Online Edition: Fall 2009

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Cris Mazza and the Cartography of Narrative

photo by James Communale

 by Kathryn Mueller

With the advent of electronic maps, accuracy of scale and orientation have become secondary to one primary issue: data layers. Throughout history, maps have been altered (via scale, labels, details included and omitted) to maximize the ease of use for specific users or purposes. Electronic maps are more easily adapted for a broad spectrum of users, primarily through the use of multiple data layers—though the map is ostensibly of the same region, each layer of an electronic map focuses on different attributes. The image of a single document with several different layers of information is equally apt when describing many postmodern writers’ narrative techniques. Depending on a reader’s perspective, taste, and observation skill, different layers of the narrative may become obvious: plot, theme, perspective, language, pacing, etc.

In a 2005 interview, Cris Mazza describes herself as “a literary fiction writer who writes layered narratives, often about a person’s interior world impacting their ‘real world.’” She contrasts this work with the “literary fiction” that most large commercial presses put out:

so many of them are of a simple structure: starts here, goes forward, ends here, with some flashbacks . . . the structure [is] uncomplicated. Most of these commercial literary novels are easy (or easier) to follow . . . They aren’t layered, either with different passages in time or different portions of the character’s brain at work presenting different language, forms and voices. And 80 to 90 percent of them are in first person.

Two of her most recent novels—Disability (FC2, 2005) and Waterbaby (Soft Skull Press, 2007)—are prime examples of Mazza’s narrative layering, though her layering art operates in very different ways in each book. Both effectively use multiple layers, and yet the technical or structural differences in the layering make for wildly different reading experiences. Disability employs more obvious structural layers, such as contrasting narrative voices and alternating chapters, while Waterbaby employs a range of narrative formats within the larger narrative.

Waterbaby follows an epileptic woman named Tam as she heads to Maine to research her family’s history for her sister Martha, whose genealogical project traces the lighthouse-keeping branch of their family. In many ways, the narrative seems much like the standard “literary fiction” structure Mazza outlined in the interview: it centers around one main character, it moves forward with a smattering of flashbacks to earlier times, and it builds in a linear fashion to its ending. It is told in third-person rather than first, but superficially, at least, the overall structure matches the fiction she criticizes.

Beneath the surface, however, layering is present within the narrative in a few different ways. While the main story is relayed in the fairly conventional format outlined above, Mazza interrupts and buttresses this arc with a plethora of other sources and formats: the family website (which sees a variety of edits and multi-media additions over the course of the novel), excerpts from web pages Tam finds, newspaper clippings, descriptions of TV broadcasts written like stage directions, genealogical lists, and a catalogue of emails. The number of narrative formats and techniques here makes the novel a kind of microcosm of media in today’s info-drenched world, mimicking the possible layers of an electronic map. Yet it is the purpose of each form—its purpose within the story itself, its intended audience, and the diction and style it employs—that creates a sense of map-styled narrative layering. One can read each form as a more technical structural map, like a subway map, or as a more nuanced, content-derived map, like a neighborhood map with colorful commentary.

The emails are an ideal example of the multi-faceted nature of this effect. First, there’s the variety factor: they include more personal family updates, Martha’s emails containing her written text of their family’s history (with added editorial comments and asides in parentheses), Tam’s semi-fictional narratives of her own interpretation of her family’s history, and quite a few deeply personal emails written by Tam that remain unsent. Their purpose within the story shifts depending on the writer—Tam’s range from reports on her progress to painful self-reflection; Martha’s either relay research and tips on genealogical work or flit across fairly superficial details from her life.

This contrast in function and style helps create a function exterior to the plot itself: each email helps to show some element of the writer’s (and the audience’s) personality. Martha’s emails have the sort of rambling, non sequitur jumps we expect from everyday communications:

How horrible for you that your roommate would treat you so badly. Can’t you get a lawyer or something to make her give you your things? Don’t worry about sounding like whining, writing about it is good therapy. Why not start a journal? Gary’s writing a new book—it’s about Mom! He’s calling it WaterWings, or Wings of Water. He says he hasn’t decided which. He’s shown me some of it, and it’s helping me do Mom’s portion of my family history, which G calls my book, but that’s not what it is. After all the hunting and investigation, you have to put it down on paper, in regular writing, but it’s just for the family, not a book like G’s.

