FABRICATION: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning

Fabrication by Susan NevilleSusan Neville
MacMurray & Beck ($22)

by Nicole Hamer

Susan Neville's latest offering would like to be a serious meditation on manufacturing and meaning. However, somewhere in her journeys through the flat plains of Indiana, between the Veneer factories of Edinburgh, the Burley Tobacco auctions of Madison and the Industrial Goth night at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis, Neville allows nostalgia and grief to act as our tour guides in Fabrication. Deceptively heavy with mythic titles, such as "Byzantium," "S(t)imulation," and "How the Universe Is Made," Fabrication searches through the places where things are made in order to understand not the "meaning" suggested in the book's ambitious title, but the vanishing places and people inhabiting Neville's own nostalgic Indiana.

In this Indiana we find Dante, Chekhov, and Chopin mingling with muscular dogs, jovial factory workers, and grieving tobacco auctioneers—good local color, but only two chapters really live up to the promise of the book's title. These chapters provide the author's unique vision on manufacturing and meaning and work wonderfully: as in "Smoke," part exposition and part narrative fiction on the complex world of small tobacco farming, or the moving final paragraphs of "Carboys," a dedication to the youth who helped create modern technology. However, when the thoughtful work of these two chapters is complete, Neville slides back into the nostalgia that guides the remaining chapters of Fabrication, such as in "Perfect Circle," which seems symbolic of Neville's preoccupation with the past:

We'd walk into town and buy homemade donuts on Saturday morning at the donut shop and homemade caramels at the candy shop, and the children we'd someday have would ride their glittering bicycles through the golden angel dust that lined the street and we would know the names of the women who worked at the hardware store and the pharmacist with his bottles filled with blue-and yellow-tinctured water and we would always every minute of our lives be happy.

Neville can be an engaging writer, and Fabrication is most successful when she injects the intimate and nimble style that won her a Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. In the end, however, this almost meandering collection of essays remains regrettably underdeveloped and disappointing. What could have been a fascinating meditation on the grand meaning of man-made things is instead merely a travel book on found objects and the author's own nostalgic grief.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001