In his review of The Star Cafe and Other Stories Steven Moore places the author, Mary Caponegro, with those writers "who prefer to play the ventriloquist, deploying a variety of voices and styles so that their collections more closely resemble an anthology by various hands. This is more daring commercially and aesthetically; commercially, because the writer refrains from creating a recognizable and marketable style, and aesthetically, because the writer must start from square one with each story, like a musician learning to play a new instrument for every composition." For me, it is this for-real and stylistic versatility, the surprise and, yes, the wonderful weirdness, that I find in each new work, that is the hallmark--and the challenge and the delight--of Caponegro's work.
For Caponegro, stylistic virtuosity is a manifestation of a worldview and an aesthetic. The world is a complex place, ever moving, ever changing, ever resisting our attempts to pin it down. In fact there are dangers in our attempts to pin it down; we risk not only distorting the way we know the world but also imprisoning ourselves in a static, stunted relation to the social world. Caponegro asks us to be alarmed about "political conservatism/repression on the one hand, extreme forms of political correctness on the other" ("Impressions" 27). Both would limit the ways in which the world can be known and experienced; both would restrict the discourse through which the world can be imagined. The purpose of fiction is to resist these impulses, "to push limits, boundaries, of narrative, of reality" ("Impressions" 26). Fiction, that is, innovative, envelope-pushing fiction, helps its readers develop ways of perceiving, understanding, and relating to a complicated world in flux. Caponegro counts herself among those who are "devoted to the expansion and dissemination of imagination' ("Impressions" 27). One sees that, for her, the imagination is not a luxury or an indulgence, but a vital tool for negotiating reality.
Many of Caponegro's technical experiments will be discussed in detail later in this essay, but we can get a sense of her stylistic variety by looking at two stories, one of her earliest and one of her most recent. "Tales from the Next Village" is a series of ten brief narratives, written in the style of eighteenth-century Chinese folktales. This stylistic dislocation allows the author both to emphasize the narrational aspects of the narratives (that is, the pretense that these tales have been heard and then retold to us, a la The Arabian Nights) and to introduce a magic realism into the presentation of this foreign world. The stories, focusing, for example, on a man who wants to buy silk from the mermaids and is instead lured into drowning, a widow who was allergic to her husband's sperm, but who in grief throws her legs open to the rain in which her husband's spirit lives, a woman who rebels against her husband by turning into a tree, a wife who calmly accepts the introduction of her husband's mistress into the house, are written in a simple yet exquisite prose style. Unconnected narratively, they share an exploration of the nature and consequences of desire and how they change as personal and social contexts change. Caponegro wrote these tales at the suggestion of John Hawkes, one of her mentors, who wanted to prove to her that fiction could do anything poetry could. Indeed, the precision of the language and the use of the fantastic image as metaphor linking emotion and meaning can be found in much of her later work.
"Epilogue of the Progeny, or Whoever Is Never Born with the Most Toys Wins," the final story in Caponegro's latest book, The Complexities of Intimacy, is an example of a juxtaposition technique wherein two very different ideas are treated in terms of one another. Here, the two ideas are the cruising culture, in which men and women engage in a dance of seduction, seeking one another out, maybe for something long-term, but more likely a one-night stand, and parenthood: the result is a through-the-looking-glass world where children, from infants to adolescents, sit in bars and in parks, letting themselves be approached by adult couples loaded down with toys or pets. When they choose a couple, they go off to their home to be their child for maybe a night, rarely longer than a few weeks, and then back to the bars and parks. The defamiliarization this juxtaposition creates allows the story to explore the degradation of personal relationships in a society where desire is channeled through the discourses of commercialism and where identity is determined not by who you are but by what you own. The story ends on Christmas morning, with the children, amid their presents, jealous of the baby Jesus, both implicated in, but somehow apart from the commercialization of the season and secure in an identity-providing narrative they themselves never achieve.
If one had to identify the elements common to Caponegro's technique, they would probably be the ones we see in these two stories: a careful, beautiful prose style; a fantastic surrealism; and possibilities for meaning created by setting distinct ideas, voices, and styles into dialogue. These stories also show us the ongoing purpose of Caponegro's writing: her innovative technique, far from seeking to sever the representational link between life and art, ever tries to capture and articulate the complexities of being human in the contemporary world.
