- Romoland: A Pictonovel by Judith Palmer and Ben Stoltzfus
The term "census designated place" describes an unincorporated location, without fixed boundaries. It's an administrative category that exists solely for the purpose of data collection. A CDP is identified by a name drawn from recognizable regional usage, which may be idiosyncratic or folkloric. One such entity, Romoland, occupies 2.6 square miles within Riverside County, California, with a population of less than 2,000. One could almost say it is an imaginary place.
The same name serves to designate a feminist utopia in Romoland: A Pictonovel, a collaborative venture by the husband-and-wife team of graphic artist, Judith Palmer, and Ben Stoltzfus, a novelist and professor emeritus of literature and creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. The novel presents itself as a philosophical tug-of-war between two characters: an exasperated and feisty feminist graphic artist and her well-meaning but male chauvinist writer husband. At the end of the novel's "Prologue," the woman examines her artist fingers and hands, observes that her name is Palmer, and declares:
She is a palm bending in the wind. […] There is an identity somewhere and perhaps it will emerge if she works at it. But her new self must not be a replica of him. Her reality is elsewhere. Romoland. A space of her own.(p. 1)
With this nod to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian novel, Herland, Romoland's protagonists proceed to haggle their way toward harmony. Their focus is less upon creating an ideal society, however, but more modestly on forging a mutually beneficial intellectual, artistic, and domestic modus vivendi. The central question will be whether art can create a "space" beyond their differences.
This exchange between two protagonists is also a dialogue of two media. Pages of text alternate with some two-dozen images: prints, watercolors, and pencil sketches by Palmer (both author and character), in high-quality color reproduction. The short chapters bear the titles of the prints, and the interplay and competition between the novel's visual and verbal forms is a prominent theme in the couple's debates; while the woman exults that "these prints are her space" (p. 7), [End Page 388] the man talks about the power of language. He has the upper hand, however, as she realizes her striving for liberation must take the form of "break[ing] the fetters of his system—the rhetoric that has locked her into male syntax" (23). The couple agrees that patriarchy is a hard nut to crack, and that the forms of our communication shape the way we think. Unfortunately, however, the opposition of image and language is buttressed by a host of other binaries, and too often, these binaries line up—feminine/image/body/content/emotion versus masculine/language/soul/form/reason. Will the novel ultimately succeed in reaching beyond the "fetters" of the system, or will the characters remain enmeshed in the structures of language?
Part of the book's interest lies in its play with a panoply of literary, artistic, and philosophical precursors. Palmer is inspired by Jasper Johns' use of popular icons to plumb ironies and contradictions. Her prints recall Cy Twombly's graffiti-like lines, his allusions to classical mythology, and his interest in portraying the creative process. She is also indebted to Richard Diebenkorn's lyrical and abstract renderings of California spaces. Stoltzfus, for his part, brings a background as a scholar of French modernist and postmodernist literature and the visual arts. He has published books on Gide, Hemingway, Lacan, and most notably here, authored several studies of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French New Novel, which saw its heyday from the 1950s into the 1970s. The imprint of the New Novelists can be felt in Romoland's insistence on the self-reflecting tendencies of writing and in the use of a technique, reminiscent of Nathalie Sarraute, for rendering subliminal impulses, for example when Romoland's female protagonist vacillates between a desire for liberation...