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  • All in the Retelling
  • Jessica Berger (bio)
Fondly. Colin Winnette. Atticus Books. 248pages; paper, $14.95.

Our first brief encounter with the worlds evoked by Colin Winnette’s Fondly concludes with an invitation, a sort of half-challenge for readers with an aversion to the unexplained: “That’s the story they tell,” he writes of his characters, “and with no better explanation at hand, we sit back and try to make ourselves comfortable. We listen for the parts that sound true.”

The lines wrap up a slip of a tale populaed by cut-out figures we sense we’ve seen before. Two sisters—one blind, the other immobile—zip the elderly man they both love into the hollow of an oak tree. The fairy tale matter-of-factness of the sister’s whimsically homicidal tendencies serves as Winnette’s stylistic ‘once upon a time,’ and these are merely the triggering events for the first of Fondly’s two novellas, In One Story, The Two Sisters. Winnette’s words suggest the pages ahead will spin out of control beyond what we have already seen, that a curious truth will rise up from the absurd, that a form will be applied. In its split novellas, In One Story, The Two Sisters and the more substaned by cut-out figures we sense we’ve seen beftial Gainesville, Fondly delivers on Winnette’s early promise. As both fictions weave their way through an obstacle course of formal conceits and unexpected turns, we listen for the pieces that light upon some blinding edge of truth. We are rewarded by a surprising unity, and one Atticus Books was wise to keep intact.

Each novella is itself a contained cycling of connected themes. In One Story, The Two Sisters opens beyond the zip-front tree through sixteen variations on the opening line of each new title. In the first story, the two sisters may be blind or immobile, but in the next, they could be anything: nuns, martini olives, Shel Silverstein. Upon acclimating to the novella’s rhythms, there’s an anxious thrill to the turn of the page and to the possibilities subsequently opened. The characters are continually recast, shifting their form, their sex, becoming one, separating, flying, and killing each other off only to live again in the next cartoonish episode. They shift from the mundane to the beautiful, with a particularly dazzling moment spent following the sisters on a transoceanic swim accompanied by an orca and an artfully sketched crew of handlers.

Each section is fleeting, and Winnette takes care that none of the stories overstay their welcome or break the formula’s spell. So long as I was moving forward, there seemed no reason to question the connectivity of each incident or hope for something more. That said, of course, there are moments where the infinite possibilities carry more promise than the actual stories themselves. Specificity, in particular, interferes with the novella’s movements the most. “In one story, the two sisters were Shel Silverstein and they wrote a book about a giving tree...” an incomplete title here, reads as placed for a rush of sad nostalgia from certain audiences, and relies on a tree outside knowledge that simply doesn’t match up against the mysterious pursuits of Winnette’s other chapters (or their headings). In One Story is best when vague, when the making and unmaking of each story can be insularly inferred. If I’ve spent too much time on the first of Fondly’s works already, it may perhaps be because I believe Gainesville is a novella best left with minimal explanation. The second work uncovers a means of accessing a reading of the first that combats any case of gimmicky ennui induced, but the less you know, the better. Gainesville is interesting in a retelling and recycling of a different kind. The work’s joists and formal constraints disappear beneath Winnette’s sparse, strong prose to follow the generational repetitions of one Texas family’s bloodline. Like the sisters, we look on as the idea of family is collapsed and re-formed into a frayed web of cyclical violence and love.

Gainesville begins with two brothers...


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