What to make of The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press), a debut novel by Selah Saterstrom? For starters, some guesses:
It is a brief look at a long line of Mississippians who are gun-crazy, alcoholic, child-raping madmen stuck with their shell-shocked wives in some ramshackle neverland known as the post-Civil War South.
It is a fragmented, free-associative family history collapsed into a scattering of whole or half sentences better suited for psychoanalysis.
It comes with out-of-focus photos that illustrate nothing.
It is impossible to stomach.
For a taste and a quote, see page 117: "Food is what you put in your mouth. You put it in your mouth. The rubber slide hidden in glossy food. And God is food. Red velvet cakes stacked in a corner of a decaying house. Pork, too. Which is fatbread saturated with rancid."
For a stab at explanation, another quote, this time from the author herself in the book's press release: "[B]locks of justified text offer a stable shape and a stable shape can hold a lot of unstable content. But there is also a relationship suggested -- that how something appears is not how it is. The negative space around words is also important. It genuflects to decay and silence, which are also languages."
Fair warning then: Saterstrom, who teaches at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, is now working on a book that "has to do with an obsession with Rembrandt's painting of the slaughtered ox."
Selah Saterstrom reads from and signs copies of The Pink Institution at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, May 20th, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
You're a writer, maybe a famous one. What's the worst that can happen?
You're on a cross-country reading tour before audiences that consistently number in the single digits. (The case with Rick Moody.) You interview your music hero, Mark E. Smith, founder of the band the Fall, and you come off sounding like Wilfrid Hyde-White questioning Eminem. (The case with Michael Bracewell.) Your wife mistakes you for a newspaper's picture of Jeanette Winterson, so you are not one of Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists" in 2002. (The case with Rupert Thomson.) You're at the end of a reading and an audience member asks, "Why are you so bitter?" (The case with Michael Longley.) You're at the end of a reading and you overhear an audience member declare, "Edna O'Brien writes for servants, everyone knows that." (The case with Edna O'Brien.) You're on TV in Cleveland and you're asked to endorse Shake 'n' Vac carpet cleaner. (The case with William Boyd.) You've been meditating on the hairiness of Norman Mailer's ass, then Mailer thinks your new book, The South, is called The Outh and you idiotically try to correct him. (The case with Colm Tóibín.) And worst-case scenario, you're home after a reading, after a lot of drinks and a lot of coke, and a houseguest the next morning catches you on the bathroom floor masturbating. (The case with Niall Griffiths.)
For this and more for your edification, see Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, edited by Robin Robertson and brought to you by Fourth Estate publishing. The authors here are mostly English or Irish and may be new to you. But now you know: Humiliation knows no bounds or nationality. Happy schadenfreude!
History lesson: Leave it to the French to raise bloodshed to high fashion -- a reference to the "new look" in Paris after the Revolution when a red ribbon necklace signified that you were a blueblood who'd escaped the blade of a guillotine.
Josephine Bonaparte wasn't born a blueblood. She was, however, rich, a Creole raised on a slaveholding sugar plantation in the Caribbean. But she got in good with the aristos once she moved to Paris at 15, soon married one of them, then caught the eye of and married you know who. It's an old story. It's also a great story as told by Andrea Stuart in The Rose of Martinique: The Life of Napoleon's Josephine (Grove Press), and it brings fresh insight into just what influence Josephine enjoyed. Or didn't enjoy as a prisoner during the Terror. As a tastemaker and partner to Napoleon's unstoppable ambition, though, she was tailor-made. No wonder John Galliano based his first collection on her bosom-baring décolletage.
For Mother's Day and Memorial Day, see Memphian Emily Yellin's Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (Free Press). For more on the book and on the author, see Memphis magazine for May.