The book is related to what Ben Marcus calls Gary Lutz’s “plastic art” of writing sentences. By this, I take Marcus to mean that a prose sentence can have a shape like an object such as a Coke bottle, coat hanger, or turnstile. Raffel, like Lutz, writes sentences that balance between serving the function of fiction to represent action, character, and place and the existence of these figures in words. “Inside was warm,” Raffel writes in “The Trick.” “No draft blew in. The bird in the clock plucked the accurate time.”
The qualities of her sentences — the order of words, the repetition of sounds within and between words, and the words she has chosen — have been tuned to their function within the story. Sometimes, in fact, the necessity to find the perfect word forces Raffell like a person solving a crossword puzzle to dig into old dictionaries and rules of word formation. In a monster run-on sentence describing the actions of a suburban neighborhood in “The Other R’s,” Raffel writes, “…children: G’s, J’s, us–C and DR, clovering and fighting and whuffing picky milky balls of weed off weeds…”
Whuffing? Whuffing is a fantastic word that doesn’t appear in most dictionaries. I had to turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to find it. I also found this discussion on whuffing in regard to woodstoves:
When this pocket of air hits the fire, a mini-explosion occurs, and the resulting sudden extreme pressurization inside the firebox forces smoke out through the draft control, door gasketing and other tiny openings that exist in even the most “airtight” woodstoves. This brief period of pressurization is followed immediately by extreme depressurization (because the explosion consumes all the available oxygen in the firebox), and another gulp of air can be pulled down the chimney, causing the process to repeat. We call this “whuffing”, due to the accompanying sound of muffled explosions.
The OED agrees with this usage as well, “To make a sound as of a forcible blast of breath or wind; trans. to utter with such a sound. Also as int. imitating such a sound.” It is the perfect word for blowing dandelion seed.
Fine, Raffel is handy with a phrase, but what is Raffel’s book about? I remember when I first started studying creative writing and someone would ask me what my stories were about that I would think this was a gauche question. I couldn’t answer the question. Well, then tell me the story, they would insist. I couldn’t tell them either. I thought my stories could be about anything because they were writing. I considered my stories distilled art like distilled spirits. Did it matter that vodka came from potatoes? This ended up being a kind of stupid way of going about writing and I thankfully gave it up because I couldn’t just write about anything. I had to write about something. Raffel here could actually be writing about nearly any subject and the subject would be transformed into a Raffel-style story. Would it matter if her stories were made from potatoes? But she isn’t just writing about anything. She is writing about lower-middle-class people in the Midwest. These are people in their homes struggling through winters, rainstorms, and accidental death and separation. Her book is about rules being set and rules being broken.
Each story is a feat of prose style, too. They accomplish the improbable task of discovering a way of writing something that matches her subject. She uses sentence fragments and run-ons. She omits names, preferring sometimes pronouns, letters, and generic names like Mother and Father. She uses lists. One narrator writes:
I was the kind of girl to write lists:
Hook, I think.
Peau de soie.
In the night, on the skin, erasable, rinsable. Or only in the skull.
While related to the plastic sentences of Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way, In the Year of Long Division seems more like pointillism. Raffel draws connect-the-dot pictures in words.
Rediscovered Reading is a regular series in which Matt Briggs reviews overlooked collections of short fiction. Matt is the author of Shoot the Buffalo and other books. He blogs at mattbriggs.wordpress.com.