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Dra___, the nondescript heroine of this grim, hilarious fiction, might have fallen through the same hole as Lewis Carrol's Alice, only now, 130 years later, there's no time for frivolity, just the pressing need to get a job. In a sealed, modern Wonderland of "small stifled work centers, basements and sub-basements, night niches, and training hutches connected by hallways just inches across," Dra___ seeks employment. Her concerns are modest and practical. She wanders the "dim empty hallways with their lingering odor of toilets and chalk" looking for the Employment Manager.
Dra___ is powered by Stacey Levine's keen ear for the oddities of everyday speech. In her short fiction (collected in the award-winning My Horse and Other Stories) as in her day-to-day life (I've known her both as a columnist for this paper and as a close friend over the last five years) Levine delights in the peculiar logic of "normal conversation." Minor concerns such as plot, characterization, even practical discussions, get undermined by the pleasure she takes in phrases like "in the name of living hell" or "for the love of nonsense," and by her fascination with the sink-hole of sudden intimacy that swallows up so many casual exchanges. In Dra___, the imperatives of plot and thematic resolution have been displaced by the demanding logic of everyday conversation.
As a consequence, this Wonderland has none of the arch word-play or punning that afflicted Alice. Instead, people speak as directly as they know how. Like Miss Goering and Miss Gamelon in Jane Bowles' comic masterpiece Two Serious Ladies, the figures in Dra___ burden one another with very plain declarations of their real concerns. "Sometimes it's just good to breathe for a few moments before using the toilet, don't you agree?" a student nurse named Frida asks Dra___. "Dra___ leaned to one of the toilets and delicately opened its enormous lid with her fingertips, a task that drained her so terribly that afterward she sank to the floor to rest. 'I want to see the future,' Frida whispered. 'I want to know how and when I will die, is that so terrible?'"
Shorn of euphemism and politesse, the conversations at the heart of this picaresque novel become menacing engines of intimacy, buffeting Dra___ with a storm of confessions and invasive demands. "We'll talk and talk until there's nothing left but ashes all around us," her Christ-like Administrator promises. "Isn't that what a relationship is?"
In Dra___, everyone talks about relationships (or "the feelings," as watery-eyed, balding Nanny calls them). Dr. Jack Billy, the "absent-minded doctor of long silences and sudden grimaces" wants to "open his mouth onto another mouth and inhale everything then choke on the lack of air, because the need to damage himself and others was consuming, as it had been all his life." Marla, a clinging woman with "small and scaly-red" eyelids, listens to her confidante, Slim, suggest "'supposing I learn all the most personal, intimate things about you-as if looking right down into your body. And suppose I take hold of those threads that are wound tight around your heart, choking it...Wouldn't it be wonderful? My profession is based upon a form of love, you know.'"
These enthusiastic speeches get spewed out like some kind of corrosive agent, a medium transforming hidden human needs into airborne viruses, poisons which infect and make us sick. Thus released, intimacy begins to blur with the real toxins of the work-place ("odorous, dark-soiled plastic sheeting," "buckets filled with soured soup") forming a pathogenic shroud of disease beneath which the hopeful applicant, Dra___, devolves toward hairlessness and torpor.
Most of the women are losing their hair. Sores and raw patches pepper their skin. The psychic economy of the body has erupted onto the surface, so that everyone is marked by wounds. They all appear to be dying "They're dying? From what?" Dra___ asks the Adminstrator. "From exposure, my dear, exposure! You know-to the poisons of the worksites, to the people close to them-aren't our deepest feelings known to be poisonous as well?"
Dra___ wanders from one enabler to the next, drawn by her search for the job site, and a swelling undertow of desire for Dr. Jack Billy's handsome Nurse. Her episodic narrative is framed by visions of the Man with No Hair, a tiny-footed, recurring figure, whose periodic cameos (carrying a basket of rubber bulbs, pouring pills into his mouth ) give the novel its shape and pacing.
This labyrinthine journey is brilliantly mimicked in the architecture of the prose. Levine creates cozy little warrens, small safe spaces made of short clear sentences, then sends the reader spiraling down long broken passages, fragmented by colons and semi-colons which give a halting, lurching gait to our progress.
A quest, a comedy of manners, and a parable, Dra___ is, above all else, a philosophical novel concerned with the most basic questions of living. It seals us inside a world where "contact becomes an attack" and where Dra___ can only cry out "until her mouth burned with the simple, punishing taste of wishes.