Reading the Entire Oeuvre of Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed by Stacy Lathrop
Following Twitter handles is a bit lazy, a bit wild, and a bit contrived—you don’t always know what you’re going to find. Much in the Twitter-thicket is repetitive, but sometimes you find something extraordinary. Sabrina Orah Mark satirizes our new social twitch of enlightenment-through-Twitter in her story “Tweet,” from her collection Wild Milk (2018). By what other means do we now know how to live?
And, yet, it was only by my repetitively scrolling through the ironic—often bordering on sardonic—tweets of a couple of independent booksellers that I first discovered the unique publisher Dorothy, a publishing project. Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker founded the St. Louis-based press in 2009 to spur a conversation about women’s experiences, more specifically those of women artists and activists, through an experimental, often poetic, and at times philosophical mix of new and translated titles and reprints. Each book is under 200 pages, costs $16, and they usually publish annually in October or November. (You can also get a whole set for a discounted price direct from the publisher.)
I decided to follow this developing conversation and read their entire world of books—eighteen in total— over the course of two months. To start me on my Dorothy journey, my booksellers/handlers zealously promoted Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper (2014), which received rave reviews from PW and Kirkus as well as a glowing writeup in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (as many Dorothy books do). The novel is about a couple who relocates from America to Berne. Just as the narrator, Tiff, found it difficult to put into words the bodily distress of a miscarriage provoked by her husband swerving to avoid a wallcreeper (a small bird) that he then adopts, I struggled to articulate my irritation with Tiff. Tiff had not wanted to become pregnant—it was just something that “happened” when she and her newlywed husband got drunk. It was that passivity that made it difficult for me to care about her pain.
As her marriage disintegrates, Tiff’s actions become more intentional, and the narrative becomes almost parodic. As I noticed in other Dorothy books, the narrator (who goes back to school for environmental studies) and the author start to blur, and the ideology behind the book becomes bigger than the relationships among the characters. Ultimately, I felt I was in a philosophical dialogue with the author, when I wished she had let me stay with a narrative that could flow naturally, wildly, like the Elbe River Tiff actively protects from dredging.
Meanwhile, the four Ravickian novels by Renee Gladman consider how the very act of writing and speaking fabricates events. Architectural structures mirror linguistic structures and in postapocalyptic Ravicka, language (and thus culture) is beginning to disappear. Natives of and visitors to Ravicka attempt to locate themselves after an unnamed crisis in the first book, Event Factory (2010). In the second, The Ravickians (2011), the characters begin to narrate the experience of crisis and dislocation, and then, in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013) characters attempt to connect the gaps in that experience. Ana Patova, an author, is attempting to get to her friends, other artists, in order to communicate and piece together their fractured reality. Finally, these Ravickians investigate the history that has been erased in Houses of Ravicka (2017). Gladman uses many architecture metaphors to scaffold her primary theory, which is that reality emerges through events and is not itself a concrete structure. The arc of the series shows how a disaster both destroys and creates, in that “recovery” requires recovering (re-finding, uncovering, and cohering).
Similarly, in some ways, Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (2010), originally published in 1954, narrates a crisis like Gladman’s Ravickian novels— in this case, a flood and ergot poisoning spread by loaves of rye bread. A poisoning death in the Willoweed family provokes a visit from a doctor, who eventually marries another member of the family, illustrating joy and pain emanating from the same tragic event. Comyns (unlike Gladman) tenderly narrates each detail like a naturalist illustrating beloved flora and fauna. In Comyns’ hands, ducks swimming in drawing rooms, the miller drowning himself, or the butcher slitting his throat are not fantastic events, but natural consequences of the catalyzing catastrophe of the book.
The Time of the Blue Ball (2011) by Manuela Draeger (a pseudonym) continues the naturalism of Comyns in a series of interconnected fables centered around detective Bobby Potemkine. Translated from the French by Brian Evenson, these stories of musical dogs and flies, woolly crabs, baby pelicans, and a detective in love with a bat with long dark braids feel realistic. Draeger conjures a “post-exotic society” (Draeger’s term)— which marries naturalistic detail to absurd juxtaposition. This technique opens the reader’s imagination to another tangible world, one where fire was invented and destroyed by a woman (not “man”), where police are no longer needed, and where activists go to great lengths to free a pompous bureaucrat just to see him instinctively gobbled by their co-activist, a tiger. Originally written for children, these stories ask a reader of any age to remain alert to how narrow our perceptions are—and the possibility of much more expansive realms we could glimpse if we allowed ourselves.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s novel, Fra Keeler (2012), also reads naturalistically on the surface: the narrator buys the late Fra Keeler’s house in order to investigate the man’s death. Along the way, though, we begin to doubt the narrator’s reliability as he is interrupted in his investigation by chance events that consume his imagination—a mailman delivering Ancestry.com materials (a pestering he attributes to a neighbor woman); an old, frail man in a yurt who speaks of wars; and a hike in a canyon during which he imagines he is dead. By the end, we are left confused and in suspense about just what is happening—the narrative is as shattered as the skylight the increasingly paranoid narrator cracks after spying on the neighbor woman through it. In the finale, a detective interrogates our narrator (who sought himself to investigate the death of the man whose house he bought), but I won’t spoil what this portends.
Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (2012), Amina Cain’s Creature (2013), and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo (2015) are the most intimate and domestic of the Dorothy books. Each is a collection of short, harmonic stories that echo one another in impressionistic, painterly ways. Promising Young Women tells the story of Lizzie, an aspiring actress in her twenties who cycles through psychiatric institutions. Despite her grammatically broken sentences, the constancy of Lizzie’s mental state and its internal logic are effectively conveyed, which is why this book reminded me of a Cezanne. Somehow, by the end, it is Lizzie, our mental patient, who appears the most self-aware of all the characters.
Cain’s Creature conveys her characters’ consciousness through the everyday, often domestic, relationships narrated in each story. Like Mary Cassatt, Cain splits her consciousness and returns her reader’s gaze. In trying to understand these couples, she often reverses expectations, suggesting the “creature” is assessing the reader.
Walsh’s Vertigo, finally, evokes Monet. She suspends us between each familiar scene and each italicized thought about it. Her series of stories of the same family relating to the world in different places and in varied relationships leaves the reader slightly off balance, in vertigo, and forced to examine the effects more closely for what they might hide.
Joanna Ruocco’s Dan (2014), is a fabulist bildungsroman about how consciousness is more threatening to power than angry protest is. Dan is the name of the fictive town in which Ruocco’s character Melba Zuzzo, a bakery worker who is also a keen observer and lover of science, lives, and Dan is the masculine consciousness that authorizes what the town’s inhabitants may do. Melba, despite her best efforts, is unable to conform to the patriarchal rules of Dan—not because she’s rebelling, but because of her growing awareness. As she begins to see the man-made rules that undergird Dan, she fails to unconsciously abide by them. Femininity in Dan is defined by masculine authority, and Melba isn’t able to play the role of other to someone else’s fantasy. Tragedy unfolds after a seemingly “innocent” petting of Melba by the town’s powerful doctor, who diagnoses a growth in her ear as cancer (a metaphor for her listening and burgeoning recognition), and consequently puts her under surveillance. Both Melba’s job at the bakery and her rented apartment depend on playing by Dan’s rules. Her naïve inquisitiveness clashes with these conventions, and once under surveillance, Melba is doomed.
Unlike Melba, Marianne Fritz’s tragic character of Berta Faust does at one time aspire to a traditional feminine ideal—the Madonna. Translated by Adrian Nathan West, The Weight of Things (2015), awarded the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, struggles to understand the disaster of Nazism, using the narrative’s very German to suggest transformation, such as from Faust (also fist) to Berta’s married surname, Schrei (scream). Berta is largely narrated through the later, post-war memories of Wilhelmine, the Faust household’s petty and controlling maid—who is in many way’s Berta’sWalsh’s Vertigo, finally, evokes Monet. She suspends us between each familiar scene and each italicized thought about it. Her series of stories of the same family relating to the world in different places and in varied relationships leaves the reader slightly off balance, in vertigo, and forced to examine the effects more closely for what they might hide. Joanna Ruocco’s Dan (2014), is a fabulist bildungsroman about how consciousness is more threatening to power than angry protest is. Dan is the name of the fictive town in which Ruocco’s character Melba Zuzzo, a bakery worker who is also a keen observer and lover of science, lives, and Dan is the masculine consciousness that authorizes what the town’s inhabitants may do. Melba, despite her best efforts, is unable to conform to the patriarchal rules of Dan—not because she’s rebelling, but because of her growing awareness. As she begins to see the man-made rules that undergird Dan, she fails to unconsciously abide by them. Femininity in Dan is defined by masculine authority, and Melba isn’t able to play the role of other to someone else’s fantasy. Tragedy unfolds after a seemingly “innocent” petting of Melba by the town’s powerful doctor, who diagnoses a growth in her ear as cancer (a metaphor for her listening and burgeoning recognition), and consequently puts her under surveillance. Both Melba’s job at the bakery and her rented apartment depend on playing by Dan’s rules. Her naïve inquisitiveness clashes with these conventions, and once under surveillance, Melba is doomed.
During the war, Berta had been impregnated by a music teacher on leave from the front. (He plays Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”—that most famous of waltzes composed to lift Viennese morale following its post-war depression—to seduce her.) On returning to combat, the teacher sarcastically muses about the experience to Wilhelm— but in a spasm of guilt, makes Wilhelm promise to look after his unseen son, Rudolfo, if anything should happen to him. Wilhelm travels to the Faust household to announce the teacher’s demise. In honor of that war-wrought obligation, Wilhelm marries Berta, leading to the birth of their Little Berta.
