Rebecca Brown is very productive. Since beginning her career as a professional writer in the mid '80s, she has published 10 books of prose, with the 11th, The Last Time I Saw You, to be published this November by San Francisco's City Lights. The Gifts of the Body is her most famous work—it has been translated into seven languages and won several awards. Her most recent book, Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, which describes the passing of her mother, was published in the U.S. by the University of Wisconsin Press and in the UK by Granta. In 2001, Chicago's About Face Theater turned her early book The Terrible Girls into a play, and Seattle's New City Theater is about to premiere her original two-act play, The Toaster.
That is not all.
Brown has written for BetterBiscuitDance Company a beautiful libretto called The Onion Twins, and published two collaborations with painters—one of which, Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, has striking images by Nancy Kiefer. Her prose has appeared in Norton anthologies, small and prestigious literary journals, newspapers, magazines, and zines all over the country. Brown is a leading literary figure in the Pacific Northwest.
In the back of a charming Capitol Hill home, there is a charming, remodeled garage. It is in here, amongst shelved books, piled-up books, open books, statues of saints, puppets of 20th-century literary masters, twisted toys, paintings, and papers caught in the refracted light of a stained glass window, that Brown dreams and composes her books. She is in her late 40s, enjoys a huge fan base in Japan, and her partner bakes great cookies. For years and years, despite her publishing record, despite her talent, despite the influence she has exerted on local letters, Brown has been woefully underappreciated. Until recently, she received no grants from the state—indeed, she used to joke about how she was once asked to be a judge for a grant she had repeatedly applied for and failed to win.
But all of this is not very important. The reason why we are recognizing her as a genius is not because she needs more recognition, but for this reason alone: She is a great writer. This is why Dorothy Allison's otherwise wonderful praise of Brown's work rubs me the wrong way. Allison states: "I read everything Rebecca Brown writes, watch for her books, and hunt down her short stories. She is simply one of the best contemporary lesbian writers around..." What does it matter that Brown is a lesbian? Or even contemporary (if we want to get down to the heart of the matter)?
Brown's literary heroes come from other times, other countries, other social realities, races, and sexes. On the levels of language and imagination (the only levels of importance—in that order—when it comes to literature), Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett are Brown's ancestors. And so is Gertrude Stein—but not because Stein and Brown prefer women for partners, but because parts of Stein's style of writing can be found in parts of Brown's style of writing. In this artist statement, Brown says something that Stein might have said about her own creative process: "My work often begins with my hearing a sound, a phrase, a sentence. Often I don't know what this sound phrase sentence means. It has to go over and over in my head and then slowly it squeezes more words out and I am, fitfully, writing." Please note carefully: Brown begins with "a sound, a phrase, a sentence," and not, as all literary weaklings habitually do, with a country, a class, a sex. Indeed, if you receive a literary award because you come from a country, then the award is worth straw.
Here is why you should read Rebecca Brown: "The light in the room made things look purple or gray or maybe the things in the room were purple or gray or lavender or maybe it was the moon. She stood in the door of the room where one was not, where no one was except herself, so no one would know. Well, obviously they would know at some point, but they would not know all, not the really humiliating mortifying stuff and nothing would be known in time to do anything about it so she could do it. She looked at the room, at the window then, embarrassingly, out the window, at the moon." (Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig)
Here is another reason: "In the room was the doctor and nurse and Chris and my mother and me. Mom was sitting on the gurney and Chris was sitting behind her. Mom was leaning against Chris like she was the back of a chair. I was leaning against the wall. I was holding the notebook the nurses had suggested we keep. It had when and what my mother ate and if she could keep it down." (Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary)
And yet another reason: "I look down the edge of the cliff. Way down there so far I can hardly see, at the end of the air I will hurtle through at the end of my body's life, there is a river." (The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary)
What these passages have in common is a language that slips in and out of focus while its rhythm is sustained (the New York Times has called her writing "percussive"). When we write to transmit a message, we do our best to steer clear of the very things that Brown's prose purposely runs into—certain words in a certain order that produce disturbing and distorting echoes and phantoms. The direction of her sentence is never lost; Brown always arrives somewhere with certainty. But during the progress from A to B, the meaning of a word, or a set of words, multiplies and melts into a haunting haze.
For example, the last of those three passages listed above is, as a whole, clear, but also it is not so clear. It occurs near the end of her masterpiece The Dogs; the narrator has shot herself in the head, and is on the verge of falling through the air toward a river. "I look down the edge of the cliff," she says to us, "Way down there so far I can hardly see, at the end of the air I will hurtle through at the end of my body's life, there is a river." In this seemingly basic construction, the "so far" has the vibrating ghost of "as far as I can see," which means, "as much as I can understand." It also has the ghost of this expression: "As far as the eye can see." Here, eye and I blend to make one perfect, little freak. After the comma, we are hit by a supernatural tense leap ("at the end of the air I will hurtle through at the end of my body's life"); meaning dissolves during the course of the fall that simultaneously happens and is about to happen, and is only recovered by the river.
Along with these ghosts of time, tense, and meaning, there is the sheer poetry of phrases like, "The end of the air," and "my body's life." This type of language thrives in all of Rebecca's work and marks the very condition—the genius—of her literary imagination.