The Double EBooks
Publication date: March 2013
Press: Publication Studio
In the shadow of the Boeing plant where the first commercial jet liner was assembled, a family lives in a house in a rural landscape filled with stumps, streams chocked with the dead salmon, and no one who can help. The sixties in Renton, Washington were a mix of jet age technology and subsistence farming. Roger Carnation at an electrical engineer, or double e, is a stepfather who regards his new family as an acquisition. He has daughters to train to do what he needs. He has a wife to clean house and prepare food. He has a son to train as a replacement man. The novel is told through the five points of view as the story advances toward its inevitable end.
“Poshlust in Carnation”, Daniel Singer, The American Book Review, Volume 35, #6, Sept/Oct 2014
The problem with new regionalist American fiction in the twenty-first century, unless it moves away from realist narratology (as we see in the contemporary Southern gothic), is that we are not quite sure how to read it as anything but niche or kitsch. Enter The Double E just out from Final State Press, Matt Briggs’s answer to the new regionalist problem, which is best misread—and then confronted as misreadable — as “real(ist)” American Regionalism.
The novel presents a triptych of third-person reports on the paralleled (or at least juxtaposed) experiences of a rural Eastern Washington family living in the household, under the feudal lordship and psycho-sexual abuse of Roger Carnation, the titular Double E (electrical engineer). Mr. Carnation, as he likes to be called by Aileen, his rural Kentucky transplant wife, has acquired her and her three children—but, particularly, Mary and Martha, Aileen’s adolescent daughters; her son Marshall is only “a booby prize” in the deal, a male to mold in Roger Carnation’s clichéd image of American masculinity—as Gogolian dead souls. That it all takes place “in the Eastern Washington sun and then turned green and damp,” at first glance, seems incidental.
“I think of myself as a regional writer,” Briggs told Writers’ Dojo in 2009. “This used to be a very specific and meaningful thing for me. I felt as if I wrote out of a tradition of other writers who wrote about the people and place of the Pacific Northwest.” And this is the appeal of the novel: it becomes quickly apparent that the incidental—niche and kitsch—figuration of Pacific Northwestern (in fact, any American) regionalism is precisely what we should be confronting.
So, what is notable about this latest installment in Briggs’s catalog (four novels and four short story collections) is that it actively looks like what it isn’t but must inevitably become when read as regionalist fiction. It is a specialized doubling, a careful doppelganger, not in the style of itself, but as a re- or dis- location of the narratology of the Double Tale of canonic Russian fiction (Gogol, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky, among others, loom behind the scenes). It is almost as if Briggs has decided to see what happens when we relocate nineteenth-century Russian social realism (for many things are oddly Russian in Briggs’s Pacific Northwest) in the act of trying to write a regionalist novel about a mid-to-late twentieth-century rural Eastern Washington family. What we also discover is the infinitely critique-able reductivism of delight in the “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high-falutin’, in bad taste” Nabokov lists as (incompletely) describing the “[v]arious aspects of the idea Russians concisely express by the term poshlost” hiding at the nichey, kitschy center of the American literary neo-regionalist problem. To read Briggs’s book as a regionalist novel in the sense of performing any kind of authentic narrative access to Pacific Northwestern culture and life is to mistake the method for the madness.
Readers familiar with Briggs’s work will find The Double E has all the hallmark Briggsian motifs and moves—the difficulty of the “real,” the stilted, and the archetypally conflicted father figures (and sons) with military backgrounds; the generic ontological lack of a deus ex machina. We see a version of his standard, moderately conservative, formal experimentalism in the presentation of the narrative, actively not in the hyper-subjectivist, perspectival shifting from chapter-like unit to chapter-like unit of an As I Lay Dying (1930) but in an explicitly repetitive presentation of “the same” experience as lived by four of the five main characters (Aileen’s three segments are notable for her lack of direct engagement in, or even removal from, the ongoing drama). Aileen, the housewife, the deadest of the dead souls on the Gogolian Carnation Estate, such as it is (a half-kept up house outside of town), Lolita‘s (1955) Charlotte Haze without the bourgeois assignations, mobility, and wealth, is both as absent and present a vehicle of passivity and resignation as Faulkner’s “dead” Addie is of bitterness and oppression.
