The State of Kansas by Julianna Spallholz
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter
GenPop Books, 2012
Perfect bound, 100 pp., $16
Kansas is a state of mind, a state of being, as much as a physical location for Julianna Spallholz’s characters. There are many meaningful similarities between the real and perceived state, of course, mostly a flatness that stretches to unreachable horizons; likewise, her characters tend to perceive their lives as flat, directionless, and hopeless.
In “Pretend,” Spallholz explores life in this environment: “Pretend that the bathroom floor needs scrubbing,” she begins. Every aspect of this 20-something’s life is something to be “pretended” in this list-style flash piece. “Pretend to look forward to sitcoms. Pretend to look forward to anything,” she says, later, on the same page. Sex, love, spirituality: all are something to be faked. But what is the source of this emptiness; why doesn’t the narrator genuinely enjoy anything?
In “Men,” Spallholz describes a young woman who goes with her boyfriend to visit the boyfriend’s brother “in a bad part of town.” There is a group of men who watch a movie, shirtless, drinking beer from cans. The environment of the room grows increasingly hostile to the woman, aside from the unsavoriness of it in aesthetic terms, as the boyfriend’s brother tries to shock and intimidate the young woman, at one point by pulling a gun on her. The story is an interesting snapshot of gender roles as the men try to conquer this young woman in their strange attempt at a mating ritual. Spallholz has crafted something approaching a horror story.
The title story is about a woman and her daughter who are learning the states. Her daughter says she knows the names, but not where the states go. “I have several copies of a blank map to test myself,” the mother says. “I fill in the states by heart. Yesterday I got all the states but one. The state I forgot was the state of Kansas.” As they discuss the names and placement of the states, the fact of the abstraction of these states becomes apparent; these are just names and spaces on a map. The girl quips that after she learns the states, she “could do the rest of the continent and then the whole hemisphere. Hell, maybe I could do the world!” Her mother reins her in, though. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she says. In this simple portrait, Spallholz implies something about the limiting nature of some relationships; the mother doesn’t encourage her daughter to push on; she says, instead, to be happy with lesser goals.
“The White Cat” is a story about regret, about the realization that we don’t always live up to our own expectations of ourselves. A woman encounters a dying cat on the side of the road. She pulls over and watches it, in her headlights. Later, she goes to a friend’s party but doesn’t enjoy herself because she’s thinking about the cat, about the fact that she didn’t get out of her car and go to it or try to comfort it in any meaningful way. Partly, this was because she didn’t want to face the uncomfortable-ness of the situation. Partly, it was because she felt it would be a futile act. Here, we’re starting to get to the answer of the question Spallholz raised. If this character had taken advantage of the opportunity to genuinely comfort and bond with the animal, if the character had risen from her own concerns and taken part in the world, would she have been saved from her spiritual emptiness? She did more than anyone else. It would’ve only taken a moment to go and comfort the animal, and clearly it was something she cared about because she is obsessed with the idea of it throughout the rest of the evening. But this would’ve broken with propriety. In the end, she punishes herself for the impulse to be engaged with the world and to follow her concerns.
Spallholz’s prose is clear and straightforward. Her stories are well-constructed; she plays with form in some of the pieces, but never loses clarity. Her characters are complex. She resists simple storylines and familiar resolutions. The collection also includes illustrations throughout, mostly sketches, which add to the feel of the book.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
it is true you have all my money from jillian mukavetz on Vimeo.
Music credits: Matthew Peven on guitar.
BIO: Jillian Mukavetz is a poet, artist, musician, founder, and editor of womens quarterly conversation. She received her MFA from New England College. Her poems and photography have appeared in delirious hem, Barnstorm, Otoliths, thirteen myna birds, ditch, Poets and Artists, and Moria among other publications. Her cinepoem “sucks her” was screened at the 2011 cinepoetry festival at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and published in Prick of the Spindle. She has performed fiddle with Ambrose Bye and Anne Waldman in addition to Eleni Sikelianos. She has a chapbook forthcoming in spring of 2013 from Dancing Girl Press. Jillian currently lives in Seongnam, South Korea.