by Matt Briggs
(StringTown Press) $12
Fiction's most famous Alice does not get merely lost, she gets transformed. She is made bigger, smaller, rubbery, as she tussles with a nasty queen, a big-eared talking rodent, and a creepy little pair of egg-shaped twins. It only takes a rabbit hole or a looking glass or a potion to take her where, although disturbed, she is at least temporarily liberated from the world she and her maker, Lewis Carroll, had to live. There is no such escape for the Alice in the title story of Matt Briggs' new collection. The best this local Alice can expect is to be "misplaced."
And where this Alice is "misplaced" is not a city or even the great Pacific Northwest outdoors. It's the inside of a trunk. Here is the opening paragraph of the story "Misplaced Alice": "In the muddy yard, without his shirt on, father beats the rugs with an old ax handle (she) sometimes uses to spank my brother. Mother packs the blankets into the biggest trunk and I help her lay mothballs between the folds. She hands me the crinkly plastic. The mothballs burn my nose. No wonder they kill moths. In the trunk, the blankets block out the sky as they slide around me. Father huffs. The whack of the ax handle on an old rug snaps so loud, I bet, that if a person walked through the trees to the road and lay in the pasture where Bunyan and I have our secret base, that person could still hear the snap."
Alice, like many of the characters in this collection of 17 very short stories, lives in an eerie Northwest similar to that which Briggs explored in his previous novel-in-stories, The Remains of River Names (Black Heron, 2000). This Northwest includes an outdoors landscape of beat-up, moss-covered tin roofs and rotting, fleshy undersides of logs. It is an urban landscape of unemployed guys hanging around the Millionair Club hoping for a day job and teenagers hauling old mattresses off the street into abandoned buildings they try to turn into homes.
In addition to his realistic settings, Briggs investigates something that's utterly amorphous. In "Seattle Is a Vortex," a talk he delivered at the Hugo House in 2000 (reprinted in The Raven Chronicles, vol. 10., no. 1), Briggs said this: "A hundred and fifty years ago (a catnap in the life of most cities) Seattle didn't exist at all. The shock of Seattle's instant architecture makes me keenly aware that all of this asphalt, concrete, steel is just a by-product of something else."
As accurate as Briggs' realistic settings are, it is this amorphous "something else" seeping through his new book that makes it seem so "Northwest" to me. These are stories about different kinds of misplacement, like the sense you get after you have come west to the end of the country and know there is nowhere further left to go. In "Rita," a couple who lives in an apartment in a city gets a pet, "a little monkey that would fit in a large bird cage." A monkey doesn't belong in a bird cage any more than it belongs in an apartment in the city. But the couple is trying to make something fit (a monkey for a child...) and of course things turn out badly.
In "Beginning Bumping," a person walks around the reservoir on Capitol Hill: "I'm between the ground which is darkness and the bumping sun which is a light and I stop the bumping with my face and my hands and my wool sweater that scratches my neck. My skin, with its little hairs and blood feels the bumping sub-atomic bits brush up against it and everything seems warm; and then a single link of the fence is between me and the bumping and then the bumping isn't bumping my skin which is to say no bumping, then bumping, then no, then bumping no bumping no bumping no bumping no bumping...." Here Briggs reduces/expands the most banal action--running your hand along a chain link fence--into a riff on metaphysics.
In his essay "Seattle Is Vortex" Briggs also says, "Seattle is an energy and not a geography." His newest book continues to explore the psychic landscape of characters misplaced here in our evolving, strange Northwest.