Matt Briggs' forthcoming collection of linked stories, The Remains of River Names, gets in the heads of four different people. These people all happen to be related, but informally so, and the casual relationship of the characters is reflected nicely in the casual relationship of the stories to the line of narrative. Remains of River Names is a book that presents itself without pretense, which makes its grounded intelligence and complexity of prose all the more impressive.
The stories open in the Snoqualmie River Valley, where Briggs himself grew up. Briggs currently lives in Seattle (he is soon to ship off to Johns Hopkins). He worked as the fiction editor at the Raven Chronicles, and curated an online discussion about Northwest writing in 1997 that knocked about veneration of "the great outdoors and rural scenes and wilderness survival and ranching and so on" versus "writing that charts the actual urban heart of the Northwest." It's not easy to tell which side of the argument Remains lands on, because while its principal interest seems to be the lives of the individuals in a transient hippie family, the usual wry urban psychology never surfaces on the page. Instead, objects and surroundings send back reports on the characters' real feelings -- even a "cherry 1967 Supersport Impala." At the very end, when one of the characters struggles with the inevitable erosion of life and relationships, Briggs breaks open images of nature to present the panorama of the future, in a truly beautiful and visceral passage.
In this way, Briggs' novel is reminiscent of short stories by Denis Johnson (an author he admires): the characters' self-reflection is so passive that their reaction to their environment seems almost hallucinogenic -- a contrast made more vivid, à la Johnson, by drug references. At one point, Janice, hippie mother of Milton and Dillon, takes her children and moves to a house in Eastern Washington, to escape her drug-dealing husband. She reflects: "Lying in the hot, loose soil in the middle of the pine forest I wished that I could just be one of the plants, fox-glove or a knot of yellow daisies. Dope... stripped me down to skin and nerves and all that mattered was the smooth texture of a glass window pane... all that mattered when I was stoned was the contrast between one moment and the next, the slippage of seconds, which normally trickled by as constant as a dripping faucet into a bathtub."
With this first collection that functions as a novel, Matt Briggs adds to the gravelly layers of "Northwest writing," while the controversy over what the moniker means must continue. The Remains of River Names is a beautiful, blunt, and haunting book, one that takes regionalism and splinters it; Briggs' is a voice that will take our area into the future, and I for one look forward to it.