Caponegro's refusal to stand still as a writer has caused some confusion in the critical reception of her work. Unlike Moore, most reviewers, even when praising the fiction, have wanted to find ways to categorize it and thus have not always done it justice. Mary Banas, for example, after telling us that the stories in The Star Cafe "aim to shake up our intellectual universe" (one gets the impression this is not a positive thing for Ms. Banas), applies fairly obvious feminist "messages" to the stories (obsessive love, anorexia), which is, to my mind, a very limiting approach. Richard Eder, in a long, thoughtful review of The Star Cafe, places Caponegro in a cultural trend exemplified by the work of David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, and Madonna, makers of works that have brilliant style and execution but that "reveal nothing," that offer "sensation without experience" (3). He then seems to contradict himself by applying an overlay of feminist interpretation to the stories and finding meaning in them after all. Again, in seeking to categorize, he has oversimplified and distorted the work. Similarly, critics and scholars frequently have wanted to see Caponegro's work as representing Italian-American experience. For example, an essay on Caponegro's sojourn in Rome, by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum, appeared in the journal Italian Americana. While this approach to the work may be rewarding, it is also limiting. Caponegro's is an extremely rich fiction, which should not be bounded by the reader's preconceptions of feminism, identity politics, or theories of postmodernism.
Mary Caponegro was born on 21 November 1956 in Brooklyn, New York. She was raised Roman Catholic and educated for twelve years in Catholic schools, the long-term aftereffects of which can occasionally be discerned in her fiction. In the mid-seventies she attended Bard College in the Hudson Valley, where she came under the influence of the mentors who would encourage and shape her as a writer. One was poet and small-press publisher George Quasha, who was instrumental in giving her the courage she needed to start writing. Caponegro remembers that he "helped me understand about adventurousness on the page and in the imagination" (Letter). Another mentor was William Gaddis, fortuitously at Bard during one of his brief teaching stints. Caponegro recalls his presence, "this wonderful larger-than-life novelist" (Letter), the chance to study with whom pushed her toward being a fiction writer. The third and probably most important mentor was poet and fiction writer Robert Kelly. He guided her undergraduate writing, suggested books to read and entire areas to study, and, in general urged her, in her writing, continually to question the status quo. Given these early influences, it should be no surprise that Caponegro turned into the writer she's become or that she considers her own teaching such an important part of her career. She recently wrote to me about her Bard experience:
As teachers I do believe that we are indeed "modeling" through our behavior, and the relationship a teacher has to his/her writing and to the world and to the world of writing has a huge impact on a student or aspiring writer. The value of art, for instance. That this vocation was a worthy one. And that I was worthy to do it. Those basic things I had to be persuaded of, and when my work was too inchoate to be valid in any objective sense, I--because of who knows what, a quality of sincerity?--was accepted as if I were already an accomplished artist at Bard.... I guess there's no more conscious influence on this earth than that of a teacher whose job is to influence.
In the early eighties Caponegro earned her Master's in the fiction writing program at Brown University, where, still blessed with brilliant mentors, she studied with John Hawkes and Robert Coover, among others. She credits Hawkes with helping her learn how to build cause-and-effect, the narrative line, in her work and also with encouraging her to mine sexuality as a subject for her fiction. Coover's influence is most obvious in her formal experiments. Caponegro notes that one early story, "Analysis of the Vessel and Its Contents," is particularly Cooveresque. Both men introduced her to fiction writing as a profession, in fact, a big business.
Shortly after completing her Master's, Caponegro was invited by C. D. Wright and Forrest Gander of Lost Roads Publishers to submit some of her work for a book in their "Lost Roads Series." The result was Tales from the Next Village, a collection of seven stories, published in 1985. Around this time, too, she became one of the core group of writers around whom Bradford Morrow built his journal Conjunctions. That publishing relationship has continued to the present; Caponegro considers Conjunctions her periodical home, "The place where I belong." In 1990 Scribner's published The Star Cafe and Other Stories, which was treated, despite the earlier volume, as a debut collection. The next year, Caponegro was awarded the Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature, which funded a year's residence at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in Rome. This first of many trips to Italy provided her with the time to connect with her Italian roots, to learn the language, and, at the Academy, to collaborate with other artists, once again seeking ways to expand what her art can do. It also served as the inspiration for the series of fictions that would be collected as Five Doubts and published by Marsilio in 1998. Her newest collection, The Complexities of Intimacy, containing stories written over the same period of time she was working on the Italian stories, is being published this fall by Coffee House Press.
