Pick of the Week » Pam Houston

Mon Nov 8 10, The Rumpus, Makeout Room

(E Karp)

Pam Houston reads some passages from her book Contents May Have Shifted, which consists of 144 very short chapters, of which 132 are named with a place, and the other 12 take place “no place, in the sky, on an airplane.” In an interview with Arizona State University, Houston says of the book: “It is kind of like a Rubix cube and kind of like a giant photo album, and also like a novel, with an arc and a payoff (I hope) and I am having more fun that I have ever had writing a book.”

“Meaning gets built associatively,” she says. “There’s very little that you’re going to be able to follow. At this stage.” This is true to some extent—I’m not sure what’s going on in the book, really, but the fact that Houston builds meaning associatively is apparent with each consecutive sentence.

Rather than make some form of statement or dwell on a situation, she has the skill of moving the narrative forward with a series of observations that relate by the very fact that they follow one another. Each sentence is presented so matter-of-factly that we are left to deduce for ourselves what the facts mean. She’s not going to tell us—that’s our job—humor and pathos are in the juxtaposition. I am always present; there is something so easy to follow about her writing.

I have excerpted two of the sections she read:

70. Denver, Colorado

This morning at Betsy’s house, the kid’s are playing “Would You Rather?” and Marla, whose weight is currently at the bottom of her 50 pound cycle and is therefore all cleavage and ponytails says, “Pam, would you rather look like you do now forever or get wise?”

“Get wise,” I say. “No-brainer.”

“What if you could look like you looked when you were 25 forever?”

“Same answer,” I say, and Marla narrows her eyes.

Rick always says, “You are so beautiful on the inside,” except when he says “You are so beautiful when I am inside you,” which Tammy tells me is even worse.

“Well,” says Marla, “what if you could have all the wisdom of a lifetime and still look like you looked when you were 25?”

“Or what?” I said.

“What what?” she says.

I say, “I thought we were playing “Would You Rather?”” She twists her head like a dog at a foghorn. “Marla,” I say. “You get the wisdom because you don’t look like you did when you were 25.”

She says, “You don’t understand the rules to this game.”

84. Calistoga, California

In the mud bath, there is a rococo-painted ceramic-style bust of a lady coming out of the wall with a garland of flowers and fruit on her head. The woman in charge of burying me alive is named Evelina. She is at least 85 and no more than 4 feet tall. She has a long gray and silver braid and the kind of laugh lines anybody would aspire to. When she holds my hand and walks me from the mud bath to the shower, and then again to the mineral clawfoot, I feel like a big pink giant beside her. When I get too hot in the mineral bath she comes and sprays icy water on my stomach with a sweet little gleam in her eye.

From the tub next to mine Cindy asks about Sophree, and I tell her we just found out she has talked Rick’s therapist into seeing her, and by ‘seeing’ Cindy thinks I mean ‘sleeping with,’ but after we get it clarified I say, “I’m not sure which would be worse.”

Last night, the adorable waiter at Mustard’s said, “Anything else I can do for you ladies,” and Cindy and Karen and I laughed and laughed like three old biddies who had been, for a few hours, let out of the home.

Last time I ate at Mustard’s was almost 20 years ago and I was having a passionate argument with Ron and Bob about whether epiphany was a language-based moment or if it occurred  essentially outside of language and we sat there for hours amidst the remains of organically-raised lamb spare ribs and crab chowder and glasses of big gorgeous wine and I thought, Wow I’m out with the big boys now.

A week ago at the ranch Madison woke me up at 4 in the morning. I was so sound asleep that she had to push and push and push on my back to rouse me. She said she couldn’t sleep and I know from experience what it is like to be 8 and not sleeping. I got up and we made cinnamon rolls from one of those fancy kits you buy at William Sonoma. I’m a good cook but I suck at following directions and I’ve never used a rolling pin in my life, so it took two and a half hours to get them to the point where they could even go in the oven, but that was OK because by the time they were baking the winter sun was coming over the mountain and we settled into the kitchen table for a Rat-A-Tat Cat marathon while they baked, and it occurred to me that maybe the real reason I haven’t wanted a child all these years is because when you hurt for them, when they are hurting, it’s the hardest hurting of all.

At lunch, at Sol Bar, our waitress says, “I’m sorry, we don’t have a separate menu that lists our non-alcoholic beverages, but if you would like me to I can verbalize.” After lunch the sun comes out and Cindy and I go for a drive down the Silverado Trail in her rented Mustang convertible. Jackson Browne is singing “The Fuse” and the vines are a month past their prime and backlit. I’m thinking about Bob’s reading, thinking about how the older we get the more we’re inclined to simply name the things of the world. A whole valley that smells of grapes fermenting in barrels; the taste of donut holes dipped in cafe anglais; a great blue heron standing on one foot at the rippling edge of a pond.

I get a text from my new friend Shannon saying half the department got arrested for protesting the tuition hikes and the police brought riot gear, helicopters, and dogs, and that she and Meredith, her new gorgeous blond Texas lawyer girlfriend were spending the night with them down at The Clink. The next text says, “Did you get a mud bath? Did Heather wear a mini-skirt?” These things matter too in this complicated world.

Next to the giant pool in Indian Springs the hot water crashes and crashes up from the ground forever, and during our midnight swim Tammy looks like a beetle on her back with about 17 water noodles sticking up from underneath her. “It sounds like a dragon,” Tammy says. “Like the dragon who lives at the center of the world.”

As Shannon wants to know about the mud bath and the mini-skirt, we understand that what matters is the facts, the knowing of what has happened around us. Maybe it’s because we are greedy for information; maybe it’s because we are constantly inundated with it in our modern “complicated world” that we are accustomed to gathering it without particular aim. The significance of events is often skewed for this reason. Houston does not skew them for us. I want to revert to another graph to illustrate this:

Last time I ate at Mustard’s was almost 20 years ago and I was having a passionate argument with Ron and Bob about whether epiphany was a language-based moment or if it occurred  essentially outside of language and we sat there for hours amidst the remains of organically-raised lamb spare ribs and crab chowder and glasses of big gorgeous wine and I thought, Wow I’m out with the big boys now.

  1. Epiphany is outside of language
  2. There is no punchline. Familiar? It just keeps happening. This is the type of graph that, if I had somehow managed to write it myself, I would certainly have edited; there’s no punchline, no commentary. Just an astoundingly clear series of images.

This coming week » Tomorrow Porchlight is doing a special show with Creativity Explored called “Don’t Call Me Retard“—should be amazing. Tickets here. If you don’t have the dough, I suggest you go over to Brainwash, as Mr. Charlie Getter will be featuring at their weekly open mic. On Tuesday, check out Word Party at Viracocha—some profresh open mic/jazz going on there every month—or, if you’re in the N Bay, Pints and Prose is featuring guest writers for the first time. Switchback releases their new issue on Thursday, the same day you can catch InsideStoryTime, and, perhaps best of all … you should check out this trilogy of plays that will be performed, one apiece, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Vira. I have heard they are brewing up many, many excellent things in that basement.

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