Final State Press
238 Pages, Print; $14.95, eBook; $4.99
The problem with new regionalist American fiction in the twenty-first century, unless it moves away from realist narratology (as we see in the contemporary Southern gothic), is that we are not quite sure how to read it as anything but niche or kitsch. Enter The Double E just out from Final State Press, Matt Briggs’s answer to the new regionalist problem, which is best misread—and then confronted as misreadable—as “real(ist)” American Regionalism.
The novel presents a triptych of third person reports on the paralleled (or at least juxtaposed) experiences of a rural Eastern Washington family living in the household, under the feudal lordship and psycho-sexual abuse of Roger Carnation, the titular Double E (electrical engineer). Mr. Carnation, as he likes to be called by Aileen, his rural Kentucky transplant wife, has acquired her and her three children—but, particularly, Mary and Martha, Aileen’s adolescent daughters; her son Marshall is only “a booby prize” in the deal, a male to mold in Roger Carnation’s clichéd image of American masculinity—as Gogolian dead souls. That it all takes place “in the Eastern Washington sun and then turned green and damp,” at first glance, seems incidental.
“I think of myself as a regional writer,” Briggs told Writers’ Dojo in 2009. “This used to be a very specific and meaningful thing for me. I felt as if I wrote out of a tradition of other writers who wrote about the people and place of the Pacific Northwest.” And this is the appeal of the novel: it becomes quickly apparent that the incidental—niche and kitsch—figuration of Pacific Northwestern (in fact, any American) regionalism is precisely what we should be confronting.
So, what is notable about this latest installment in Briggs’s catalogue (four novels and four short story collections) is that it actively looks like what it isn’t but must inevitably become when read as regionalist fiction. It is a specialized doubling, a careful doppelganger, not in the style of itself, but as a re- or dis-location of the narratology of the Double Tale of canonic Russian fiction (Gogol, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky, among others, loom behind the scenes). It is almost as if Briggs has decided to see what happens when we relocate nineteenth-century Russian social realism (for many things are oddly Russian in Briggs’s Pacific Northwest) in the act of trying to write a regionalist novel about a mid-to-late twentieth-century rural Eastern Washington family. What we also discover is the infinitely critique-able reductivism of delight in the “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high-falutin’, in bad taste” Nabokov lists as (incompletely) describing the “[v]arious aspects of the idea Russians concisely express by the term poshlost” hiding at the nichey, kitschy center of the American literary neo-regionalist problem. To read Briggs’s book as a regionalist novel in the sense of performing any kind of authentic narrative access to Pacific Northwestern culture and life is to mistake the method for the madness.
Readers familiar with Briggs’s work will find The Double E has all the hallmark Briggsian motifs and moves—the difficulty of the “real,” the stilted, and the archetypally conflicted father figures (and sons) with military backgrounds; the generic ontological lack of a deus ex machina. We see a version of his standard, moderately conservative, formal experimentalism in the presentation of the narrative, actively not in the hyper-subjectivist, perspectival shifting from chapter-like unit to chapter-like unit of an As I Lay Dying (1930) but in an explicitly repetitive presentation of “the same” experience as lived by four of the five main characters (Aileen’s three segments are notable for her lack of direct engagement in, or even removal from, the ongoing drama). Aileen, the housewife, the deadest of the dead souls on the Gogolian Carnation Estate, such as it is (a half-kept up house outside of town), Lolita’s (1955) Charlotte Haze without the bourgeois assignations, mobility, and wealth, is both as...