Yet underneath this seemingly innocent report of everyday life, we get a taste of the difference in the siblings’ personalities: Martha’s steady family-centered focus, Tam’s introspection that would best fit a journal, and Gary’s show-off tendencies. The kinds of writing mentioned implicitly outline a hierarchy of sibling competitiveness: Gary’s writing is a book, Martha’s is “regular writing” but “just for the family,” while Tam’s writing is considered merely therapeutic. Each subsequent form serves different functions and engages with an altogether different kind of audience and expectation, providing a sense of how the family views each member, one of the foundations of the complex family dynamics seen throughout the novel. Tam revels in solitude and seeks no external audience; Martha is reasonably social but confines herself to immediate friends and family; and Gary is outgoing and well-traveled, seeking publication and the unfamiliar audience it provides. We get the sense that, like their implied audiences, the siblings exist on separate layers of the same map: each might cover the same ground but would label different features and focus on different users.

Tam’s own emails do have a sense of the reflection and introspection we’d expect from a journal, while still carrying some of the haphazard leaps in thought we see in Martha’s. Though the leaps are similar to her sister’s, they are generally more radically sudden, both in subject and in the level of intimacy with the audience. Even if journal-like, the emails she actually sends do have an awareness of audience beyond mere journaling:

I’m still on the train writing this. We have to be getting close to Portland. It seems I’ve been on this train for days and days.
     Remember how we used to talk in the dark (and get in trouble) when we were supposed to go to sleep. Then there was a time when you were still too young, or I thought so, and I didn’t talk to you much. I wonder, did we ever get over that?
     Anyway, I’ll rent a car in Portland and continue on to Southport. I’ll go straight out there. I’ll let Southport be my *first* impression of Maine. I barely remember it.

These emails blend reports back to Martha, meanderings down memory lane, and logic-based explorations of the family’s past ripe with if-then scenarios. However, the ultimate lesson in contrasts comes not from the comparison between Tam and Martha, but from Tam’s actual emails with her host of unsent emails, in which she is far more vulnerable, explorative, and even poetic:

Do you still think best in water? I wish I’d jumped in, one of those days you were thinking. I think I almost did. It might’ve changed everything . . . You never saw me foam at the mouth that night, then you never saw me again. But you’re still with me, in the grand mal aura stage—either it induces memories of you, or else stray memories of you jarred loose by accident (or incident) cause the aura . . . So far I’ve staved off the next big one. But, over the years when I’ve dreamed of you, who’s to say I haven’t gone through the rigid stage and woken with just a slight headache, just a little confused.

This contrast between the “real” sent emails and the interior “unsent” emails falls easily into line with Mazza’s characterization of work as “layered narratives, often about a person’s interior world impacting their ‘real world.’” While we can see the introspection of a journal-keeper, there’s also the sense of a conversation (implied by the addressee), of interaction with an other. The fact that these emails remain unsent—and, in most cases, are deleted—indicates the facets of Tam’s personality her family doesn’t see. They are something beyond “whining,” beyond the closed circuit of a journal. The desire for resolution and interaction—whether realized or unsent—is an integral part of Tam’s life that her family cannot see. Over the course of the novel, the family research she engages in helps work this disconnection inevitably to the forefront.

These contrasts don’t only show the differences in the characters’ personalities or actions; they also strike at the core of the process of storytelling itself: editing, selecting, censoring, jumping wildly into untested waters, etc. Like Tam’s investigations, seemingly disparate strands of information get woven together into a single tight version of reality that, after careful assemblage, is nearly impossible to separate out into different components. In essence, the technical layering helps manifest the more subtle content-based layering that occurs: the struggle of family dynamics within a family that is somewhat emotionally out of touch; the unsteady overlap between fantasy and reality; the things we hide from ourselves or willfully ignore; how we narrate our own lives to ourselves; and so on.

