Thursday, April 23, 1998

Debut Novel, by Stefania Procalowska

A review of Debut Novel, by Stefania Procalowska

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
April 23rd, 1998

Debut Novel
By Stefania Procalowska
Manic D Press, $22

The late Kathy Acker wrote in her review of Richard Grossman’s novel The Alphabet Man, “I have dreamt a book, not a book that tells a story, not even one that tells story upon story, all of them intertwining and changing one another’s meanings, but a book that simply is everything.” As amazing as Grossman’s novel is, it’s a shame Acker didn’t live to read Stefania Procalowska’s debut novel, Debut Novel, which although just a slim 193 pages, contains more and does more than almost any of the massive lexicon novels published this decade.

Initially, the most arresting aspect of the novel is that it’s written in first person—from the reader’s point of view. It begins, “I just opened Stefania Procalowska’s debut novel and found that I’m the main character.” Although this recalls Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which employs a gimmicky second person that doesn’t really do anything challenging, Procalowska uses this innovation literally to project the reader into her novel’s insane world—a world in which not just the reader but the words on the page and the book itself are characters. And unlike McInerney’s gendered “you,” there’s no indication of whether the reader is male or female, and as with Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, it doesn’t really matter.

After a few pages of preliminaries, where “I” become acclimated to being both reader, narrator, and main character, I’m unceremoniously thrust into a quest for certain missing parts of the novel—parts that I as a reader require but Procalowska, who jumps in every once in a while to remind me that it’s just a book and not reality, refuses to furnish. In the course of “my” quest, I end up taking a whirlwind tour of Procalowska’s cracked literary universe, which includes everything from Biblical figures to altered historical accounts to literary characters to television and ’60s and ’70s pop culture. At one point, I find myself thumbing through the pages of Wuthering Heights with Zechariah and Don Cornelius (Jesus’ second cousin and the host of Soul Train, respectively, which makes for an interesting examination of Black/Jewish relations), looking for a narrative structure that could rein in the multi-layered, genre-hopping mess I’ve found myself in.

Certainly, the layer upon layer of storytelling recalls Wuthering Heights, but it does so in a way that recalls the way Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School recalls The Scarlet Letter—that is, in a stylized and bent manner that not just reinterprets the story, but revises it and incorporates it into the story at hand. So after a while, Bronte’s two Catherines make their way into the novel to help me along. And to further complicate the issue, I also find myself sidetracked into reading Joyce Elbert’s 1969 trash novel The Crazy Ladies (which in an utterly amazing literary confluence, I [the book reviewer, not the character in the book] actually read as a kid), and the characters from that book come alive to counter anything the Catherines say.

One of the funniest things about Procalowska’s use of things literary is her treatment of the self-reflexive trappings of the publishing world. In my search through Procalowska’s imaginary bookshelf, I’m as influenced by the book jackets as by the books themselves, so my understanding of my reading—and of Debut Novel itself—is colored greatly by the blurbs on books’ back covers. My favorite is the (presumably real) blurb for The Crazy Ladies, which reads, “Philip Roth, bow your head. Irving Wallace, eat your heart out. Joyce Elbert’s back in town.” So naturally Roth and Wallace enter into the book to debate Joyce Elbert’s literary worth, which of course is colored by the pejorative blurb about themselves. Procalowska’s wackiest blurbs, however, are the ones she puts on the back of Debut Novel itself. Citing such bogus periodicals as The Journal of Masonic History and Bug World, Procalowska both praises herself and pokes fun at the ways novels market themselves. And in a truly cool literary move, the blurbs turn out to be the key to (almost) understanding the novel’s ending. So don’t skip them.

Debut Novel isn’t all fun and games, however. Embedded within the stories-within-stories is a deep concern for the state of contemporary art and entertainment, and consequently for the state of contemporary America. In using both literary and popular references, juxtaposing the decadent with the ostensibly meaningful—or the sacred with the profane—Procalowska creates a vast array of literary and ethical choices that makes “me” explore my role as reader, consumer, and citizen—as well as Procalowska’s role as artist. Because with so much fluctuating and irreconcilable narrative madness, the question arises, is she in control of the text? And do I have any real choices or meaningful work to do as a reader? And is making me ask these questions part of her overall plan, making me think I have some critical power while still asserting her true control over me as the helpless reader? Because, let’s face it, this novel is a page-turner, and I can’t help but keep reading.

The obvious comparison is to an ironic television show that sells me a particular point of view while making me think I’m in on the joke. While watching the show, is there any way I can examine it critically, and is my detached critical view just another layer accounted for by clever marketers to keep me watching? So the ultimate question ends up being, is Procalowska putting one over on me or is she truly making me look critically at what I’m reading? And does it matter? It’s tricky ground she makes the reader tread, and the novel’s ending—if you can call it that—gives few hints at what she wants “me” to conclude about the novel. Maybe this is my only real freedom as a reader, and it comes just in time. The 193 pages that make up Debut Novel, although addictive, are exhausting reading, and even if I come to no conclusions, I leave the book profoundly altered. Let’s hope Procalowska’s sophomore effort (will she call it Sophomore Effort?) continues in this relentless vein.

—David Wiley

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