Stephen Wright's Going
Native swallows up reader and characters alike in a deluge
of metaphor which debunks all attempts at ready-made epiphanies
of intense emotion, the kind we've had so many of in recent years.
One character is so alienated that she can only repeat the sentimental
pseudo-poetry of the world of romance she would like to inhabit:
by Stephen Wright
Her dream name was Melissa. She lived in
Chicago, or sleep's facsimile of that mythic city, under the
haunted arrogance of its towers, in a shadowy winter light of
alienated intimacy. (155)
The irony of this intrinsically ironic voice is
that it manages to resonate with genuine poetry in the midst of
and from within the gluey, sticky, set images it sets out to expose.
Native, the story of a serial killer, is written mainly
from the victims' perspective, each chapter dealing with a new
set of characters in a new situation. The thread running from
one chapter to the next is the discreet presence, or shadow, of
Wylie, the killer, whose gray eyes and clothes are recognizable
only as clues or vague details. Not only does his character evolve
in a world of artifice, but the whole writing is saturated with
references to television series, movies, and other media. Every
scene seems to duplicate a mediated vision through camcorders
and other means of presenting second-hand perception and a growing
sense of alienation from the real. The blurred vision of intoxicated
characters, high on crack, paranoid, suffering from an inflated
ego, is described in highly metaphoric language which conveys
the depth of the characters' entanglement in the world of artifact
and their ever-increasing estrangement from a direct perception
It is remarkable how Wright's novel retrieves
a sense of deep poetry and communion with nature from within the
chaos of the characters' lives. Even Drake, playing the role of
a Conrad character in the Borneo jungle impersonating Bogart
from "The African Queen" even as his wife impersonates
Katharine Hepburn recognizes a moment of natural beauty
when he sees one:
When he turned, he saw that the entire back
of her damp blouse from neck to waist was covered in a rich
swarm of salt-hungry butterflies, a soft breathing coat of such
intense color it seemed about to erupt into fiery applause.
He didn't speak. He didn't move. The moment a web of frail strands
he didn't dare break. It was possible to believe that beauty
was a reciprocal of love and that nature bore no wiles. Then
his unknowing wife straightened up, the butterflies scattered
like scraps of torn paper, and everything returned to how it
was before only different. (232)
The "fiery applause" constantly imagined
by Drake or Amanda, his wife, shows how any scene is in danger
of becoming a show, set up for an audience. Beauty itself is in
danger of becoming commonplace through the sheer pressure of repetition.
The narrator marks a pause in two short sentences ("He didn't
speak. He didn't move.") to emphasize the fragility of the
moment in resistance to simulacrum. The "scraps of torn paper"
recall the scenario Amanda loses in the wind on her boat ride
into the jungle. You who enter here lose all Hollywood pretensions,
lose the habit of seeing yourself as acting out the script of
a life preconceived by some giant producer. And yet Wright's
poetry of immanence is not a naive return to innocence; the presence
of the serial killer is made palpable in the expression "nature
bore no wiles," which echoes the name "Wylie."
In spite of the danger Wylie's shadow or masked name represents,
a moment of beauty has been salvaged from the general chaos.
The narrative voice loses its irony and its derogatory
edge in such moments; a direct perception of the physical world
is conveyed in a prose which translates something of the truth
the characters try to grasp. In Chapter Six, for example, Jessie,
who is often mired in clichés, leaves them when she touches
her children's toys for comfort:
She found refuge in the kids' room, on the
edge of Cammie's bed, in the furry maternal softness of Mister
Mac the talking bear, the sunny unambiguous cheer of the furnishings,
an all-enveloping baking-bread aroma of small children, the
consolation of domestic detail, neglected crannies where grace
dwelt, as crisis proved time and time again, the moment when
Garrett first struck her as tangibly present as the baby blue
rocking chair in which she sang Bas to sleep on nights of fear
for both mother and son. (192-3)
This long sentence, devoid of irony, shows empathy
for the character in a discreet appositive structure which proceeds
through accumulation. The word soft marks a harmonious
sensory perception by the character of her surroundings, as she
touches "the furry maternal softness" of the teddy bear.
In just this way, Drake almost touched his wife's back with his
gaze, as the butterflies made "a soft breathing coat"
on her blouse.
