The line between art and life, or perhaps better stated, fiction and fictionalizing, is one Cris Mazza has repeatedly tested in recent years, in daring and illuminating ways. Her 2014 novel of the rippling effects of sex abuse, Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls, was published as a companion to her 2013 meta-memoir, Something Wrong with Her. The memoir not only explains the inspiration for the novel, but how the cavalier treatment of her mind and body, at the hands of many, contributed to her life of sexual dysfunction. While the rest of the world celebrates or derides sex as a source of pleasure, confidence, and even identity, Mazza views it not merely with disappointment and bewilderment. For Mazza, the centrality of sex in our human existence places her outside the course of human events, the dance of self-discovery on multiple levels; and also of the epic of procreation and relationships. The same could be said on a different scale of her characters in the third book tapped from this well, Yet to Come. It is a novel that echoes back through Mazza’s oeuvre as it expands, and illustrates, the depth that was always there.
Mazza’s work over the past decade might be classified as autofiction, a genre that has been celebrated and derided, depending on who’s interrogating it. The debate is notable here because Mazza has always broken barriers before they were so identified by critics; she doesn’t always get the credit she deserves for her leaps beyond categories and criticism. Yet to Come takes on so much in terms of form and content, all while never forgetting the focus on the span on one man’s life in both the universal and the specific. Her protagonist, Cal Tonnessen, does not suffer from the kind of defeats Mazza has documented for herself. Instead he toils through the metaphorical equivalent of them to find a road back, to liberate himself from soul-crushing circumstances.
Yet To Come begins with an incident from Mazza’s life that she has returned to repeatedly. In the short story “Three Screwdrivers,” a nameless girl accompanies Cal to a gig at a bar, intending to get picked up by someone else. But when Cal makes his move at the night’s end, she rejects him, bewildered by his ardor and erection. Mazza has explored this episode to self-lacerating effect in her memoir, as both a real-life event and a piece of literature; why she was driven to write about it and what it illustrates about herself and her work. For Mazza has alternately been afraid or captivated by that thing that seemingly powers the world beyond her, and what motivates Cal’s pursuit of the Mazza-like figure in “Three Screwdrivers”: sex. As she documented in her memoir, she suffers from vaginismus—an involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles resulting in pain during intercourse—that is part and parcel of anorgasmia, the inability to achieve orgasm. In other words, her observations are multi-faceted in a way others can’t be. They are clinical or hyper-objective; tinged with loss as much as they are by curiosity and optimism—that the next time, they’ll turn out different.
Such is the case with Cal, who ploughs ahead with his wholly unsatisfying life in what is to him a loveless marriage. His wife, Virginia, is a gifted cook and romantic when it comes to family life. She tends toward malapropisms that become alternately more hilarious, and maddening. But she also is a hoarder, a habit locked up in her delusions about her abilities and future prospects. Her children from a previous marriage, Angel and Trinity, grow up feral. Cal copes with Virginia’s tantrums, her verbal abuse and growing propensity toward violence by becoming a workaholic at the music store where he gives lessons and repairs instruments; and he invents more chores for himself at home. When Virginia complains he is inattentive, he explains, “…it’s not…Life gets…you know, so full of what you have to do to just keep going.”
The other way Cal deals with his life of quiet desperation reveals a split consciousness, as well as narration, that the category of autofiction has yet to account for. Cal is always careful to preserve what he calls his “alone time,” when he masturbates to his fantasies of the girl who got away, otherwise known as “X.” This is the same nameless girl from “Three Screwdrivers” and the novel’s beginning; the Mazza-like figure who both tempts and guides Cal out of the situation he detests. “X” is both real and unreal; she sends postcards to Cal without a return address. Cal consults her—or his idea of her—as he steps back to look at the absurdity of his circumstances. In this way, Cal is much like Phelan, the sculptor and artist from Mazza’s first novel, How To Leave A Country. Phelan invents a lover for himself after a bad breakup and a weekend of harrowing sexual adventures. Cal creates a counselor and confessor out of what he knows about “X” from her postcards; his fantasies have a seemingly rational basis.
If this is autofiction, it is not on automatic pilot. Mazza splits her authority as an author between three different entities: Cal, the real “X,” and the “X” Cal dreams of. Autofiction has been criticized as an extension of memoir; and memoir has been criticized as an artless feminization of writing. Denigrating a form because of its alleged, or latent feminine characteristics is problematic to begin with. But what do you say about an author who channels their sensibility into both feminine and masculine voices? “X” describes herself as “asexual,” because “it’s the only explanation” for what becomes of her life. For the real-life Mazza, it enables her to explore characters through multiple lenses, for multi-layered portraits. For Cal’s desolation is not exclusive to his manhood. It is a human problem, and an authentic one—something to remember in a discussion of autofiction, since it is chided for its lack of authenticity because the author, as narrator, is partially fictionalized.
Consider what Cal says to the “X” of his imagination when he justifies staying with the volatile and increasingly dangerous Virginia: “I thought if I could help, I could make some kind of life out of fixing their chaos, or at least keep it in check.” Or how he reacts to finding his stepdaughter’s diary, which reveals her life as an unholy trinity of sex, narcotics, and criminal activity: “Thinking he could help them, and obviously failing, setting himself up to utterly fail … Was there nothing on earth that was a credit to his having ever been alive? That was his drama.”
Cal is invested in his legacy—his bulwark against death—just as any author might be. He stays in the unrelentingly hot desert town of El Centro, “on the wrong side of the Southern California mountains” because he is so invested. He makes sacrifices—artistic, financial and emotional in a way he may not have anticipated—for this legacy. In this way he is much like the cowbird, or Molothrus aeneus, whose appearance frames the novel and does double duty as a metaphor for Cal’s circumstances and Mazza’s focus and discipline. The cowbird is a brood parasite. The female deposits her eggs in the nests of other birds, expecting her fledglings to be raised by the designated stepparents. If those birds reject the imposter eggs, she will kill the eggs containing the lives of their descendants.
Thus cowbirds and other species tend to strike a bargain that is at once advantageous and exacting. The cowbird that haunts Cal is particularly aggravating. After Cal captures the male bird and releases it in a state park twenty miles away, the bird returns to the same spot, “not knowing why it so fixatedly wanted this thing it wanted … this thing that upon achieving led to imprisonment, darkness, and miles of flight, only to return and want it again.”
Mazza’s project, the depiction of humans at their most unguarded, impolitic, and animalistic selves, can be said to mirror the plight of the cowbird; because using so much of one’s life in fiction is another kind of bargain. The writer risks accusations of monetizing her pain, of self-indulgence, or having her work denigrated for its inspiration. But that risk, including her unflinching look at a most private and painful aspect of her own life, must be worth it; it is for us. For Mazza writes, as she reminded us in her memoir, “for the person in me to be expressed—yes in the adolescent sense of wanting people to understand me deeper, and in the wider sense of manifesting myself in the world: i.e., to exist.” To have people know he exists is not only what Cal wants; it is also what Mazza has wanted, and devoted herself to, to leave behind a clearer picture of what it means to live, love, and lose, and to perfect that life by trying again.
Yet to Come, by Cris Mazza. Buffalo, New York: BlazeVOX Books, January 2020. 328 pages. $18.00, paper.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is a poet, novelist, and occasional essayist in New York. Her third full-length poetry collection, Medusa’s Daughter, is due from Animal Heart Press in 2021. Her second novel, Sisterhood of the Infamous, is forthcoming from New Meridian Arts Press, also in 2021. She reviews books for American Book Review and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK literary magazine. More information is at jane-rosenberg-laforge.com.