It is not an easy thing to interview Stacey Levine. Like her fiction, Levine requires your full concentration and effort to uncover the great worth hidden within. Her personal stories have a halting gait—this is a writer who titled a novel after a character whose name, Dra—, is cut short by a pause—as though she's afraid to reveal too much.
But Levine is a gracious hostess. The bookshelves in her apartment have a snaggletoothed charm, with books going every which way, and the subtle lines in the carpet reveal that she's recently vacuumed. She's made tea and chicken-salad sandwiches, cutting the food into tiny little triangles. "I've noticed when you're making soup and you're chopping vegetables," she says, carving the sandwiches into sharp points, "and you make things really small, when you chop them into tiny little pieces, it makes them taste better." She wants to make sure I'm comfortable, but she clearly isn't. When I turn on the audio recorder, she moans.
Jokingly, I ask her the most hackneyed question I can think of: Where do you get your ideas? "It's personal," she says, and we sit in uncomfortable silence for a minute. I can't tell if she's joking. Throughout the afternoon, Levine makes tiny attacks against the tape recorder. She tosses a paper plate toward me, and it smacks into the device. She turns on the radio. She wanders around her apartment, trying to pull her voice away from the vacuum created by the tiny holes of the microphone. The recorder's red "on" light stops her midsentence. "I forgot I was being recorded!" she says and clams up, unable to finish her thought. She does this twice.
Silence and interruptions are themes in her career. Over the past 15 years, she has built a small but thoughtful body of work including two novels, two collections of short stories, a play, a radio script, a puppet opera, and a split 7-inch she recorded with Peter Toliver for Kill Rock Stars as the second volume of their Wordcore series (batting cleanup for Kathleen Hannah). But over half of Levine's published fiction has disappeared from bookstore shelves.
One of Levine's novels, Frances Johnson, was published by the ill-fated Clear Cut Press, which collapsed under its own weight soon after being born three years ago. Dra— was published by the dearly departed Sun & Moon Press, along with My Horse and Other Stories, Levine's debut collection that won the PEN West fiction prize in 1994. Her most recent collection of short stories, The Girl with Brown Fur, dangled for nine months in a strange, half-published limbo as she waited in vain for its publisher, MacAdam/Cage, to dig itself out of a dark financial pit. Last week, she severed ties with MacAdam/Cage, and "another, more conventional indie press on the East Coast" has expressed interest in republishing it (in a way, republishing it for the first time) sometime next year. In the interim, a bootleg edition of The Girl with Brown Fur is available from Matthew Stadler's Publication Studio in independent bookstores. Green Integer press will republish Dra— in the next few months, making it the only officially published Stacey Levine book available for the next year or so.
Levine's writing is elusive in more ways than one. It doesn't lend itself to casual reading and is incompatible with multitasking—snacking, for instance—or the distraction of a nearby television or radio. Her sentences are careful and beautiful, and the narratives answer only to their own internal logic.
In her story "Small," a tiny man puts enormous objects, like logs and furniture, inside himself. "He put so much inside: oh how he kept pushing it in." A "little mother" cares for the small man. He makes piles of things to go inside him, and she inspects them to make sure they are safe. The small man becomes sick and sore with "trouble" after putting too much inside himself. Soon after the "little mother" helps him feel better, he "ruins" her with a brick and becomes a judge. The story ends with a sentence dangling above a chasm of white space: "I met him about that time."
Much of her work sounds like something that has been translated into English from another language, with odd words and phrases. On one page, chosen at random from Brown Fur, the narrator references a girl's "pencilly bones, her underweight, her underbuilt nose" and how "she was eating at an apple, leaving weird, cubic dental imprints in its core." The strange rhythms of the sentence—the "underweight" without any noun to moor it, making the modifier its own subject, the unnecessary but transformative "at" after "eating"—sound like something new, the alien cadences of someone who doesn't accept the received wisdom of how language is supposed to sound.
Levine's sense of colloquial, everyday language has a squirming dark side. "I get creeped out by men who have women's first names as last names," she says. "It's just really disgusting to me. I used to go ballistic" when confronted by those names. She based a recent story, "The Danas," on this revulsion. It's about Mike and Tina Dana, a married couple who make their eldest children mate to provide them with grandchildren. Levine says some of her students at Seattle Central Community College were displeased with the incest, which puzzled her. "It's not incest, exactly. It's an exaggeration. It's a humorous way to show how people do power on each other."
Levine is also fascinated by medical narratives and physical frailty. Illnesses and ailments plague her fiction like a particularly mean book of the Bible. She has a cat named Mars with an inner-ear infection that causes him to stagger about her apartment like a drunken sailor. When I compliment a fish in her aquarium, Levine says: "See his stomach? He has a huge tumor." All the other fish have died, she adds. For about a month in the early '90s, Levine wore a bike helmet everywhere she went. People assumed she was afraid of brain injury. "I was a weird girl," she says, shaking her head. Levine worked at an emergency room as an admissions clerk for a few years. "There's a lot of drama going on in an ER. People are always crying. They often get better really soon, but it's a big scene."
When I point out the paternal dynamic between doctors and patients, that medical relationships are generally people "doing power on each other," Levine lights up: "I really want you to understand. I don't know if I can make you understand. I feel like I may have made you understand a little more. It's hard to communicate an inner world."
Why does she couch her stories in code? "Because it wouldn't mean anything to say outright: 'He was feeling really anxious because he had always been criticized by his father,'" she says. "But it does mean something for me to tell how that would feel, to try to share that experience in a new way."
Levine's stories hum with the power of weird old fairy tales that haven't been dulled by years of retelling, with their endlessly long hospital tunnels and subbasements populated by people who have been crushed into sad submission, where a young man named Milk Boy (because "he was just like milk: thin, rushing everywhere, tinged with blue") wants to be strong and brave but realizes it would be easier to disappear, and a man named Pat Smash murders a family of unwanted house guests who just wouldn't leave.
She handles language with a poet's inventiveness and precision. In an age when authors are praised for turning complex ideas into something simple and glossy, Levine hides the real beauty of her stories beneath gnarled folds of gorgeous, sometimes willfully obtuse language. Half the pleasure is earned from investing time and energy in the reading, and the other half is in discovering the humanity that was waiting there all along, dying to be discovered.