In some fiction and poetry, style is all but indistinguishable from subject matter. That's especially true with experimental writing -- and it might be the best way to understand The Second Elizabeth, a new novella by local writer Karen Lillis from Six Gallery Press, a Pittsburgh-based indie.
Lillis, writing in the first person, tells the (perhaps at least semi-autobiographical) story of a young woman named Karen E. Lillis as she spends a summer working in a deli in small-town Charlottesville, Va., while reeling from the fallout from an unspecified personal trauma. Anxious, introverted and hard-pressed to communicate with others, including a gutsy co-worker named Beth, Karen longs to become the title character -- the more confident, more assertive person she used to be. "My meanings are trapped inside my body, I have a body which is a wall between the words I mean and the words I say," she says.
Lillis reads at 7 p.m. Mon., July. 23, as part of a free independent-press event at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2705 E. Carson St., South Side, 412-381-3600). What is most striking about The Second Elizabeth is the style, which reflects deep concern with the mystery and structure of language itself.
From Karen's opening contemplation of the words that constitute her name, and who chose them and why, the novella relies on the repetition of words and phrases that suggests both a kind of ritual (or magic incantation) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Contemplating her boot-damaged feet, Karen narrates, "I loved to watch the sores pus and bleed, I loved the pus and I loved the blood; and I wanted to watch the sores heal and bleed both, I wanted to heal them and admire the blood." At one point, Lillis starts 19 consecutive sentences with the phrase "I met Beth and I remembered ..."
Lillis is skillful writer, and rigorous about tone; you seldom feel she's being self-indulgent, though the thickness of the line between prose that's challenging and writing that tries your patience might vary depending on your mood.
Yet Lillis writes lyrically about such things as her story's grittily lush setting, and telling episodes from Karen's childhood. More importantly, Lillis' experiments in language yield results. Karen believes in the magic of names -- "[H]er name is in my middle name," she says of the lionized Beth -- and places so much faith in the significance of coincidences that it's a form of religious belief. Meanwhile, Lillis' daisy chains of sentences are guide ropes, of a kind, through such excursions as an exploration of the power of names. Karen's obsession about why people and places have the names they do reflects her own struggle to earn the right to rename herself.
In Karen's world, trees have language, rail lines carry messages as well as trains, and when she weeps instead of speaking, it expresses "an alphabet too anxious to become words." If Karen summarizes and resummarizes a set of facts, chants phrases, she is merely checking to make sure the words she used a moment earlier haven't fled of their own accord -- a necessary census in her reclamation project of the self.