Physical contact establishes a direct apprehension
of the world, as opposed to the mediated transmission of a television
screen. And yet, strikingly, Wright uses the metaphor of television
waves to express the vibrations of nature, its "humming"
and breathing reality:
Under his hand he could feel the pine humming,
the tended machinery of the nonhuman world. Down below, the
broken voice of an unseen creek, the rubbing of the wind against
the firs. The sun was high and round, emitting a rain of perfect
The metaphor of the machine which "emits"
light paradoxically gives a voice to the part of nature which
most escapes our human grasp. The word humming is often
used to relate television vibrations and waves to the rustling
of nature, to vegetal, mineral and animal realms beyond our immediate
understanding. Another chapter describes the Nevada desert and
its effect on the human body:
The body hummed like a receiver, intercepting
messages beneath the noise of human traffic, down among the
harmonic silence of spiders and scrub and soaring sandstone,
whose baroque architecture often communicated directly with
Jessie's heart, this primitive intimacy with the nonhuman a
recognition of its continued existence deep inside her. (181)
Here again, the receiver, for all its manmade
artificiality, is the key metaphor to grasp the unvoiced humming
of nature, the subliminal language of which is "voiced"
in the sibilants of alliteration: ("silences of spiders and
soaring sandstone"). Every time the characters manage to
"hear" the silent voice of nature, they are able to
tap primitive powers they had not known they had. The mild Jessie
thus realizes that "If you ever wanted to kill somebody..."
"this would be the place to do it." (181) Wright cancels
our usual understanding of television; he appropriates its metaphorical
suggestion of magnetic power to assert a renewed sense of our
connection with nature around and within us. Thus, television
becomes the figure of a cognitive enlightenment in Wright's poetic
expression of harmony an enlightenment all the more remarkable
for its precariousness in a world of disjunction and madness.
The wonderfully natural impression of ease and
grace conveyed in the flashes of happiness Wright's characters
experience does not necessarily come from depictions of nature.Sometimes
the most trite and artificial objects, such as trees made of neon
tubes in Las Vegas, become the most ideal "receivers"
of the humming of nature in characters' lives:
Outside her window the sizzling emerald fronds
of the neon palm seemed to stir slightly at the touch of night
currents unsensed by its organic cousins. (183)
From the intricate metaphoric language, a sense
of not only poetry but connection emerges, as if all the threads
of the victims' lives finally agreed to weave themselves into
an inaudible but harmonious whole:
On the rare slow night, Jessie's attention
might be arrested for untolled moments by the neon palm burning
in her window. It was an amazingly detailed rendering, this
animated tree of brittle tubing and electrified gas, renowned
emblem of the Ishtar Gate, world's largest casino and hotel,
sprouting from the night like a growth out of another, more
vivid, more clever land where memories were diamonds and she
was their queen... (167)
A sense of harmony emanates from the rhythm of
Wright's sentences, sometimes offering a moment of respite and
stability in the characters' fraught and fragile lives. In such
brief moments of "grace," the characters are allowed
a glimpse of some simple truth, expressed without mannerism despite
the metaphorically enriched language. Such is the evocative cadence
of Wright's prose.
It is interesting to follow the story of "vibes,"
humming between emission and reception of waves, in Wright's various
works of fiction. The hum in Going
Native is more a poetic tool and less an object of caricature
than in the story of M31: A Family Romance. This novel,
published in 1988, depicts a family of UFO freaks whose perversions
and traumas are projected onto their belief in extraterrestrial
life as if to relieve their angst in the middle of poverty and
isolation. Wright's other novel, Meditations in Green,
published in 1983, deals with his Vietnam War experience in an
arresting way that goes far beyond the conventional war testimony.
Wright ventures into uncharted territory precisely because he
finds new literary expression to translate war into fiction. His
is one of the few voices in contemporary literature that deserve
to be read again and again, for the pleasure of a renewed sense
of discovery and wonder every time.
OTHER BOOKS DRAWN ON IN THIS ESSAY
Wright, Stephen. M31: A Family Romance. Crown/Harmony,
Wright, Stephen. Meditations in Green: A Novel of Vietnam.
Scribner's, 1983. Out-of-print.