Giraffes in Hiding by Carol Novack
reviewed by Michelle Bailat-Jones
A book is a kind of country, a landscape conceived and constructed by an author out of words and images and ideas. Usually, but not always, there are people moving about this created landscape, inhabiting their country, and the book is, in that sense, a framework for their story. Whatever it is. Whatever shape it takes. Readers, then, are visitors to these fictional countries, tourists who are trapped, willingly, to watch and listen and be engaged. To experience the novel landscape and the story or stories it presents.
Like all travel, some literary countries feel less familiar than others. Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack is one such place—a country with atypical customs, startling creatures and unknowable rules. No field has been cleared in this landscape to make space for a small visitors’ airport. This doesn’t mean, however, that the reader/visitor should turn away; nothing about this challenging access suggests the inhabitants are hostile.
Thus emboldened, the visitor turns a first page and stands inside this new world, huddled at the edge of…of what? Where are we? Are these stories? Are they true? Is there a beginning, an end? Can we grasp the language? All good questions. Let’s say we are standing at the edge of an ocean (there are many fish in Giraffes in Hiding; the ocean is a convenient and fitting image) and dotted out across the distance are forty-two islands, forty-two worlds spread along a space-time continuum and forming a mythical history of Novack, whom we must consider the Goddess of this watery world.
These are islands of story, connected mainly by their geographical proximity. Shallow sandbars do exist between several islands, allowing for a quick jump across and back (of both visitors and several native citizens), but finding a logical, coherent or linear narrative, finding instant meaning within and between each new isle isn’t the point of our journey into this uncommon world. This we must accept early along on our trip, otherwise we are doomed to irremediable culture shock. A visit to Novack’s world is about experiencing a texture, listening to a new language, encountering unknown visions and images; maybe along the way we will discover a kindred emotion or a shared and understandable story.
There is much, really, to find familiar here. Childhood frustration and love and tricky relationships. Creative defeat and quirky conversations. Sex, too. The people living on these islands have a sneaky resemblance to people everywhere. And yet, as we draw closer, we detect a separation. Language is used differently here, the past and present are fluid concepts and the self is defined and challenged along unfamiliar lines. A visit to “Destination,” for example, prompts a series of unsettling questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?
You have come to rest. You think perhaps this is my town or close enough to the one I was walking towards, at least when the moon guided me like a mother it seemed to be. I can’t be too fussy; I will die with dust mites and sand crabs and there will be no home in death. But now, always now this town is different from then, at least my memory of soft greens and blues with gentle angles, or so it seemed, seems. This town is all glare with acute turns and sonic booms. It won’t hold me, rock me, is neither mother nor lover. It has so few dimensions for me though it has dimensions for the neighbors, I suspect. They talk about rules, have so many they can’t keep track of what’s forbidden. Too many of them stay indoors for fear of breaking a rule. The chandelier drops are cameras. They don’t understand. They make more rules.
We feel here the texture of Novack’s writing—those long digressive, unpunctuated sentences, the seemingly unconnected images, the careful defiance in the first-person narrator. Her prose is what makes Giraffes in Hiding an unfamiliar country; it is the ocean we must swim through to approach each island and it is filled with surprises and whimsy (much whimsy, in fact) as well as dangers and beauties. Here, a beauty:
One of you has felt me watching. After all these years, I can feel you approaching, my soldier. I can feel you and I cannot scheme. You are the one who stays away from churches. You are the one who does not laugh at women, the one who has no need to watch or listen. Do not approach, fair one. You are so close I can feel your hairs growing. Your hands are feverish, palms slightly moist, empty, open to touch, my soldier. One day, I catch you kneeling by your dying mother, asking: please, please, I want my self back, take me . . . back.
As suggested by the collection’s title, each island houses a myth, and the archipelago becomes a mythology made up of forty-two different Carol Novack’s and many Mothers and many Fathers and fish and starfish and men and friends and other women. Some of these islands contain an actual and complete memoir, like “A With/out Q Without Self” or “Cluck Cluck,” while others ask questions about the shape of memoir, of self-knowing, like “I am not who I think I am, or is it whom?”:
Take me, no no transport me. My papers are attached, with footnotes, headnotes, supras, infras, antes, and posts, all sources clear, clear to go, in their proper places. See, I must go, have this growing fear, no no, a chronic anxiety I will walk outside my house in sleep, as usual, not know where I am, may wander about and turn up under a stone not the same, no not, and perhaps I will kill or ravage; I have this horror that the years have passed have been passed without recognition by someone else, the passive voice as if I had never, no never had learnt to decline my self, or perhaps the point is that I do decline.
There is a long distance to travel back and so much extraneous extravaganza, I think I have lost so many parts on the way, I forget where it is if it is I, what is left, suspect I may be invisible, may have already misplaced myself, mistaking my self for a metaphor, may or may have, forget . . .
Pages are turned, stories are encountered, but a visit to Giraffes in Hiding does not begin and end with such simple turning and reading. Each of its forty-two islands invites multiple stopovers and renewed exploration, consideration from afar and scrutiny of its smallest grain of sand. In short, this is a fictional country which wants to be considered on its own terms, a landscape where story and language are given the freedom to explore their boundaries and be transformed.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is the Reviews Editor here at Necessary Fiction.