Frances Johnson is under siege—a siege that no one in her tiny Florida town will acknowledge, a siege of which she herself is only dimly aware. For Frances, even the simplest question spirals into a litany of other, more existential queries: Should she go to the town dance? What will people think if she does? If she doesn't? What kind of a woman is she? Is she a woman, or a little girl?
Frances, in Stacey Levine's new novel, Frances Johnson, is 38, but in the collective eyes of Munson, her town, she might as well be toting a Teen Beat magazine in the basket of the bicycle she rides around town. Frances almost seems to get younger as the book progresses, through the constant infantilizing she faces from her fellow townspeople. Frances goes from being a coffee-swilling pill-popping Plath heroine to a young girl mocked as "Missy" by the jocular diner owner, and finally to an errant daughter reprimanded sharply by her mother for agreeing to take on an errand for a man: "You know what everyone will think"—remonstrates Frances's mother—"They'll think that you're his mistress!" Strange as it may seem, this statement makes complete sense to Frances, who beats herself with the heel of her hand in shame, revealing how Frances has internalized the town's attitudes (fear of the unknown, xenophobia, strange sexual mores, standard small-town stuff). Frances is constantly under scrutiny, with the rest of the town acting in what they seem to believe is her best interest. Frances's beau, Ray, is seen by the town as an inappropriate match for Frances; in fact, Ray himself seems to believe that he's not good enough for Frances, offering to step out of the way when the handsome new doctor comes to town. Frances's decision-making agency is aborted at every turn, often before the choice even presents itself. When Ray tells Frances about Mark Carol, the handsome doctor the town has seemingly chosen as Ray's replacement, Frances notes that "a weight in Ray's voice caused her to feel that the strange man was inevitable, and that the uttering of his name made him part of her."
And what does Frances Johnson think of all this? Riding her bicycle through town in ever-tightening circles, Frances longs to leave Munson, but is also terrified of what lies beyond its borders. She recognizes that while she can leave the town behind, she is as much a part of Munson as it is of her. She worries to her friend Nancy, "Do you think when I leave Munson, the rules inside me will fade? I doubt it!" Frances is unable—or unwilling—to make choices that will indicate what kind of a person she is. Having an identity that has been determined for her for so long, Frances is unsure if "it was the idea of leaving Munson that disturbed her, or virtually any decisive act at all." In the great postmodernist tradition, Frances Johnson is an un-character, one that is acted upon instead of an actor in her own story. "I have no frame," muses Frances, and indeed she does not, either in her own story or the one we are reading. The action in the book moves from one place to another with a fuzzy, dream-like logic: Frances drifts from place to place, following every white rabbit and emerging in endless, strange tableaux—in the kitchen of a greasy spoon, at a changing shack, underneath the dance looking up through a glass ceiling/floor. There is little connection between any of Frances's peregrinations except the trail of words on the page, something which may delight certain readers but served only to frustrate plot-loving yours truly.
Honestly, twice through the book I'm still unsure if it's brilliant or gibberish. I appreciate the dreamy, enclosed space of the novel, and the actual physical size of the book itself—reflective of Frances Johnson's life in Munson, it is petite, easily contained/concealed in pocket or purse, bound with a built-in cherry- (or blood-) red bookmark. I'm not sure, I guess, about calling this a novel; while the cover of the book declares it so, the reading experience is more of a long short story. The action all takes place over two days, and it can easily be read in a long afternoon—preferably a long, gray afternoon, read on a narrow bed under harsh light. The book put me in mind of nothing so much as Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, another strange, sad, short book, featuring a cast of disconnected, idiosyncratic characters and a stifling setting. But while The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is, well, sad, Frances Johnson is also very funny, in a way that is totally nonsensical taken out of context; a unity of form that is impressive, to say the least. All these things tell me the book should be great, but it is hard to sympathize with Frances the un-character, Frances under siege, who ends the book not by making a decision, but by letting the decision make itself—"letting go," says Ray. (What decision? Take your pick.) The book ends basically where it began, making Frances—and the reader—wonder: What happened here? What happens next?
Stacey Levine reads at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333) on Tues Nov 22 at 7 pm, and it's free.