The riddle of Mere Tragedies hinges upon the impossibility of discerning where the line might lie between stylistic choice and the fumbling of haste. In promotional materials, we are told that “every aspect of the work, from content to formatting, is aware of the isolation of contemporary existence,” which may, itself, be one of those statements warped to signify something, viscerally, about said isolation. I’m simply not sure.
These tiny vignettes, some only around sixty-five words, lack titles, injecting us, instead, immediately into a scene: a couple eating dinner, a girl walking to the store, “Strangers waiting to piss at the diner they frequent for its 24-hour, bottomless, buck-fifty coffee and smoking section.” There is a strategy here, for sure, of the jump-cut, the jagged fracture. A man is introduced who “finds hope in the consistent uncertainty of weather forecasts,” and then he is gone again, forever. And phrasing matters, certainly, either stitching together associations via a surreal turn of words (“…his father is already asleep on the couch, the snoring mouth an open wound on his mother’s face”) or reiterating the swift intrusion of character, of fact (“the homeless man falls into view”).
But at other times, what may be an attempt to infuse syntax with a sense of “isolation” seems more like mere garbling of language. Consider this strange passage about the behavior of children to worms after a rainstorm: “Some kindly kick them to the dirt, but more likely, step on their exhausted bodies in bewildered disgust.” Amidst the glut of adverbs and adjectives, there is also an absence of noun, or a confused phrasing. Does the same “some” do both of these things, at once? What I can’t figure out is whether this is a literary tactic or a mistake. Women, we’re told elsewhere, “feel more sensitivity than men,” the phrasing of which is perhaps a wry joke, and at another point we’re told “Decisions entrap the maker inside the moment of decision until paralyzed by choice” which has, itself, a paralytic effect. Is Palmer intentionally structuring these sentences in order to inflict, on her readers, something akin to vertigo?
There are other oblique passages Palmer seems surely to have designed for sound (“The boy accuses her bladder. She defends it. He accepts insistence,” one story ends, for instance.), passages where punctuation is forgone in favor of some kind of desperate pace (“When I speak to the face of her fears, I speak about death. I quote the great writers, tell her we will die and we are born and all that matters to me is I have fallen in love with you forever”), passages in which verb tense is twisted in order to emphasize a lapsed conditional (“Her husband, before they had married, told her he would marry her for her inherent sense of self”), but Mere Tragedies is also marred by what must certainly be editorial errors—a word is split by hyphen and space mid line, a sentence ends without a period, a proper noun goes uncapitalized, one character is given “a propensity for ease-dropping,” the color violent “compliments” black, etc.—casting doubt on the idea that a line like “A man late for work speeds past a man who jauntily strides in his direction” is an attempt at assaultive literary innovation. One is left with the sinking feeling that much of this book might just be sloppy writing, preserved in vacant sans-serif font (that formatting, aware of isolation).
Mere Tragedies, in the end, is a riddle. As its awkwardness dovetails with its subject matter, the baffling or broken or bludgeoned phrase may well be the point of the text. “In mirrors, the body is almost certainly not the real body, so that the physical body remains lost between the reflection of the soul and the soul,” for instance. But experimentalism that passes as something other than experimentalism, experimentalism that can also just read as sloppiness—this is a weird situation, at best. I’ve read it and read it, and I just can’t be sure.
The best this review can do is chart out what I’ve seen and allow the text to speak for itself. Here, then, is the final line of the book, leaving us, as readers, with jangled nerves: “While no theory has yet studied the mental health of abundantly touched patients, scientists have observed that newborns without human contact do not gain weight and slowly die.” Savor that phrasing. Then tell me, is this a technique designed to reveal to us, as readers, something essential about the contemporary condition, a procedure for calling linguistic expression into question even as it stumbles ahead, conveying pieces of narratives, scenes of tension and terror, claustrophobia and the tourniquet of routine?