The varying degrees of interplay between the content-based and technical layering create a third, more elusive form of layering: the relationship between the reader and the text. Though this is not a layer that fits easily with the map metaphor, as it exists entirely outside the plane of the text itself, the novel demands that the reader engage with different layers in different ways. In essence, the technical and content-based layers require that the map-reader engage in a range of uses at one time rather than the single-use of a simpler narrative or a subway map. Most texts require readers to be observers; some encourage or require a variety of other characteristics: detective-like participants, students, judgment-makers or -acceptors, perhaps even character-like participants. With his all-too-human protagonists and multitude of narrative styles, James Joyce would be an extreme example of the text that requires participation; but think also of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, requiring readers to recognize patterns and relationships, or Jeanette Winterson’s participatory second-person narration in Written on the Body. Waterbaby requires that readers act as distant observers (reading the straightforward past-tense main narrative, as well as most of the emails between family members), participants (reading and sifting through evidence and histories alongside Tam), and privileged confidantes (seeing the unsent emails and—in one case—an unsent letter).

These different roles for the reader are evident in the fantasies that Tam constructs around the female figures in her family history. These fantasies tease out connections between Tam and her ancestors. Early on, she wades into the details of their lives, drawing the occasional strong detail and extrapolating it into a more nuanced narrative:

The big stone was erected in its place beside the plot where Jaruel and Catherine would someday rest. The deep, solemn letters, the little boy’s name, his exact age (4 years, 2 months, 10 days), forever making his life eternal, unforgettable . . . This would have been the extent of Catherine’s outward display of sorrow. The large stone would have been it, would have manifested her anguish. . . . Perhaps she visited the big stone often at first, visiting also the unseen stone in her gut, and perhaps relived over and over how she might’ve saved her child, carried him from their frozen outpost to a doctor in Bath, some heroic traversing of unpassable roads in unlivable conditions.

Fantasies such as this incorporate elements of Tam’s life but have a clear distinction between their main character and Tam. We see Tam identify at least mildly with the main character—in this case, Tam’s own mourning of the loss of competitive swimming, the ability to bear children, and the anguish of losing people she cared deeply about have little “outward display,” but central to the text is her inability to let go of her past, “the unseen stone in her gut.” Yet these early fantasies focus more on the character and simply use Tam’s language and the details she’s observed to round them out further.

As the text continues, Tam increasingly dominates these fantasies, making herself more or less the main character. This shift mimics the shift in the roles required of the reader, moving from observer to active participant. The fantasies occasionally and ever more frequently overtake reality, so that the reader—like Tam—begins to lose the ability (or the need) to distinguish between the two. As their near-symmetrical names indicate, the relationship between Tam and Nat (her long-lost, fairly distantly related cousin) is this fuzziness made flesh. The ontological confusion begins when Nat comes upon Tam in the old family lighthouse, mistakes her for the family ghost, and has sex with her.

The bizarre attraction between Tam and Nat adds another level to the fantasy and the reader’s relationship to the text. The two staunchly avoid talking too much about their actual realities and insist on concocting scenarios and scenes from the ghost’s legend and history. At one point, Tam goes so far as to dress as the ghost at Nat’s request. This incursion of fantasy into reality demands more of readers in part because there is a certain level of taboo in it: the two quickly discover they are distant cousins, yet continue the affair. But they both know that reality will not allow the relationship to continue, and the fantasy is so compelling and erotic that they willingly sacrifice reality to prolong it.

