WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

Anne Royston and Robert Glick

“The road down which the furies flew”:
a re/inter/view of Kind One and author Laird Hunt

Coffee House Press 2012
192 pages

1st ln change to: An investigation into a dark corner of history, a narrative that splinters and echoes, a structure at once fabular and recursive: all lead us into Laird Hunt’s new novel Kind One. Hunt’s exploration of slavery in the U.S., encompassing nonlinear time periods (clustered in the mid-nineteeth century and early twentieth), involves inevitable deconstructions of identity and power, revealing the ways in which each engenders the other in a construction we call history.

In a polyglossic spirit, we three collaborated on a re/inter/view of Kind One.

Much of the vocabulary in this novel is about shadows or ghosts. Seeking the “word to say what it was that befell us in that house in Kentucky,” main narrator Ginny concludes: “shadow is the word…Shadow” (23). Similarly, the living scar on Ginny’s ankle ghosts her father’s lame foot, and indeed she speaks early on of “ghosting along” behind her father on his walks (37).

Ghosting, however, feels part of a larger issue of contamination in Kind One. Moral contamination is perhaps the most striking, and those upon whom violence is done are contaminated by it, allowing them to return such violence as their own. So Ginny suffers under her husband’s Linus’s fists, which he also uses against their slave girls Cleome and Zinnia; she abuses them, abuses him, in turn; finally, she is abused by them. And a kind of ontological contamination also presents itself through the everpresent pigs, and Linus. On the farm where pigs ran rampant, “we ate pork morning, noon, and night,” Ginny tells us, and “what we didn’t eat we wore” (52). Linus and Ginny eat and wear and kill the pigs; Linus, eventually killed with a pig sticker, has become what he once consumed. Ginny’s position too is reversed as she lies shackled in the dirt and fantasizes a pig threatening to “get a big skillet and set the whole of you in it” (102). Ginny is the pig, “cooked” and “fed” euphemistically as the girls torture her.

Laird, how do you envision contamination functioning in the novel? Is it a virus or a symptom?

Like many children I believed that frightening books could hurt me if I held them or just looked at them, and since, starting fairly early, I did both, with horror/fantasy novels galore, I had from early on a belief that I had been contaminated, a contamination that I passed on to my younger cousin, by handing him copies of books that dealt with soul-eating swords and vampires and viral storms, but also by punching and tickling and breathing on him, and vice versa (he was often the one handing me books and punching me). Once I loaned a good friend who was both an experimental writer and a practicing Mormon (we are not talking about Evenson here) a copy of Naked Lunch and a few days later he asked me to remove it from his house, citing the presence of his toddler and infant daughters: he was afraid to have it near them, afraid their brand new eyes might light on it and be harmed. Which brings me to Hogg, by Samuel Delany, first loaned to me by Lewis Warsh, which is the book I could not bear, after a time, to have near me, by my head on the bedstand while I was sleeping, even though I am a devoted Delany man and rate Dhalgren one of the great 20th-century achievements in fiction. So we now have pigs (Hoggs) and books and the kind of murk that can come out of their forced collusion. Ginny’s books are burned by Linus Lancaster, she wants to burn the book she is writing, the “good book” is missing from the cabin that is not the mansion it was supposed to be and the pigs are running loose across the greensward. Chattel slavery is the “whole surround”, to borrow a phrase from C.D. Wright as quoted by Rosmarie Waldrop. And here we have tables turned and pigs turned loose.

I am being unfair to pigs incidentally. I lived for years in rural Indiana and know better than many that when treated well or, better, left to their own devices, they are smart and far from filthy, that they are themselves, untainted, that it is only our practices that contaminate them, make them smell. But the pigs in Kind One are pigs made out of language and language is the human-launched virus there is no vaccine for. Certainly there is no available vaccine in Kind One's pre-Civil War Kentucky. Out in the hinterlands. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In a place where books are few, where stories and shackles and pig stickers abound.

The violence that Ginny gives and is given, first as keeper and then as kept, is enacted at a structural level as well as described within the text. Ginny’s narrative tells first of her power, then of her victimization. Her narrative is superceded and silenced by Cleome and Zinnia’s stories, stories of victims who assume masterful positions. At the end of the novel, Zinnia returns the rest of the thread that saved Ginny’s life, symbolically relinquishing her power (and making story possible). The thread also returns the gift of its origin scene, an early moment of harmony and tentative friendship amongst the three women, to Ginny.

Thread also reminds us of history: the novel is one of thwarted lineages and inheritances (“kind” is defined by the OED as “natural, native; belonging to one by right of birth or inheritance”). Ginny, childless, is replaced by Cleome, who gives birth to Linus’s child; Cleome dies and her sister becomes the mother to Prosper. Ultimately Ginny’s child is the story she inscribes, which will be sent to Prosper, closing or completing the figure. Amongst these threads the uncanny Alcofibras, another slave on Linus’s homestead, bears a mysterious role as keeper of history. He has a hand in creating it, too, most chillingly when his story of the Draper Man materializes into his own death.

Laird, could you speak on how tropes of representing memory are presented and/or racialized in contemporary literature? How do you see this question explored in Kind One?

Robbe-Grillet’s 2001 novel Reprise (Repetition in English—an odd choice of title as the book is all about, precisely, reprise rather than repetition, ah well) features a gesture in which, in a Cold War world of spies and murder, one voice is brutally replaced by another. The first voice is “speaking” and suddenly that voice is cut off and another “speaks” for many pages in its place. The decisiveness of the gesture underscores the atmosphere of tentativeness, of unreliability, of uncertainty in the book’s sardonic pages. In Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, we encounter another version of this gesture—the über-erudite African American narrator of the novel creates a fictional gangsta persona who writes a book (called variously My Pafology and Fuck) that is included, in its entirety, in Erasure. The original narrator’s voice returns at the end of this intervention, and sees us to the end, as it were, but it has been weakened, undercut by its own willed transformation. The narrator both anticipates and preempts the violence of a culture that wants to hear “authentic” testimony of the “true” African American experience: ghetto life (very hard here not to hear Elvis singing “In the Ghetto” somewhere in the background). Doing so very nearly literally splits him in two. Kathy Acker was interested in exploring the ways that the world splits us into hundreds, if not thousands of pieces through its conscious and unconscious gestures of silencing and appropriation and erasure. Harriet Jacobs, whose voice in Incidents of a Life of a Slave Girl served as a model for Zinnia’s in Kind One, wrote her account in secret, in her own words, in her own way, after Harriet Beecher Stowe expressed interest in using Jacobs’s story in her own work. Meanwhile, in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, David Lynch explores fractured and fragmented narrative shards that infect but don’t explain each other. In Krapp’s Last Tape, Krapp and his tape recorder keep “telling” it again. And it/he is never the same.
Whereof, Kind One and the conjured and articulated memories that comprise it couldn’t help but be several. The story(ies) it contains couldn’t help shifting, interrupting and reshaping themselves. They all come out of the same [deep well] water. The hole one digs and that others come to die in. They are all voices speaking now about a variously apprehended then. It’s among the oldest predicaments. I’m deeply interested in gestures like, especially, Everett’s that both assert and assault the actual, the lived, as language always does, from the very beginning (see above).

To retell history is to regain the sense of a possible paradise. But it may also be to comprehend the simultaneous loss of possibilities, to acknowledge where roads were not taken. Perhaps it is the sense of many roads, of retelling itself, that compels. Again we come to multiplicities: even in writing, it is hard to avoid referring to “Ginny” and “the girls”, as if unable to separate “the girls” into two people, as if they pose a challenge in a [kind of?] Deleuzeian multiplicity. Kind one: the title, in encouraging singularity, feels deeply ironic not only in its investigation of “kindness” but also of “oneness”.

Laird, how do the frame structures—the nonlinear dates at the beginning of the sections reminding us of how this is written by its narrators—enable multiplicity? How do you see this in conjunction with history and narrative more generally?

It is very important to me that the voices in Kind One are ostensibly written voices, even if, in the language and mortar world of the novel, they can’t quite be: it doesn’t all add up, or at least not easily. To write anything — even and perhaps especially your own name (or your mark) — is to enter the space of fiction, a space where forgetting (and all the concomitant imaginative import and impulse) has equal standing with remembering. The trope of something having been “set down on paper” by a character or characters who couldn’t quite have pulled it off, much less have wanted to, is an old one, though not as old as the trope of according lengthy, literary speech to figures, historical or not, who may or may not have said anything like what they have ascribed to them. Herodotus gave that particular ball an early kick: his Histories are the most extraordinary amalgams of fact and fantasy, of research and invention. All of it grows up off the central rhizome of an impulse to apprehend a world caught in time, which won’t stop unfurling itself, with all the horror and wonder that presupposes. You evoke but don’t directly mention the Greek furies, the kindly ones, who haunt the pages of the novel. To say kind one in that context (and Ginny talks fury in her narrative) is to evoke the more-than-one of the ancient world. I’ve been to Delphi and seen the road down which the furies flew. The institution of ante-bellum chattel slavery in this country, which stretched over centuries, deployed tool after tool in its stunning arsenal to simplify, to depluralize, to de-rhizome, and so render mute. Any attempt to contend with that period, and its ongoing legacy, has to reckon with the horror of the attempts made to constrain, to simplify, to silence. To force minds and bodies through “the blood-stained gate”.