Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Patricia Eakins, The Hungry Girls and Other Stories (1989) and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste: Father and Mother, First and Last (1999)

I accidentally deleted this when I was purging the opera posts, so here it is back again.

OKAY, RIGHT. Books. They exist. When Tough Poets reissued Hungry Girls,, it included glowing blurbs from the likes of Robert Coover, comparing it to Borges and Calvino. You've gotta be at least a little curious.

And yes, it is a hell of a thing. It's hard to avoid making those exact comparisons, and then feeling a little hackish because you're doing what everyone else does, but there you have it. Clearly Eakins is not unfamiliar with either of them, but at the same time it somehow seems a little unfair; it undersells I think how startling and original what she's doing is. Each of these stories centers, more or less, around a particular unusual creature in a particular setting--nineteenth-century France, classical China or Arabia, Tibet, Inuit folklore--though fictionalized with real-sounding but made-up names, which contribute to the feel of unreality.

I feel reluctant to say more about it. There's no sense ruining the feeling of newness. In the conclusion, Paul Violi characterizes one of the stories thus: "'Oono' reads as if a documentary camera aimed at some Bering-Strait folk had focused on their collective unconscious and followed their beliefs into the cosmological realm." I don't know how I could better characterize it. Just trust me, okay? This stuff is worth seeking out, and although the original edition can still be found without too much trouble, Tough Poets did a great service in reprinting--especially because it includes a later story that wasn't in the original, along with a whole bunch of supplemental material--essays and interviews and whatnot.

So having read that, I wanted to follow-up with Eakins' novel, The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste. As you will immediately know from having read the anthology, this is a substantial expansion of one of the stories therein. The title character is a slave in a French colony in the West Indies. The original story focuses entirely on his life after he's escaped in a barrel and washed up on a deserted island, and the magical thing that happens to him there. The novel includes a whole bunch of material about his previous life as a slave, his experiences and acquaintances. It's written in some sort of approximation of eighteenth-century prose that may not be exactly accurate but which captures the feel quite well.

Look, Eakins obviously has massive talent. It's apparent on every page. And yet, I was significantly less taken with the novel than with the stories. I wonder whether my experience would have been different had I read the novel first, but I dunno. It actually reappropriates material from several of the stories, not just "Pierre Baptiste," and I think that highlights the problem: to me, they just aren't as effective in the context of a longer narrative. They work better as little individual dream fragments. Or so I think! And honestly, a lot of Pierre Baptiste felt like treading water, with a lot of incident that didn't add up to much. This may be realistic for a putative memoir of this nature, but as a novel, I didn't find it as compelling as I'd hoped to.

And that's it! This is the entirety of Eakins' output (aside from a textbook, Writing for Interior Design). She's still around--if you supported the Tough Poets kickstarter, you got a signed copy of the book--but she hasn't published any fiction since. You can read a bit about why in this interview--problems with alcohol among other things--but she says she's working on something new. I will one hundred percent buy whatever it turns out to be, but it's also the case that even if it should never happen, in some sense, that's okay--The Hungry Girls is an achievement that can easily stand on its own.


Blogger George Salis pontificated to the effect that...

Great write-up! And thanks for including a link to my interview with Patricia. : )

11:39 PM  

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