This exploration of sexual psychology generates another layer to this map, requiring the reader to play two roles: as observer, the reader is wrapped up in the fantasies. Simultaneously, the reader is external enough to the situations to act as judgment-maker. The reader’s complicity with the affair (as well as many other events and actions in the novel) is both repulsive and enticing. Indeed, readers may find themselves swinging sharply between feelings of sympathy with and dislike for Tam, particularly when bits and pieces of the family’s history come out. Though a technique by no means uniquely Mazza’s, the see-sawing of the reader’s reactions to the main characters does make this a more nuanced novel.

Equally nuanced but significantly shorter and less technically complex, Disability, published two years before Waterbaby, has a vaguely similar structure, proceeding in a mostly linear fashion through a narrative interspersed with occasional flashbacks. Yet most of the similarities end there. Disability follows two main characters—Teri and Cleo—as they work in a state home for severely handicapped children. The novel opens with a change in administration at the home; the bulk of the narrative follows the resulting changes in work duties and the two women’s friendship. The chapters alternate third-person narrative focus, creating an even back-and-forth between Teri and Cleo’s perspectives, like two map layers showing roads and waterways, respectively, in one area. The technical layering in Waterbaby is derived from the variety of narrative structures and media as well as their sometimes tense interplay. Disability’s layers are tucked deeper within the predictable tennis match-like structure of its narration.

The two women’s chapters employ obvious, wildly different narrative techniques and diction, harking back to Mazza’s much earlier “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” (1991). Teri’s chapters are written in a kind of shorthand style with no commas, a plethora of run-ons, and a variety of abbreviations (&, w/, etc.):

The funk is always penetrated & acknowledged 1st. Hot dogs & mashed potatoes & wet carpet & industrial disinfectant & plastic toys & usually pee & sometimes poop.

These are the novel’s opening lines. While they have the easy task of introducing the tone and feel of the home itself, they also quickly show us the strengths within Teri’s narrative style: it is immediate. Very little of Teri’s narrative is filtered in any way—we have none of the “she thought,” “she felt,” and so forth that would distance us from her in a traditional novel. Instead, immediate sensory experience combines with a stream-of-consciousness style that is unself-conscious. Although this is technically functional, keeping the reader moving fairly swiftly through the text, it has the added duty of reflecting Teri’s life and personality: she works two jobs and has little time (and little desire) for extensive self-reflection. Throughout most of the text, Teri is a woman of action: she acts and she reacts. The closest to self-analysis we get are a few mentions of Teri’s daughter: conceived by rape, she has changed her name and chosen to live with her biological father. Teri is efficient and straightforward most of the time, but she is haunted by her inability to remember all the details of the rape and how her daughter came to despise her so much, by her fears that she was a bad mother, and in some ways by the process of analysis itself.

Her narrative reflects this odd paradox: it is both stark and poetic, lending itself well to gorgeous description and detail (as in the list-like fragment quoted above), as well as crisp step-by-step actions. Cleo’s chapters are written with longer, more technically correct sentences with bigger words, more complex structures, and a minimum of abbreviations. Her first chapter begins:

There isn’t any question in Cleo’s mind that she’ll be part of a united front standing on the reality side of the therapy question. They make the lowest possible wage, working routinely up to their elbows in the most basic functions of life—food in one end, waste out the other—but they aren’t stupid, after all.

Cleo’s penchant for analysis and self-awareness is immediately obvious. In the first sentence, we immediately have a filter: “in Cleo’s mind.” In Cleo’s narration, we are almost constantly reminded of narration as an act of sifting and filtering the world—she analyzes, she agonizes, she turns over problems. This sets her up to be a more reliable narrator for scenes with other characters, and frequently Mazza has Cleo handle scenes with a lot of the staff or other external-tension-based scenes. Rather than the driving randomness of Teri, we have a more aware, slightly slower-paced narrator here.

Ironic, then, that given her focus on analysis, Cleo seems more willing to glide over the truly painful topics for self-reflection. While Teri fumbles her way through, dredging up her past, Cleo generally avoids confronting the level of unhealthy codependence in her sexual relationship with Windy, who uses her for sex and little else. But she spends lots of time thinking about the new therapy programs, the growing distance in her friendship with Teri, and the incompetence of the day-shift workers. In contrast to Teri’s streamlined efficiency, Cleo’s narration is soft, almost indulgent. She plays ideas out rather than jerking between action and idea, almost overthinking others’ actions and words.

