may be illuminated through a delineation of its grotesque qualities.
Wolfgang Kayser, in The Grotesque in Art and Literature, details the etymology of the grotesque, relating how the Italian word literally translated as "from the cave or grotto" (hence grotto-esque) and became the accepted moniker for an entire genre of art (19–20). As early as 1502, church fathers were commenting on the cave drawings, which were characterized as "an unreasonable fashion" and "monstrous forms" that "never existed, do not now exist, and shall never come into being" (20). By 1515, this art form, which the Renaissance conceptualized as "not only something playfully gay and utterly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from...