The first line of Nina Shope’s Hangings, a collection of three experimental novellas, shows the connection between a mother and a daughter and, while doing so, immediately connects the reader to the scene at hand: “When they are reading like this, her head on her mother’s breast, the empty shell of her ear covering her mother’s nipple, it is as if they have become one fused and fantastical creature.” Shope, expanding on this line, endows the scene with its own calm and reverberating breath. “The girl hears her mother’s voice resonate with each ear. The stories entering her right ear are of myths, monsters, transformations. Words of the mouth. Yet the left ear, pressed to the breast, hears a second strain of sound. A language that comes from the nipple. A humming, which begins in her mother’s throat, fills her ribcage, echoes through the dome of her breast.” Shope evokes the essential magic of words and of the mother through this sensual description of reading. She also reminds us to listen with both of our ears – one taking in the resonance of the words – when reading this memorable, original novella.
The plot of this first novella, “Hangings,” is, like Shope’s language here, rooted to the body. We soon learn that the mother, who is never named, has become ill with breast cancer. To describe this change, Shope uses words that create a rhythm of disruption; and in between these words come silent spaces that are filled with a new sense of isolation for the daughter: “And her mother’s breast sounds suddenly hollow. Emptied of everything but tissues. Glands. Tumors. And knotted veins.” The mother will no longer be reading to the girl, who also is never named over the course of the novella. The girl is becoming a woman and now is too old to be read to, says the mother, who believes her daughter “should be going out. Seeing friends. Meeting boys.” As the once “fused and fantastical creature” falls apart, the mother and girl must embark on their own physical transformations into, respectively, illness and womanhood. Shope illustrates how these transformations are every bit as strange as the myths that the mother is describing in the opening scene when she is reading out loud from what turns out to be Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In her second novella, Shope uses Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as her central allusion. “In Urbem” is an exploration of an ancient city populated by winged women, vestal virgins, priests, lovers, Caligula, Caesar, his mother, architects, nurses, senators. Part of this crowded city is powered by “the friction of bodies in moments of desire”: “when lovers quarrel the quarter is dark for days. sometimes it is lighted for weeks on end. luminous. the lovers’ bodies raising the temperature to an unbearable degree.” Shope is drawing upon Calvino’s cadences in Invisible Cities, altered by her own preference for sentence fragments, and throughout “In Urbem,” she is also borrowing on the basic premise of Calvino’s book: her city, like his invisible one, dwells within the imagination and appears to be many different cities at once. But unlike Calvino’s novel, which reads like a fanciful and philosophical poem, Shope’s “In Urbem” is often airless and without whimsy. It sits beneath the architecture of Invisible Cities and stays there, suffering from a lack of movement.
The last novella “Hagiographies” begins and ends with a quote from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Shope enters the territory so sharply explored by Barnes in Nightwood by taking on the subject of obsessive, destructive love between two women. The prose is polished as it is throughout the book and the ending is a quiet surprise, but the relationship between the women remains superficial throughout much of the piece. It doesn’t help that one of the women is solely referred to as “the girl with the black eyes.” The phrase is repeated often, along with “the girl with the pixie haircut,” another character, who, quite possibly, is friends with Aimee Bender’s “girl in the flammable skirt,” I don’t know. I do know that the repetitive phrases soon annoyed me, and I realized that Shope was not living up to the wonderful promise of her title novella, “Hangings.” She was not allowing her girls to transform into women, and as a result, the last novella suffers from an odd gap. The external reference to the complicated and poetic Nightwood seems disconnected from the flatness of the characters contained within the story and the coy clichés Shope uses to describe them.
Originally posted on 6.9.2006