- A Toast to Mr. Smiles:Chiasmus and Comitragedy in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Signified Faulkner
The suggestively named Lazarus Jackson makes for an improbable romantic hero in Suzan-Lori Parks’s only novel to date, Getting Mother’s Body (2003). Heir apparent to a mortuary business, Laz is also an unapologetic voyeur who sports a wool hat despite the brutal Texas heat. He gracelessly pursues the novel’s protagonist, Billy Beede, plying the orphaned girl with overtures such as “I would like to do it witchu” (103) and “Let’s you and me get married” (118). Finding a pair of her panties on the roadside, Laz wears Billy’s undergarment folded in his jacket like a pocket square. He spends a fair amount of time supine, in ditches and beneath gasoline pumps, pretending to be dead.
Despite Laz’s repellant personality, it comes as little surprise that Billy winds up marrying this man for whom she displays no affection and whose advances she repeatedly rebuffs. Their union feels so inevitable that the novel neither mentions their wedding nor overtly indicates the couple’s marital status, leaving the reader to infer that outcome from circumstantial details. The “peeping and creeping” (117) Lazarus Jackson wants to marry Billy, and the desperate girl has to marry somebody or face the kind of marginalized life that led to her mother’s untimely death.
One illustrative moment in the couple’s awkward courtship takes place in an alleyway, next to piles of trash. Laz literally approaches Billy backward: pretending to examine the garbage, he furtively eyes the object of his desire in a handheld mirror’s glass. However, the quirky character’s botched come-on takes on greater significance in light of Parks’s appropriation of plot and character details from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which Getting Mother’s Body formally mirrors. Similarly narrated from multiple first-person perspectives, Parks’s novel features an unmarried teenager, like Faulkner’s Dewey Dell Bundren, desperate to abort a pregnancy. Moreover, Billy’s aunt June has an amputated leg, recalling [End Page 137] Cash’s blackening leg from the last pages of As I Lay Dying; Parks’s figure of moral bankruptcy is a man named Snipes, whose name is once mispronounced as “Snopes” (89), directly referencing Yoknapatawpha County’s ne’er-do-well clan of horse traders; and, most importantly, the action centers on the corpse of a woman whose character narrates her own existence from beyond the grave.
The themes of Getting Mother’s Body exemplify what Sara L. Warner calls Parks’s characteristic “disinterment” of the past (189). Her plays dig holes: they enjoy as much as they explore the gaps in history for opportunities and responsibilities that those holes give us in the present, and her novel does not differ from those interests. Parks is a player, in the Shakespearean as well as the streetwise sense of that word, who performs and hustles, earning our confidence as she runs her erudite (and edifying) literary cons. Recognizing that fact, we contend that the outwardly comic trappings of Getting Mother’s Body mask a world of sadly narrow options for sexually active, unmarried women—no matter their sexual orientation. By putting comedy in a too easy relationship with naturalism,1 Parks exhorts her reader to rethink the desire to find the happy ending promised by the form, challenging pre-conditioned reactions by both appealing to and denying her readers the kind of certainty that the semblance of closure so tantalizingly suggests.
Digging and signifying on Dewey Dell’s story after the expiration of eight decades, Parks’s novel foregrounds how breakdowns in parent/child communication lead to unhealthy attitudes toward reproductive rights and abortion access, reminding her reader that Billy’s personal progress anecdotally papers over cultural stagnation with respect to women’s reproductive rights. Simultaneously, Parks complicates this already fraught narrative by featuring Dill Smiles’s gender “passing” to reveal how individual acts of self-fashioning can transgress norms at a local level but then ultimately reaffirm them globally, including an ideology that binds masculinity to economic individualism.2 Dill’s and Billy’s...