Literary Arts: Book Review
Taking Care of Your Genetic Material
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
The phrase “taking care of your genetic material” first appears in Kirsten Scott’s smart debut novel Motherlunge through a father talking warningly to his son as the son begins to date seriously. But in the gynecological world of this novel where the female body is relentlessly inscribed with the bio-/medical terminology of a textbook, the “material” is a baby, the possibility of a baby and all that that means to the modern woman, in particular to the twenty-six-year-old narrator Thea.
Motherlunge is a full-frontal assault on every dappled, dimpled and doily-enhanced image we’ve had of both women and mothers. Think Sandy or Orem, Utah—scrubbed clean with culturally-defined markers of motherhood, riven with Victorian charms that are neither really Victorian or charming. Then think the opposite. That is Scott’s literary world. That the story is also hysterically funny even as it makes you squirm, is a tribute to the writing—an exquisite mix of the scalpel scraping along the physical curves of the female form and the cumulative, and ultimately sublime effects of pushing out another human onto a steel table: scrape and plop.
Thea is the second daughter in a family of four from Montana. Mother Dorothy could never quite manage being a mom, taking to her bed soon after the birth of both her girls. Early on she’s headed towards psychiatric care. Husband Walter is helpless on the scene, eventually booted out to his own place next to the local library where he works and finds refuge. So far American Gothic all around, it would seem. Then there are the girls. First Pavia, seemingly confident, definitely likable and also driven. After marrying, she’s moved six or seven states away to a “big city” that sounds a lot like Boston where, upon getting pregnant, she immediately separates from her husband Jack. This is where Thea comes in. She makes the trip east, settles into the town house with her sister and the now half-orbiting, very confused brother-in-law and a Great Dane pup the size of the original Honda to await the arrival of Xavier or “X” as he is often referred to in the book.
This is telling. Is “X” for Xavier or for some unknown variable in an equation whose sum is simply “catalyst”?
The story is Thea’s. The voice alternating between short chapters—sort of expanded epigraphs, really of present-day, older Thea—and the other, casing the narrative arc exploding from the catalyst babe. If Pavia is typical oldest child, Thea is definitely typical youngest: undisciplined, promiscuous, one who takes pot shots at everyone, archly clarifying her antecedents and wryly adding in the text “(italics mine).”
Thea has a running commentary on everything and everyone: Jack, whom she might sleep with; her sometimes photographer boyfriend; the “big city”; long-distance trucking couples; her hometown of Supernal, Montana…you name it. Even her uterus, bafflingly empty considering that she lies all the time about being on birth control, gets called out. And this is where much of the humor and irony plays out in Motherlunge. Even though she’s a smartass, you can’t help but find Thea compelling in her fragrant (and flagrant) observations that seem to characterize and carry along the whole of her tribe—suburban, white, western. She is a product of coming of age in the ‘90s when the entire country was just entering its late-stage narcissism, captivated as it was by a semen-stained blue dress in the Oval Office. Clearly her sister Pavia is bee-lining for something more respectable than a dysfunctional family in a small, Big Sky town out west. She’s vaguely aware of some kind of desire, but without ever any clear object that she might locate by going east.
“As I’ve mentioned,” says Thea early in the book, “my sister had always had the calmness characteristic of certain beautiful people. This population is characterized by the unfurrowed brow, the unhurried gait, the modulated and pleasant tone of voice. As a group, they probably sleep well. They are not nail biters; they do not pick their scabs. Their shirts maintain all original buttons. They make excellent corporate trainers, supermodels, and (I’m thinking) ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives. As sisters, they are reliable if inscrutable.”
Thea, on the other hand, is self-described as being pretty much the opposite if not simply a reaction to what her sister is—unable to say the right thing to her unraveling sister with the new baby and the estranged husband “co-parent,” as Pavia refers to him:
“Why couldn’t I be a comfort?” Thea asks. “Why did I always feel like something tipped over, poured out? I was like the cardboard canister held by the unsuspecting Morton Salt girl; my contents stung the ground in a granular line behind me.”
And yet our heroine has a strange strength to her that Scott deftly threads throughout the story and which rings true throughout. Yes, Thea, who articulates life as a kind of mold-infested petri dish, or the viscera at an autopsy—clinically delineated—somehow manages to figure out what she really wants. As with Pavia, she’s terrified that the DNA of mom will re-emerge as it seems to be doing for Pavia in Boston in her own lunge toward motherhood. But more to the point, she’s terrified that to get to know her is to discover that she is ultimately unlovable.
When Pavia pulls a Dorothy near the end of the book, Thea has her catharsis, a kind of ecstatic connection to not only her nephew, who is left to her care, but herself. “Only later,” she says, “did I realize what I did want, namely, to be that baby myself. I was jealous of X. I was jealous of his fat satisfaction, his trust, the way he gazed—unblinkingly, full of tolerance—at the blurred ovoids of his parents’ faces above him. And even if I did love X, he certainly didn’t need me to. And so for the most part, I didn’t show it.”
A mother is there for her child, but only through the “disfiguring crust of motherhood.” This is what every mother, including the expecting Thea at book’s end, must eventually know cannot be avoided.
What does Thea want as she lunges toward the vortex that will claim her and probably not redeem her in the end, or at least not as she imagines redemption should look like? