In “Ugly Ducks,” the story that opens Man’s Companions, a recent collection by Joanna Ruocco, a woman sits in a dentist’s waiting room and fumes. Another patient has entered the room, one whose flawless appearance feels like a rebuke to her own, ordinary looks. The story seems to be headed for social commentary—perhaps an altercation will expose the difficulty of living in the shadow of an unachievable paradigm of beauty, embodied here in the rival patient—but Ruocco delivers something stranger than banal moralizing. In the final paragraph, she steers the narrative into foreign territory, and the weirdness of her conclusion is doubled by her ability to meet and then flout expectations with a single gesture, offering up the anticipated feminist insights in the least predictable fashion. Ruocco writes:
The woman’s pantsuit is salmon or coral colored. Some people try to make themselves visible, and some people try to make themselves invisible. In the animal kingdom, females are usually invisible, dirt-colored, speckled things that resemble bogs, leaves, or scrubby bushes, background components. When you attract attention, this signals that you are expendable. You don’t have a uterus. You don’t have eggs to warm, or mouths to feed.
Writers often treat metaphors as ornaments that enrich, but remain subordinate to, narrative progression; Ruocco reverses this relationship. The tale is brief enough—and the conceit is powerful enough, with its arresting images and punchy, second-person generalizations—to elevate the pseudoscientific language of the “animal kingdom” above the story line, which is, on its own, little more than a sketch. The plot is only a springboard for Ruocco’s fearless tumble into the mire of metaphor. Here, in brackish waters where “females” cower under mud and leaves, Ruocco restores the power of a familiar critique by rendering it uncanny.
“Small Sharks,” the story that follows “Ugly Ducks,” shares with it a prefatory quality, so that the book’s first fictional forays constitute an overture to the rest of the collection. In “Small Sharks,” Ruocco suggests that readers are as responsible as writers for the successes and failures of literary art—a claim most often associated with lyric poetry rather than with fiction, and almost never with the sort of fiction at issue here: “genre fiction,” pulpy stuff to be passively consumed by the least sophisticated readers.
Ruocco’s story suggests a very different readerly reality. The narrator describes her husband’s frustration with a science fiction novel, parts of which he reads aloud, his voice sardonic as it underlines risible turns of phrase. She is bewildered by his derision. At the story’s end, he renders a final, dismissive judgment, but it is he who inadvertently receives the critical blow. “I can’t imagine it at all,” he says. “That is mostly what is wrong with this book.”
The narrator suffers from no such imaginative deficiency. The scantest knowledge of the novel, which describes the lives of “humans who are to repopulate Earth but for the time being live in an underwater colony off the Jersey Shore,” is all it takes to plunge her into the deepest reaches of a phantasmagoric ocean:
“I can imagine living underwater,” I say and it’s true that I have imagined the very thing. There would be round windows with a million tons of pitch-black water pressing against them and, occasionally, small sharks with light-producing organelles in their skin would pass back and forth, leaving milky streamers.
The image is a small triumph: it achieves that rare sort of waywardness that provokes thought as it departs from the everyday. Ruocco avoids self-conscious zaniness, offering a graceful invitation to an otherworldly seascape, which flows effortlessly from the story’s narrative momentum, the silence of the gliding creatures uninterrupted by bells or whistles. The passage is also metafictional without being obtrusive: “milky” white tracings on a “pitch-black” backdrop create a photonegative of the written page, which mirrors the narrator’s approach to interpretation: she places the novel’s contents under an unexpected, transformative light. The narrator outperforms her husband by allowing the novel to stimulate her imagination, and then allowing her imagination to abandon the novel. As the story would have it, literature, no matter the prestige of its niche, is always an occasion for the imagination’s tour de force.
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At this early stage in Ruocco’s career, she has already proved adept at digging this sort of narrative wormhole—to borrow a staple motif of science fiction. When you read her stories, you find yourself warped from one world to another, transported by the flight of her words between languages. The skewed realism of Man’s Companions arrived only a year after Ruocco’s debut novel, The Mothering Coven, which describes the efforts of a coven of witches to organize a 100th birthday party for the oldest among them, and which bears almost the exact same publication date as Ghazal in the Moonlight, written by Ruocco under the pseudonym Alessandra Shahbaz for Random House India’s Kama Kahani series of indigenous romance novels.
Discussions of the state of American literature are often polemics about the relative merits of realism and the experimental fringe, with writers who care about characters and stories pitted against those who care about the properties of language. But language is not merely a container: no author reshapes literary form without remolding her content as well, just as no author’s overriding interest in story absolves her of responsibility for constructing a form adequate to her subject. Ruocco spins unusual shapes out of language, but not because her interests are narrowly linguistic. By reshaping language, she redefines the world it conjures forth. Her fiction so often flirts with the fantastic perhaps because she understands that when language stops operating according to its ordinary rules, it creates an alternate reality, swerving away from what normally counts as “real.” Formal experiment yields science fiction.
Ruocco’s fictions seek collaborators as daring as the narrator of “Small Sharks”: when the narrative premise (the vector of tension between patients in a waiting room; the disharmony of a marriage, brought into focus by a bad novel) unexpectedly dissolves, dropping readers into aesthetic free fall, it’s up to them to alight nimbly and then find their footing in an exotic landscape. Their role is to explore a strange but coherent space that unfolds, without warning, into another one. Ruocco establishes our trust in her fictional worlds—they are rendered in detail and charged with emotion—but they open out, all of a sudden, into otherness.
Her stories sometimes resemble those of Donald Barthelme, and using Barthelme as a point of comparison reveals the distinctiveness of her work. In “White Buffalo,” she rewrites Barthelme’s “Me and Miss Mandible,” substituting a darkly drifting narrative for a cleverly coherent one. The titular “me” in Barthelme’s story is the adult narrator, who finds himself classified as a child by the elementary school where he is inexplicably enrolled. Ruocco replaces the over-mature student with a faculty that proves universally adolescent, but the crucial difference is one of structure. Despite Barthelme’s gonzo situation, his tone conveys an amiable knowingness that establishes cohesion, and the story follows through with its premise, pushing the narrator into a liaison with his teacher, Miss Mandible, that somehow exposes the ridiculousness of the circumstance without overturning it: she is “charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and the school continues to regard the narrator as a child.
Ruocco’s Ms. Mencken, on the other hand, seems a romance-starved teenager, her behavior matched by other faculty members’ age-inappropriate antics: “In your face,” thinks Vice Principal Klein after he races a teacher to the door at the end of a faculty meeting and beats him into the hallway; Señorita Flores perches on the arm of the couch in the teacher’s lounge and wonders aloud about a Spanish word for vagina before turning her leering, boy-crazy attention to a “muscular blond” workman at the recycling plant across the street, who has come into view through the window. The story slides into (humor-tinged) horror when Principal Baxter assaults Ms. Mencken, out of nowhere, in the school’s boiler room: “Principal Baxter charges down the steps; beneath his clothes, he is wrapped in garbage bags, black and heavy-duty. His eyes are fiery red as he barrels towards Ms. Mencken, snorting.” Ruocco’s premise remains in place, but it comes to include scraps of alien experience. The story does not depart, exactly, from either its setting or its cast of characters, but the school becomes a stage for unexpected and unsettling displays of libidinal aggression. Ruocco’s world is marbled with shadows.
To this, Barthelme enthusiasts will reply that kaleidoscopic fictions like “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” or “The Glass Mountain” are better candidates for comparison than this one. But that brand of witty bricolage is equally distant from Ruocco’s signature strategy. Barthelme assembles eclectic material in orderly arrangements; his fictions are Wunderkammern. Ruocco marvelously bridges distinct coherences; her stories are wrinkles in time.
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The Mothering Coven occupies a different galaxy in Ruocco’s wrinkled universe and also serves as an explanation of it. One of the novel’s first descriptive passages, which concerns the witches’ next-door neighbor, presents an image of a lettuce heart as a model of the universe:
Mr. Henderson takes the lettuce heart. He had always thought the physical universe had no shape at all, just a multi-directional nothingness with deep space objects floating around at varying speeds. He realizes that he has been ridiculous. All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once—of course, that’s what the physical universe looks like.
“Opening everywhere at once” is a good description of The Mothering Coven, which navigates the many, fantastical realities that crowd within the illusory unity of our universe. The passage’s combination of farcical humor and dead seriousness is also typical (recall Principal Baxter “wrapped in garbage bags”): Mr. Henderson’s belief that his failure to grasp the lettuce-like nature of the universe is “ridiculous” is itself ridiculous, but the image of the Lettuce Universe is not. The novel encompasses a multitude of worlds, its concision no obstacle to its holding capacity, since the latter depends not on mere size but on an endless series of folds, which language is no less capable of creating than is vegetation.
For Ruocco language is a multiplier of worlds. The novel is a laboratory in which she conducts experiments by combining languages and language-like systems—those that display both regulated coherence and infinite flexibility. When dialect resists absorption into a less specific language, it becomes a portal to an alternate reality—a place with rules of its own. The witches speak French, German, mock-Finnish and Spenserian English, and they juggle the terminology of non-Euclidean geometry, botany, culinary science, New Age spirituality and academic Marxism—to name only a few of the novel’s clashing idioms.
Ruocco’s coven is a counterproposal to language as a homogenizing force—to words that would flatten out the leaves of the lettuce heart or chop them into uniform, bite-size pieces. Ruocco’s feat is to show how esoteric vocabularies unfold hidden pockets of experience, and her success, she knows, depends on her reader. She has a habit of literalizing metaphor, materializing meaning and leaving it to her readers to parse the intersection of worlds linguistic and sensual. She writes:
The galaxy looks like the stringy tissue in egg whites.
“Chalazae,” sighs Agnes. A lovely word. Snow drifts across the yard, and the upper stories of the oak trees have whitened.
The simile conjures up a scientific term that few but one of Ruocco’s witches would know, which then transforms itself into a magic word, the scenery suddenly draped with the drifting whiteness of an egg’s “stringy tissue.” The chapter from which this passage is taken concludes with yet another abracadabra: “‘Snegurochka,’ whispers Agnes, just to see if something will happen.” When the incantation is Ruocco’s, something always does.