The latest issue of Noon, an annual that publishes short fiction, includes an excerpt a “novel in progress” by Christine Schutt. The excerpt “A Wasta, A Wetta, An Etta, A Moon” (64-68) follows an early twentieth-century family moving west together, facing the boredom of westward travel, alcoholism, and other dramas of family life uprooted from a static setting, depicted obliquely in Schutt’s abstract and playful prose style. They pass through several states without much exposition connecting their journey, and I find their final resolution in Kansas interesting.
“Kansas was the tornado signaled by a glowering sky that Ray and Lorna knew was dangerous but kept to themselves all day,” Schutt writes after a section break. There’s something interesting happening with the western as a genre, with the domestic narrative, with avant-garde fiction and its persistent, metonymic and metaphoric displacement of words and meanings. Kansas not only becomes a tornado (growing up in Kansas, you learn that nearly everyone associates the state with this windstorm), that tornado is only “signaled by” the sky and the rest of the weather that surrounds the tornado. This move from knowing the site of Kansas only through the ways in which it is displaced onto and referred back to by other aspects of setting, atmosphere, and weather signals something about the western as genre and the geographical imaginary of American literature more generally. Kansas seems like a fruitful site from which to think through these problems, as it is ostensibly in the very center of the arbitrary and enforced boundaries of the (continental) United States. In Schutt’s story, this representation of Kansas seems something like the eye of the storm, that calm place in the center, which you would be safe if you could ever get to, were you not to be completely disoriented and destroyed by the unceasing and unstable winds that surround it.
In its engagement with the western genre, Schutt’s story does something through space that Aaron Bady has identified other westerns doing through time, as when Blade Runner, 2049 “becomes the story of [the] obsolescence” of cowboys and other signifiers of westward expansion. Shifting this analysis from time to space, we can begin to see the ways that narrative and signification persistently bulldoze over the indigenous presences that existed in the western “United States” before it was called that.
This becomes clarified in an ironic paragraph toward the end of Schutt’s excerpt: “The winds picked up, the bulkhead banged, and Lorna came back. The tornado spun south of the motel—some poles down, some trees—no one was killed in the vacancy that was Kansas.” Again, we have layers of displacement, as Schutt takes us through a winding sentence that, only after several clauses, settles us on the signifier “Kansas.” But “Kansas” is itself displaced as “the vacancy that was.” This combination of the word “vacancy” with the passive and past tense verb “was” shows us the way that temporal and spacial logics of colonial expansion always work hand in hand. In order to imagine someplace like Kansas as a vacancy, we have to constantly imagine that place as both past and passive, inert and inexistent before our particular arrival in it. So perhaps it is correct to say that “no one was killed in the vacancy that was Kansas,” but the story can only write itself that way after innumerable lives were killed or displaced in order to make Kansas into that vacancy. Schutt explores these latent and hidden histories through the displacement of language, winding words, clauses, and settings around each other to try to simultaneously evoke and displace the history and literature of the American west.
As I was reading Noon annual, I also discussed Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” with an NEH summer seminar on NYC periodical publishing. Someone pointed out Irving’s late turn to indigenous folklore in the “Postscript” to the story. Throughout his Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving plays with conflicting narrative frames that bring different stories and histories to us at the level of both form and format. I’m interested in how these displacing frames, like Schutt’s representation of Kansas, admit the (indigenous) existence and source of a story and the violence that effaces it, while simultaneously fantasizing that that indigeneity merely exists in the past, ironically further effacing the lives of indigenous people in Irving’s and our present. In Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle’s account gets to sit as fact. It is only when we zoom out past the accompanying note and its subsequent postscript that we begin to see the way in which Van Winkle’s story could never remain as self-evident as it seems.
(Image from the film The Wizard of Oz)