Since earning her Master's, Caponegro has also been a dedicated teacher, primarily at Hobart and William Smith College, in Geneva, New York, and in the M.F.A. program at Syracuse University. Thinking of the good fortune she had with her teachers, she remembers "the gifts that can never be repaid except by imitation--which is why a good deal of my life's energy has been for almost twenty years devoted to my own students" (Letter). Given her own aesthetic principles and the commercialized, conglomeratized state of the publishing industry, she thinks it is important for the future of imaginative fiction that someone teach "young aspiring writers to write against the marketplace's limitations" ("Impressions" 26). Bringing her career to something of a full circle, Caponegro has recently been named to the first Richard B. Fisher Family Professorship in Literature and Writing at Bard College, where she will be able to give to new generations of students the guidance and inspiration she herself received there.
Tales from the Next Village
Caponegro's first collection, Tales from the Next Village, contains two pieces, the title story and "The Star Cafe," which will open her first commercially published volume, The Star Cafe, five years later. The other five pieces in Tales show Caponegro developing her style and technique and treating themes that will continue to fascinate her. These include issues of identity, the constricting and liberatory possibilities for art, especially narrative, and the tension between the need to depend on and the desire to flee the family.
The first story, "Monday," is narrated in something of a fairy-tale style by a woman with an unsettled identity (she is nameless and throughout refers to herself as "we"). The reader follows her through a series of housewifely errands--visiting the cobbler, the tailor, the grocer--which seem to overwhelm her. She accepts the implied conventions of her society that tell her she is responsible for these and other chores, but she is also insecure about her ability to accomplish them; as it turns out, this is a well-founded insecurity, as each errand is a failure, and instead of accomplishing chores, she ends up with more to do and little idea of how to do them. Her role of victim to societal expectations is made most clear when, to indulge herself, she buys a single rose, something beautiful to admire amid her chores. However, she immediately loses control of the rose as the florist, the grocer, and eventually her husband see it and create their own stories about it and what it signifies about her. None of these stories is true, but because men create them, they have the power of truth which the woman can't contradict.
"The Vessel and Its Contents" begins with a narrator giving a rigorously objective description of a woman and two men rowing on a lake, plus another man, possibly in distress. The narrator then submerges herself into the consciousness of each of the three main characters in turn to explore the subjectivity of their relationship. The story takes on a garden-of-the-forking-paths structure as, at several points of crisis (e.g., one of the men jumps into the lake to rescue the apparently drowning man in distress), the narrator gives us multiple possible outcomes (e.g., the second man also jumps in to the rescue; the man and woman sail away, abandoning their friend; the victim turns out to be a tree branch, etc.). As the story jump cuts from focalization to focalization and possible narrative to possible narrative, the characters and the situation seem increasingly the product of the woman's creative imagination. In one section the men in the water wonder, "Where is the woman, who was the muse, as it were, of this whole project, who incited this rescue mission with her poetic imaginings and then the dangerous repercussions of those imaginings? Who will take responsibility for that reckless creativity?" (26). In another section the woman, "having just seen the tree she feels responsible for making into a man, thinks, `Did I really do that? Do I have such powers of evasion that instead of exercising the will to excise said men from my life, I had to create such elaborate artifice? I should recognize my power'" (19-20). Where the narrator of "Monday" was the victim of narratives, the woman here is empowered by her creative imagination.
A similar empowerment is seen in "Deformity," a precursor to "Materia Prima" in The Star Cafe. Here a young girl resists her parents' efforts to socialize her into the perfect young woman first by imitating the physical deformities of the misfits she sees at the circus and then by transforming herself into a variety of animals:
Several times a day Mother pleaded that Josie emerge, then threatened when instead of her young lady she saw a creature of some other sort.
"Time to go to gymnastics," and a rabbit would bound from the draperies.
"The French tutor will be here soon," and a parrot on the mantle would mimic, "Comment …