Mary Caponegro

By McLaughlin, Robert L. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Mary Caponegro


McLaughlin, Robert L., The Review of Contemporary Fiction


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. …

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