- The Dissolving Specific
In Pamela Ryder’s second book, A Tendency to be Gone, very little remains safe from the risk of dissolution. Objects, people, self, language, knowledge—all gravitate towards disappearance; some are provisionally recovered. “I have a tendency to lose things,” explains the narrator of the title track. “A tendency to lose what I am telling.” Through many of the stories in the collection, what is lost is not simply the thread of the narrative, but rather any certainty about origins, about what we know. In “Three Men,” the narrator’s father looks for the source of the narrator’s rotting house. “Seraphim,” the longest story in the collection, takes place during the Black Death: in the priory, the community of women discuss learn and relearn how to use the land as they learn and unlearn how to avoid the plague. Whether in the nunnery, rural Africa, or the wilderness, Ryder takes into specific realms that force us to evaluate what we do or do know. Ultimately, the tension between uncertainty and epistemology forms an extended meditation on the relation between knowledge, gender, and language.
In part, A Tendency to be Gone is an elusive book because its stories, narrated often in the first person, enact an uncertainty about the self. The “I” rarely has a name attached to it, which results in a character named “I” (perhaps, oddly, similar to the narrator in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics) who seems to travel through time and space. The bleeding of pronouns extends to other characters; most notably the numerous “he” figures in the story. Further, a repeated use of passive tense either removes the subject entirely or gives the subject a collective, yet still unnamed identity.
The notion of a readable character, made instable by the blurring of pronouns, is further distilled by the fact that the stories in A Tendency to be Gone are not plot heavy and spend very little time in flashback or memory. Temporally, even though some stories take place in the distant past, the narrative tense gives the feel of a present continually unfolding; the experience of the past cannot act as a guide. Ryder’s development of character traits runs less by what the characters think (there’s almost no interiority), do, or say than by their interaction with language or their exploration of the natural world. If there are external dramas (the devolution of a marriage, an illicit affair, a quest to be unalienated from the natural world), the interior states of the narrators are played out through the external objects narrated and the desire to narrate through the vocabulary of these objects. In this respect, Ryder’s work stands in dialogue with the late novels of David Markson (odd couple!), in which character is described by the choice of quotes chosen by the narrator.
If A Tendency to be Gone is difficult, it is not because its lyrical, punning, and inquisitive sentences are complex, or because its stories do not prioritize character or plot, but because the collection uses language in simultaneously unfamiliar and repetitive ways that force a reexamination of how we use specific vocabularies to engage with the material world. In the opening story, “Hovenweep,” the first-person narrator’s relationship with her (presumably) partner is exposed and complicated by his unceasing technical denotation of the land’s formations, its rocks and branches. “‘Basalt,’ he says, ‘Apache’s tears,’ and ‘travertine,’ and names hard things. But sandstone is what this canyon is—wind-scoured, river cut and carved, leached through and leaving behind the buttes and mesas, the solid buttresses that fall to pieces in a breeze.” This passage gives us Ryder’s lyrical prose through specific vocabularies: a defamiliarized language used by the narrator to learn and relearn, to gain access to the actual material signified.
These specific sets of signifiers—the discussions of making things by hand, of using the land as salve and nourishment, of preventing sickness, take us into a state of unknowing. These worlds contain objects (including language) that are still potent, still...