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Hysterical Punctuation

REDUCTION,” THE BEST story in Joseph Salvatore’s first collection, places us in the minds of a scholarly feminist couple trying to have good sex. The man attempts to explain, post-coitally, the disconcertingly arousing thought that came to him during intercourse: “He told her that her breasts were like a cow’s teats. He tried to communicate some of the beauty and awe of this realization, especially as it had bearing on his love feelings for her, while also trying to communicate some of the complications of what he felt regarding the similarities between her breasts and a cow’s teats.” He continues a long speech about how “he had ‘broken through’ certain barriers—if only for the moment—of the culture’s soul-crippling conditioning.” When he finishes effusing about their shared animal nature, the woman responds “by repeating her belief that it was important that she be honest with him, telling him that she yet again had not had an orgasm.”

Disappointingly, much of To Assume a Pleasing Shape exemplifies the very paradox that Salvatore artfully mocks in “Reduction”: the ways our ostensible self-awareness can hinder the intimacy we are trying to think our way into. Salvatore is a smart but anxious performer, and he frequently succumbs to the cloying, isolating cleverness of which he accuses his characters.

The story “Practice Problem” asks us to consider a young woman’s romantic entanglements as a math problem: “Graph the total area, spatial solidity, and utter leather morosis of Jennifer Hampton on a solid three dimensional plane (note: be sure to make use of the fifth axiom and Point P).” This is an appealing conceit in its detailed weirdness. But it is still just a conceit. Jennifer’s connection to geometry is tenuous at best: “Jennifer Hampton, the geometry thereof, and those circles, overlapping circles, circles like her silver sunglasses, the ones she wears day and night, indoors and out; circles like her many pills, the ones that deter pregnancy and manic depression, social anxiety disorder and panic attacks….” Expressing Jennifer’s story as a math problem reveals nothing about her character, or about the narrator’s feelings about her character.

Salvatore’s better sentences are pointedly meandering, answering the demands of his characters in indirect conflict with their environments. A reference to Doc Martens leads the narrator of “Man on Couch” on this cerebral jaunt:

Those pearlescent red ones I’m thinking of, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, which, not sure if anyone knows this or not, but were designed by Gilbert Adrian for MGM, and were actually made in triplicate and had different soles affixed depending on the needs of the sound stage such as when layers of felt had to be glued to the bottoms because of the clacking sound they made on the hard surface of the yellow brick road during the big dance sequence….

In the context of this man’s recent admission that he is ugly and lonely, such detailed knowledge of trivia invites pathos. Salvatore’s language is slick yet careful here, anchored by the understated sadness of the seeming aside—“not sure if anyone knows this or not.” The narrator is not actually speaking to anyone. He is sitting alone at his sister’s holiday party, distracting himself from his isolation with his collection of meaningless facts.

If Salvatore’s writing is not always so satisfying, this is largely a function of his ambition, which pays homage to David Foster Wallace and W.G. Sebald. But unlike Salvatore, Wallace and Sebald imposed an aesthetic distance on their plotlines in order to reveal particular interiorities that cannot be expressed through traditional means. The narrator’s emotional stake in the story becomes the story itself.

Salvatore does eventually divulge the particular way he cares about his creations, but not until the tail end of his collection. In “Annus Horribilis, or The Carpenter, or Cal,” a young woman tries and fails to write the story of her obsession with a stranger upon whom she projects her fantasies of marital bliss. As the story’s silly title would suggest, Salvatore makes sport of Jessica’s purple prose and trite romantic ideals. Her numerous false starts to the tale of her love affair with The Carpenter are interspersed with writer’s notes such as: “Should or should not use the word ‘cute’? Maybe ‘cute’ would make story sound chick-litty;” and: “Watch what wksp bitch called ‘hysterical punctuation in order to heighten suspense.’”

Given this one-dimensional ridicule, the reader is poorly prepared for Salvatore’s belated admission of sympathy for Jessica. After she discovers that the real-life carpenter is taken, Jessica succumbs to debilitating despair, unable to leave her bed, where she masturbates while whispering the carpenter’s name. After her orgasm returns her to the “hard edges and cold surfaces and loud knockings” of the external world, Jessica feels “such an intense anguish that she could hardly endure the experience without beginning to make small animal noises into her pillow.” More painful even than the loss of her only sustaining desire is Jessica’s realization that she will never be able to turn this pain into a story anyone would want to read. “Not believable, they’d comment. She never even talked to the guy, they’d comment. Emotionally unconvincing, they’d comment.”

If Salvatore had granted Jessica the dignity of complicated thought, we might find ourselves moved by her most ordinary loneliness: that of having extreme feelings without correspondingly extreme circumstances. As it is, “The Carpenter” only reveals that Salvatore’s irony has been a pose all along, a hedge against his fear that the only way the average reader will accept the conveyance of average emotion is through ridicule.

“The Carpenter” is similar in intent to David Foster Wallace’s “Octet,” in which a series of incomplete stories devolves into an anxious discourse on “whether the weird ambient urgency” the narrator hopes to communicate “is going to be feel-able or even discernible to somebody else, viz. to some total stranger who’s probably sitting down at the end of long hard day to try to unwind by reading this belletristic ‘Octet’ thing.” Both stories indirectly convey the desperation to be assured of one’s usefulness in the world. The narrator of “Octet” needs to know whether he has made his reader feel an “urgent interhuman sameness” that he can’t describe even to himself. Jessica wants to write a story that will “save lives.”

But in Wallace’s case, the impossibility of the writer’s yearning is more than a joke. Both the incomplete stories and their deconstruction are written with care and rigor. So we never doubt that we are being offered a portrait of someone trying very hard to achieve something that matters to him. True, Wallace’s obsessive qualifications to his narrator’s urge for transparency render that urge futile. But we are moved by his failure because we sense that it is real.

Despite the success of stories such as “Octet,” Wallace was always at war with the temptation to use irony as a means of giving himself up. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace suggested that the “next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country” would be those who “treat plain old untrendy human troubles in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” Salvatore might have allowed Jessica’s “small animal noises” to be very rebellious indeed.

Hannah Tennant-Moore writes regularly for The Book and n+1.