Obedience suspends Wilhelm in ambivalence; the mindlessness and uncertainty of duty permeates the book. The book is deeply psychoanalytic, in that unconscious playing by the rules brings punishment as harsh as rebellion could. Berta, like Melba, was not successful in adapting to social expectation. Her suffering recalls the Madonna—she is saintly, passive, and complicit in her own pain. Her attempt to break out of this martyr persona rises to the level of Greek tragedy and is the inversion of the mother role.
Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, blends novel, biography, and film critique. Loden was the writer, director, and star of Wanda, a 1970 independent film set in the mining towns of Pennsylvania, depicting the existential crisis of a woman with limited choices for a better life. Léger narrates how becoming Wanda allowed Loden—before passive and a mirror of others’ desires—to piece herself together as a person, to become true to herself. In this hybrid work, Léger attempts to recreate this becoming for herself and her readers.
Léger describes the final scene of Wanda, in which Loden has Wanda take control of her senseless life. After giving up rights to her children and divorcing her husband, Wanda becomes infatuated with an abusive bank robber, later shot and killed during a robbery for which she serves as lookout. Wanda escapes and ends up in a bar, watching the replay of the robbery, until she hitches a ride with a man who sexually assaults her. Wanda cries out, hits back, and escapes through the woods to join the company of others who offer her a drink, food, a cigarette. Unlike Fritz’s Berta, Wanda, having reached her end without finding any answers in suffering, returns to humanity.
After the authoritarian existential crises of Berta and Wanda, the stories of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest (2016) jar us to adaptability and contemporary society. A young woman falls in love with an androgynous, lazy, often-drunk Guide who nitpicks every aspect of her life until emancipating her as a Host. (George is fond of totemic characterizations.) In another story, the Guide transforms into a (just as critical) ovulation machine that only promises bankruptcy. In the title story, a babysitter cares for a baby that will never age, becomes lover to its father who treats her as a child, a theme repeated in a later story of a student who becomes a lover to her Teacher.
Maturity in George’s stories is learning to navigate the expectations of powerful men as well as a managerial, consumerist society obsessed with infantilizing (and pathologizing) sexuality. Her characters learn how to use that very sexuality to survive life’s technologically animated indecencies.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (2018) twists the compulsive obsession with external social forces as found in George’s stories into internal ones. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, the novel is a transformative retelling of fairytales about falling in love. Hers is a fairytale of falling out of love. The narrator is an exdetective who, traveling with a translator, is hired by an abandoned husband to track his wife and her lover who have fled to a far-away forest—Taiga. Deep in Taiga, the narrator and the translator discover the primitive metamorphosis of sexuality, both its cruelty and its ability to propel strange, new life forms. Sex, a form of communication, shows up as the dominant metaphor about the complexities of human relationships. Just as you can get lost in the forest in a Grimm’s fairytale, here, you get lost in Taiga—“the disease of language” itself.
The Complete Stories of Lenora Carrington (2017) by Lenora Carrington and Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark extend Rivera Garza’s play with symbolism. These surreal stories reside more in the poetic imagination and mythic possibility than in the natural and personal experience. Mark’s stories satirize both domesticity and the political in indexical metonyms. A mother’s wild milk, for example, refused as unusable by her child’s daycare teacher, becomes that mother’s socialized guilt. In another story about all of the horrors that occur under American presidents, Mark suggests that citizens who care more for their own safety than others’ security are what enables the problems we lament. In another, a young woman desperately tries to identify her mother. After ruling out both Hillary Clinton and John Berryman, she is left only the maternal protection of a salmon-colored sweater to help her swim upstream.
It is Lenora Carrington, though, who perhaps reaches the furthest into the human condition, beyond our present, deep into our past and future. She, too, has a story about a mother and daughter. Her mother is a cow that tells her daughter there is no learning: human understanding is written in living iconicity that does not cast shadows. These humans, in Carrington’s tale, live in mythic consciousness; they do not subvert lore to prop oneself up, nor mark one’s identity in the logic of symbols. These humans are naked and no longer pretend to know who they are. They flow in the very timelessness of myth.
Carrington seems to say that it is only in letting go of our reflexive self-consciousness, taking leaps of faith in denial of omniscient intentionality, and permitting ourselves to be deeply wounded by cruel existence and sacrificed as sacred cows, that we may truly change.
To be sure, after taking in this eighteen-book conversation among Dorothy authors, I was changed. I also felt that same intimate discomfort I do when my friends and relatives push at sensitive places buried in my memory. I do not, however, wish to self-consciously protect those sensitive places but, like Dorothy, risk sharing them. Dorothy is publishing work that takes charge of language (as women) and deploys (as writers) myth in the service of change and its possibilities. Therefore, Dorothy creates a rich territory in which to communicate about women’s consciousness. Using narrative and far more than 140 characters, these novels convey a breadth of female experience and possibility more economically—and poetically—than the Twitter-verse, demonstrating that writing is so much more than a string of words.
Stacy Lathrop, MA, did her graduate studies in social sciences at the University of Chicago, her primary work focusing on social poetics, narrative, and the anthropology of policy. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area, and works in digital archiving and publishing.