Patricia Eakins

By Palleau, Francoise | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Patricia Eakins

Palleau, Francoise, The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Walking the wrong way, I necessarily fall behind not only the vanguard but the army of its imitators. Already I have walked past the prostitutes, trailing the army in rags and rouge. I am gleaning with the naked, scabby beggars behind them, scraping the dirt, pawing for scraps, trying to put together a soup from shattered stones, sucking the shards for unwritten runes.

--Patricia Eakins, "In That Case, What Is the Question?" Colloquium for Original Voices, Brown University's Festival of Innovative Women Writers, 11-13 November 1993

To introduce Patricia Eakins's work, what comes to mind first is the delight her style provides for the reader. Eakins is a craftsman and works with language to give a unique flavor to her stories and novels, with tongue-in-cheek sternness, irony, and playfulness, but also with incisiveness and anger at times. She is into displacement, by which I mean that she deftly displaces her stories and settings and our readerly expectations of what the characters should say or do next. Slight variations in language will transpose us into an odd recreation of eighteenth-century literature in her latest published novel, for example, with certain shifts and subtle changes that manage to surprise us and unsettle our sense of what a decorous use of the eighteenth century might do. Or, as she puts it, "The truth is that I don't work in traditional forms. I work in re-invented traditional forms" (qtd. in Palleau, "Conversation" 85).

So far, apart from uncollected writings, she has published only one collection of stories and one novel, both of great intensity and masterful craft in her use of language. She is an archetypal victim of her commitment to noncommercial literature or, to put it differently, a born resistant. She is not, however, a difficult read and mostly follows a fairly straightforward story line. The odd displacement is what she calls "a side-ways scuttle" (qtd. in Palleau, "Conversation" 86) and does not in the least obscure her work. She is simply and powerfully a teller of tales who gives us something to chew on once the book is closed and also, a writer whose use of English gives us the odd notion that we may be discovering a new language, or a new usage of a language "we did not know we knew," to misquote Robert Frost.

Biography, or How to Connect

Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1942 and was raised in Birmingham, Michigan. When asked about the languages she learned at school, she mentions a dead language that is not part of her direct family heritage: "I studied Latin for four years in high school and in some ways it was my favorite subject, though I was a lazy student and took advantage of my own facility. Latin gave me the delicious sense that I could read a language of the elegant and remote dead, a language of kings and priests and poets, not a language like Swedish that would smear me as a parvenu ('right off the boat') in the Anglophile bourgeois town I grew up in. Latin was a language of cosmopolitan freedom" (E-mail to author). For Eakins, delving into the etymology of English words gives a writer the freedom of playing with language, as she dramatizes in her story "The Shade Man," in which the narrator, who is also a writer indexing her own story, inserts rare words in the texture of her sentences, thereby working out as she writes her program of "redeeming etymological possibilities" (97). The Latin word regeneratrix is inserted in italics, and the sentence structure is disturbed in syntactic havoc: "the way regeneratrix save pennies or string or every fortune they ever page 7 the wreck of unwordable, page--comma, comma, coma--please!" (97). This writer, who seems to have gone wild with the cut-and-paste function of her word processor, takes erotic delight in articulating words, all the more so if they are rare, long Latinate ones and unexpected in context (as argued in Reading Patricia Eakins (Palleau-Papin, "Patricia Eakins" 80)).

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