Genevieves by Henry Hoke
One of the strangest criticisms that is still levied against fiction is that it serves as some form of addictive and detrimental escapism. There is a multitude of problems with this narrow-minded perspective, the least of which is not its inherent hypocrisy, but perhaps the most important of that multitude is that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of reality and truth. You and I do not, cannot, have the same perspective. And our perspectives are the mediums through which we sense and interact with everything. In short, our realities are inherently different. The act of using escapism as a derogatory term and a crime of which fiction can be accused of assumes that there is only one objective reality, one fundamental truth that somehow always conveniently manages to serve to the benefit of a select few. As I sat reading Henry Hoke’s new book Genevieves, it occurred to me how important literature like Hoke’s reality-bending collection of stories is, given the prevalence of societal ignorance. What we have here is a reality intentionally shattered along its dimensional axes and displayed in all of its beauty and curiosities.
Genevieves is a chimeral, prismatic collection of stories, the potential meanings of which depend on how you rotate it. The stories serve as standalone elements as easily as they do part of an overarching whole. As one might expect, this is in large part due to the writing and narrative consistencies, but just as responsible are the Genevieves that so poignantly “exist”. Are we looking at a collection of women unified by a name and thematic purposes? The same woman experienced by disparate peoples? Does it even matter? This question of identity plays again and again throughout the book, with almost every character shifting within the arbitrary structures of their daily lives, and with the mundane and the fantastical constantly forgetting who is on first. You would think that this dismantling of definition and presumption would lead to an intellectual and emotional crisis, and maybe it still will, but Hoke takes the time to remind us that there is still life to be lived.
This is a choose-your-own-adventure. Not this story, this and what happens in it is set in stone and you can’t have any effect on it. I mean, y’know, this is a choose adventure, this everything. You can sit down. Or not.
If she grows up, Maggie wants to be a carrier pigeon.
This kind of humor returns against and again throughout the book, largely to counterpoint moments of disquieting collapse and existential concern. Physical, tangible boundaries are no more sacred than conceptual ones in Genevieves. There are violations of personal space and privacy, life-threatening danger, and repeating discomfort with truly opening one’s eye. The book is sympathetic to the dislocation and collateral damage caused by a real perspective shift, and it acknowledges that such a shift does not always have an emotionally rewarding consequence, despite our tendency in the literary world to glorify it. But it for all the book’s encouragement of open-mindedness, it does not yield in its drive toward those shifts. Progress in understanding cannot be sacrificed in deconstruction.
You can pretend to be asleep, but you can’t pretend to be awake.
As you can tell, I love all of the philosophical meat that Genevieves provides for chewing, but where this book really outdoes itself is in its structure and use of language. This is, quite simply, a great example of craft in truly capable hands. Line by line, the text is handled with such care that I’m hesitant to simply classify this as prose rather than prose poetry. This is an existential book with the rambling and redundancies pruned and removed like the excess from a bonsai. It is amusingly and humbly self-aware, at times opening up like the best conversation you’ve never had, profoundly deep and immediately relatable.
I can finish this writing with a flourish, to indicate I’m done. I can hand it to my brother, to read, to show him how close I came. A stack of paper to burn along with my sister. And I’ll go to the emergency room and find Dani, out of the woods and sleeping soundly. I’ll touch her forehead and feel my own temperature, and stay with her until she wakes, in the hope that she’ll see me in a different light, a face already changed.
I know I’ve harped on this a lot, but return value will never not (I enjoy double negatives) be important to me, and you’ll have nothing to fear from Genevieves in that department. The dual nature of the book, as a collection and as a singular narrative, allows for reading in all manner of ways. I’ve found myself returning to sections within sections, committing the unforgivable sin of taking lines out of their intended contexts and letting them play. Again, such is the strength of Hoke’s writing here that there is always value in doing this. I dare you to not let your mind run wild with the possibilities of lines such as “Look into your baby daughter’s eyes, and think only this: that she will excel at something that doesn’t exist yet.” This book is very much worth your time, if for no other reason than it allows you to participate in the dreaded escapism and appreciate that what you assume is reality is yours and yours alone.
Genevieves will be available May 1, 2017 from Subito Press.