Forget the rivers. Forget the blackberries that grow in clumps along the Snohomish River and the industrial tidal flats of the city and--if you can, if it's remotely possible--forget Mount Rainier, that often-invoked, deeply empty, rock-solid set piece: so heavy, obvious, overlarge. That kind of symbol--and that symbol in particular--you find again and again in the worst and most famous Northwest writing.
Out of convenience, I'm going to avoid the tricky and contentious task of defining "Northwest writing" and just say that there are certain kinds of books written these days in our admittedly metaphor-ripe part of the world that are serenely imagined and crisp and cloying, so beautifully done that--in spite of whatever gritty plot conflicts--they have a comforting or inspirational quality to them, in the way that Mount Rainier is vaguely inspirational; that exhaust themselves constructing amiable images over arresting ideas. "They're always trying to make a vivid sepia-toned dream in your mind," Matt Briggs said the other day during a conversation about several popular, uninteresting practitioners of Northwest writing. We were talking, specifically, about writers who write about the world with so much wonder and cinematic regard and so many soft, similar-sounding words that they handicap themselves from being able to venture into interesting territory. Two major clichés of Northwest fictional narratives are an authorial tone that is as languid and lazy as a rainy evening or as trite and bright and bloodless as a sunny day, but is in any case predicated on exterior mood instead of any convincing interior state; and a preponderance of weighty imagery related to the physical landscape.
Briggs dodges both. Lakes and rivers and mountains--all of which might be employed to provide the expressive thrust of a narrative--play such a passive role in Briggs' first book, misleadingly titled The Remains of River Names, that you hardly notice them. Briggs has an almost provocative lack of interest in the majesty of the Northwest. The landscape of the Northwest is ugly and fetid in The Remains of River Names: rotting logs, rancid swimming pools, crusted over mountains of creamy cattle shit. But more than that, the landscape is unimportant. What is most worth exploring in a good story is not what's happening out in the field through the kitchen window, but what is happening in the kitchen. It is an underhanded and brilliant snub to the way the Northwest has been marketed to us all that Briggs seems completely uninterested in fussing over what the landscape looks like or exploring what it means.
Briggs grew up in Everett and Renton and graduated from UW in 1995 with a BA in English (creative writing track). He works at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center on Lake Union and lives with his family in a house close enough to the airport that he can, in his words, "monitor the upkeep of the Alaska Airlines fleet." When I asked him why he sets his fiction in the Northwest, he said, without having to think about it, "It's where I'm from. It's where my parents are from." The characters in The Remains of River Names walk the streets of Everett and go to jail in Monroe and gorge on fried chicken and cases of Olympia beer, but these are just the trappings of the physical world Briggs happened to grow up in. His characters--his strange, specific humans--could be anywhere.
The Remains of River Names consists of eleven linked stories and is about, if it can be said to be "about" anything, entropy: the breakup of a marriage and the breakdown of a family. The characters are not defined by their geography relative to the rest of the world but by the space between themselves and others, which is a far more interesting (and difficult to render) set of coordinates. Briggs' characters are convincingly nuanced and emotionally defected, and he treats them not unlike the way Raymond Carver treated his characters: as fascinatingly, fleshy, flawed things, their minds marked by envy and emptiness. (According to Briggs, Carver's Where I'm Calling From was the first real book he ever read.) Briggs portrays his characters with affection and cruelty. His young women have floppy breasts that fall out of bras "like Slinkies" and his old women have jaw tissue that hangs in loose sacks "like sandwich bags filled with water" and his men have "mid-life bloat." As with his take on the Northwest--with so much local beauty to work with, Briggs sees mainly lakes of sewage and mildewy churches--Briggs, free to make any one of his characters beautiful, gives them all falling apart families and jiggling thighs.
"His work is dark, intelligent, and risky," Trisha Ready said recently. Ready is the programming manager at Richard Hugo House, a literary arts center where Briggs was recently made writer-in-residence. "He explores the strange territory of consciousness, through language, with all the generous curiosity of someone like William James," she said. "His writing makes me want to smoke."
Briggs' second and only other book--2003's Misplaced Alice, a collection of stories--is intelligent and risky in different ways. (His third book, Shoot the Buffalo, is forthcoming from Clear Cut Press; Matthew Stadler, Clear Cut's editor, described it to me as "a beautifully structured novel" of "elegance and clarity.") In The Remains of River Names, Briggs demonstrates a profound investment in the interiors of outwardly repulsive people, and in Misplaced Alice he demonstrates an uncommon interest in the possibilities of style. The Remains of River Names is full of taut but strangely expansive sentences--"The steps made a sound like they had just swallowed a bucket of fat" and "Their voices didn't carry but filled the bus with a murmur like a tree full of birds" and "Their hair caught the light like distant moons"--and, in Misplaced Alice, Briggs frees himself from his obligation to characters to focus on the verbal craft almost exclusively.
Misplaced Alice reinforces Briggs's debt to Carver, as well as to a range of jarring prose stylists both contemporary (like Gary Lutz and Ben Marcus) and classic (like Gertrude Stein; see Briggs' story "Beginning Bumping")--all of whom he admits to as influences. While somewhat drained of emotion--purposefully, you suspect--there isn't an uninteresting page in Misplaced Alice, and some of the experimentalism gives way to an understated, quiet brilliance. The third piece in the book, "Ida's Breakfast," is my favorite, and it is perhaps the most affecting single story Briggs has written. (His "Contagion," an unsettling piece about guilt and sickness and fatherhood that appeared in the local anthology The Rendezvous Reader, is also fine, but compared to "Ida's Breakfast" it's conventional and almost too clear.) "Ida's Breakfast" began, clearly, as an exercise in rhythm and sighing sounds, sounding initially not unlike Carver, and in the way that rhythm and the sound of words gives way to an emotional soundness, or at least a resounding emotion, the whole of "Ida's Breakfast" seems to grow out of the desultory opening lines: "Ida cooks bacon and it's good. Ida cooks eggs and they aren't as good as her bacon but they are good." A repetitive, almost lazy-seeming construction, but there is an emotion to the repetition and suddenly, as if by some unconscious logic, there is a story.
I don't know if it's because of the undulating rhythm or the simple but somehow overwhelming bleakness of the lives of Ida and her husband (the last line is offhanded and devastating), but "Ida's Breakfast"--where the achievement exists in the balance between the affectedness of the writing and the affect it has on you, between the surface of the sentence and the weight of what it contains--articulates something I can't describe in any other way. It's exciting. I can't start reading "Ida's Breakfast" and not, as if ineffably drawn, read it to the end. Briggs' enormous and uncommon talent is for crafting fiction technically bold and psychologically daring, highly styled and deeply human.