These differences in diction and viewpoint are fairly obvious layers executed on a basic technical level—one could say they’re implemented more to help us differentiate the two characters from each other than for any singularly layering purpose. The basic structure of the narrative voices is similar: each chapter slides between external events and exposing the woman’s thoughts. Yet there is some interesting interplay occurring within these larger techniques. Specifically, there is a slight disparity between each woman’s narrative voice and the voice she uses in dialogue with others. Teri’s choppy shorthand yields to soft, calm vocalizations that are almost always complete sentences: “We’ll have to do some bodybuilding down here, the braces can’t be the only things holding you up. . . . Maybe that’s best until you’re finished with your irrational attacks . . .” Cleo’s more eloquent narration is offset by crude, belligerent dialogue punctuated by profanity: “Bullshit—he doesn’t have opposing thumbs, he can’t even open his hands by himself. Who wrote this fucked program?”

This raises some interesting points about the nature of storytelling, but in far different ways than Waterbaby does. Here, the focus seems not so much on assembling a coherent whole out of disparate parts or on exploring the differences between fantasy and reality, but more on the differences between the somewhat tidier world of narrative and the messier world of actual interaction and reactive thought. In essence, it seems more about the disparity itself rather than forming a coherent whole from disparity.

The subject matter lends itself well to the topic of alienation and miscommunication at the novel’s core: the kids that Teri and Cleo take care of are severely limited in their abilities to move, speak, eat, care for themselves, etc. At one point, Teri and Cleo are discussing Angela, a child with cerebral palsy who cannot move her body beyond turning her head and arching her back. Teri asks Cleo, “What if Angela is normal inside? What if she understands everything? What if she’s got normal intelligence but can’t do anything about it?” Cleo’s answer: “God.” Complete self-awareness horrifies them, for Angela but also for themselves. They both preserve a certain amount of alienation in their own lives by refusing to actively change their situations. The turning point comes in a moment of crisis, and while Teri is the first to act, ultimately Cleo is the one who changes.

This would seem to indicate that Mazza leans toward introspection and analysis as a means for personal change. Tam spends a large proportion of Waterbaby dredging up and minutely analyzing events from her past, and the changes she undergoes over the course of the text are monumental. Teri, whose introspection is limited to one major event in her life, has her employment circumstances fluctuate but otherwise is more or less unchanged. Cleo, capable of self-analysis up to a point, sees some major changes in her personal and professional life but otherwise seems fairly consistent.

Content and life lessons aside, Disability demands far less of its readers than Waterbaby does. Given the slightly awkward narrative voice of Teri’s sections, this may seem surprising, but in Disability, Mazza lays the ground rules out much more clearly and succinctly. The narrative tennis match makes each chapter’s focus highly predictable and, ultimately, it lacks the interplay between various techniques that makes Waterbaby so interactive. Disability is driven more by external events—a new administration, problems at work—than Waterbaby, which seems to subsume itself in the many layers of Tam’s consciousness. And Disability does not invite participation and multiple readerly roles the way that Waterbaby does.

Maps are useful for their abilities to convey information, and the balance of information is key. Too little and the map is useless; too much and the user is overwhelmed, making the map just as useless. Like mapmakers, novelists—particularly those like Mazza who layer narratives—must strike a balance between too much (bordering on the encyclopedic) and too little (plot only). In Disability and Waterbaby, Mazza demonstrates her ability to do so. Like a good subway map, Disability is tight, efficient, and perfectly designed for what it does. But for a work that truly explores “a person’s interior world impacting their ‘real world’,” Waterbaby is a cartographic achievement.


Click here to buy Disability from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Disability from Powells.com


Click here to buy Waterbaby from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Waterbaby from Powells.com