There is a certain type of writing which asks us to engage with it so that the reader must become an active participant. The reader gives over and becomes writer as well. Call it a kind of collaborative reading, or call it, as Roland Barthes did, a writerly text. Tribute by Anne Germanacos is the kind of book that asks the reader to play along—seduces the reader is a not inappropriate way of saying it—the kind of book that doesn’t let the reader forget that she is reading.
As Hillary Plum tells us in her foreword to the book, in Tribute, “Germanacos gets right down to the elemental—the single line, fragment of scene or story or thought,” and the result is a book that feels atomized, immediate, a book experienced in the moment, without the sense-making we tend to put to our lives through narrative, which after all can be a kind of dulling, a blurring, as much as anything else. One is put in mind of Virginia Woolf’s description in “Modern Fiction”: “The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” And yet, for all that Tribute does to strip away narrative, the seduction of narrative is always present. As Plum tells us, the book, written in fragments as it is, creates a “desire for and struggle against narrative.” The story contained in Tribute is fairly simple: a woman tends to her dying mother, sees an analyst, misses her husband, travels, takes lovers. But the book’s complexity springs out of the very “simplicity” of the story, for it is not what happens in the book that is important, but how the narrator puts the words down, how the narrator experiences and (re)inscribes her life that is at the center of this book.
And that simplicity itself is deceptive. So much of what happens in the book happens between the lines. Does the narrator take lovers? Or is it only one lover? Or are those lovers imagined? Does the narrator have an affair with her analyst, or is that merely transference? I think I know the answers to these questions, but the book leaves much open to interpretation; like any writerly text, certain readings are more likely than others, but the book works on a kind of openness, and welcomes possibility such that whatever reading is come to is ultimately going to be singular and subjective. The narrator, along with everyone else in the novel—with the exception of a few authors and famous persons, like Arafrat—goes unnamed. She is surrounded by her husband, her analyst, her mother, her children, (and her reader, who is always there, addressed, present and absent at once) and as a result of their not being named, these characters tend to slip around beneath their pronouns. Mother becomes lover becomes sister becomes analyst. Husband becomes son becomes lover. “She said: You’re always watching the clock,” goes one of the fragments that makes up Tribute. In context, this could be the narrator describing something her analyst has said, or something that her mother has said as the narrator sits at her deathbed, or something she imagines her mother saying, her subconscious giving words to a desire she is shamed by. Of course, it is (I think) supposed to be all of these at once, and it is through such textual ambiguities that Tribute courts its reader and enlists her as collaborator.
Court, seduce, I use these words deliberately because at its heart Tribute is a book about desire. Sexual desire, to be sure. The narrator searches, in writing, for the words to depict that desire, to depict the experience of desire expressed, to depict climax. (And in some ways the fragment seems appropriate in this regard, at least as Germanacos writes them, overflowing, intense, they are structured like spasms.) Often she can only get at those descriptions through metaphor, through simile, but those metaphors are stunning when they come:
eyes like hands? (mine reach, hers hold)
But there are other kinds of desire here too. A desire to know—to know herself, to know others, to know the gradations of love—to share experience. To express.
Central to Tribute is the impending death of the narrator’s mother, which dominates the book’s third section, “Kaddish.” Here is where the book grapples most vigorously and most interestingly with what I think, above all else, beyond desire, and beyond questions of the text, and beyond politics, is Tribute’s controlling idea: the multiplicity of human experience, the contradictory and sometimes adversarial nature of our many desires. Just because her mother is dying, and just because that makes her sad, that does not mean that the narrator is not also a sexual being. Separated from her husband while she and her sister tend to their mother, she can’t help but long sometimes to be somewhere else:
In order to be able to take my husband’s cock in my mouth, my mother will first have to die.
This is not the kind of daughter I am, it’s just the way it goes.
This section, the whole book in fact, is full of such dichotomies. Sexual desire amid mourning. Laughter in the face of death. Beauty in decay. Of her dying mother, the narrator tells us:
Saw her naked body, where I had my start. There’s nothing ugly about her, even now. Her body is perfect, perfectly cared for, skin hardly wrinkled.
Tribute is one of those books whose beauty, as apparent as it is in the initial read, is truly realized on the second. After I’d finished, when I went back and reread the first few lines, I saw contained in them so much of the book would be about:
Thanksgiving got a little raucous. Afterwards, I went around picking up the pieces—but physical, not psychological.
It is, of course, appropriate to open a novel called Tribute on Thanks(/)giving. And Thanksgiving is a time/place that the book will return to in the closing pages. Thanksgiving, like any holiday, is both a setting off—everything after begins from this point—and a return—another holiday, one that feels in so many ways like the one before it, and the one before that, and so on. And the book tends to operate in this way as well. Each new fragment is both a setting off, an embarking on something new, and at the same time a return, from whitespace, to the narrative, such as that is, and to the themes developed throughout. The physical/psychological divide mentioned here, is one of those contradictions, one of those dualities that the book will ultimately set out to dissolve. Or dissolve may not be the right word for it, for dissolve feels to final. Better to say find a coexistence, even one that is often uneasy. It is that uneasiness I think, which also signals a kind of awareness, that is in so many ways the book’s point.
Tribute, by Anne Germanacos. Rescue Press, forthcoming. 285 pages. $16.00, paper.
Bayard Godsave is the author of the story collection Lesser Apocalypses (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012). His second collection, Torture Tree will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in September 2014. He lives in Oklahoma.