Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Jenny Boully: not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them

Jenny Boully’s subject is love, its pleasures and disasters, and her latest book, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, is a showcase for Boully’s unconventional methods in pursuing that subject.

Her first book, The Body: An Essay, presented the reader with footnotes to a blank text, privileging the afterthought and bringing into question the distinction between the extra and the necessary. Her next book, [one love affair], took us through the demise of several relationships, despite the “one” of the title, and used sources as diverse as Marguerite Duras, Severo Sarduy, and Carol Maso to act as a textual framework for a piece that isn’t clearly poetry, prose, memoir, or fiction. Her follow-up, The Book of Beginnings and Endings, was a kind of magnificent prose cento, where every essay was created through the beginning and ending lines of other texts.

In all of these books, an associative narrative forms via repeated images, source texts, recurring speakers, and allusions. If there’s an overall critique to be made of these works, it’s that the textual play or disruption can seem to take precedence over what’s created from that disturbance, though of course this is a matter of taste. This meta-awareness is most noticeable in The Body, where semiotics, film theory, and academic references pepper the footnotes, but by the time we reach The Book of Beginnings and Endings we see the work of an author far less interested in showing us the marionette’s strings as she is in seeing how it dances. Likewise, Boully’s associative narratives have been subtly reining themselves in from book to book, and the unwieldy cast of characters that float in and out of The Body narrow to a manageable handful by [one love affair].

In not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, the subject of love finds a perfect frame: J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy . Peter and Wendy is Barrie’s novelization of a stage play, originally intended for adults but significantly altered for a child audience. The later Disney adaptation, Peter Pan, bears only a passing resemblance to the original story. Boully’s book retells the tale through the lens of memory, bringing the subtext of sexual and adulthood anxieties into the foreground. Tiger Lily, who competes for Peter’s attentions in the source text, is here even more overtly sexual, “her thong all encrusted with the little shells from the seashore…she doesn’t shave her pubes, and they’re all sticking out and out.” Wendy, who, as in the book, plays house with Peter in a kind of mock-marriage, wants a “marriage made more real” and is regularly associated with images of growing, pregnancy, and menstruation.

Also brought to the fore are the intentional and unintentional cruelties of Peter, about whom we are told: “this much is ever so real; this much isn't make-believe. Peter Pan can do a great deal in ten minutes. He can do a great deal to you. For example, he can put a little something inside of you, and you will carry that for the rest of your life..." Peter’s avoidance of adulthood not only affects him but also others. The Lost Boys are forced to wear bear suits even in the heat of August, and Tink is regularly imprisoned. Peter’s treatment of Wendy is a particularly cruel one; even as they act as husband and wife, she is ever aware that she will be discarded once she grows up, that is, once her body and her desires make adult demands on him.

Like her other works, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them employs meta-textual devices to provide a recursive commentary. The top portion of each page loosely corresponds to the plot of Peter and Wendy, while a kind of visual pun, a “sub-text,” runs along the bottom portion of each page, entitled “The Home Under Ground.” These passages often concern domestic matters in the underground home of Peter and Wendy, and at times seem to comment on the above text by providing additional information or a different perspective on events. Boully also highlights the authorial hand of J.M. Barrie, characterizing it as “a certain something? Like a hand that keeps? That keeps on interfering? I wonder what would happen if not. Would we still be “all here, free to do and choose?” By drawing attention to what is and isn’t included in Peter and Wendy, Boully establishes her book as the “true” story with all the details, even the unseemly ones. This intimacy is further reinforced by Boully’s use of point of view, predominantly from Wendy’s perspective, but also fluidly dipping into other characters’ such as Tinkerbell, Hook, Tiger Lily, and often, Peter Pan himself. Just as in Barrie’s original, Peter Pan ultimately seems a tragic figure, whose refusal to grow up leaves him lonely and estranged from those he loves or would love: “Wendy, you loved me. You loved me with the holes in my socks, holes in my knees. I fly over your house, Wendy, over and over and think to see you, but I never do see. You.”

Jenny Boully
not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them
Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011