Picture Raskolnikov as a cliché of mid-to-late nineteenth-century rural dysfunction and posited uncomfortably as The American Male. Then, add the self-centeredness and regional/rural myopia of Anse Bundren and the predatory stepchild lust of Humbert Humbert—that is Roger Carnation. His crime, he believes, is inevitable—as is his inevitable punishment at the hands of Marshall, Martha, and Mary, independently the carnated elements of Roger the Carnator’s Humbertian lust and fear of the stepchild.
There is an undeniable development of Roger Carnation as a repetition of the Faulknerian and Nabokovian protagonist bad-guy trope. But, despite his constant reading and hyperbolically selfish paternalism, Briggs makes sure we know that, while Roger may be a certain repetition of these figures, he is damned sure neither Humbert Humbert nor Anse Bundren _in_carnate.
Leaving plot aside, the experience of reading The Double E can be summed up as misreading virtually any realist regional novel about rural American life with a masculinist bent. It is Russian-to-Pacific-Northwestern poshlost in the sense Kerry McSweeney gives the term in The Realist Short Story of the Powerful Glimpse: Chekhov to Carver (2007), “the inferior taste and repellent mediocrity of provincial life.” Rural life is about high school football, working-class families with alcoholism and abuse running through all familial interactions, and—as this is Pacific Northwestern poshlost—it is wet and smells like salmon. We know the narrative, and it is not compelling. No surprises are expected or delivered. Marshall plays in the high school band at the homecoming game; Aileen is dominated by Roger Carnation and chestnut rural femininity; Roger Carnation habitually rapes Mary and Martha; there are walks by the river smelling the salmon smell of the regional mythos.
Then, through the second segment of the triptych, we are confronted with the effect—we may not have been presented with a reductive Washingtonian poshlost_without cause. We are reading, as it turns out, a performance_ of “any Realist regional novel with a masculinist bent,” which is then reinscribed as an anagoge to Dead Souls (1842) repeated as a Pacific Northwestern As I Lay Dying. The fact that we knew the story with which we began and that there were no surprises expected or delivered, read as poshlost, is purposeful. This is the way we can choose to read the neo-regional. As poshlost, Briggs’s stock figures and regionality start to look like inevitabilities, like stock-for-good-reason.
In the third, we are reading a story we know—but it is the story (though, not the plot) of Dead Souls, of As I Lay Dying, and of Lolita, that is doubled as Crime and Punishment (1866). We “know” the stock rural regionalist story Briggs presents the same way we “know” any line of socially and culturally constructed iteration—as something we are supposed to know. We must confront this and not simply accept it, the novel tells us, because what occurs in The Double E is reiteration of the inevitable. There is no Bloom-blooming anxiety of influence here; there is only the trudging, inescapable, absolute certainty of it.
What emerges is a fully affective and effective poshlost of not so much the rural Pacific Northwest but the Pacific Northwestern neo-regionalist novel itself—hyperbolic, repetitive, pretending to itself as insightful, true, innovative and intimate, but presenting the whole madness as the method. What’s the best way to break the nichey, kitschy center? Expose it as such—and present the breakage in its place. That’s “the difference between demons and daemons beside the extra “a” as Carnation wonders over, not particularly randomly, before the arrival of his inevitable punishment—the difference between the benevolent spirit and the malignant one. Where we read or write the neo-regionalist novel without remembering Nabokov’s lamentation that [t]he dreadful thing about poshlost is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention “on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day” is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap, we are a force of malignancy.
This is not the malignant American Regionalist (and Realist) novel in_carnate. It is a carnation of it (read, even in the progression of titles in Roger Carnation’s segments in each part of the triptych— from “Roger,” to “Carnation”—Roger Carnation incarnated—to “Carnation” repeated at the close of the novel, now a double-entendre, the real_ Double E, the whole novel as “A Carnation,” a fruition, and coming into observable and inevitable being). The problem of American Regionalist fiction, The Double E tells us, is confronting the mundane fact of its fictionalized anagoge, of its inevitable iterability, such that “in the kingdom of poshlost,” as Nabokov puts it, “it is not the book that ‘makes a triumph’ but ‘the reading public’ which laps it up, blurbs and all.”
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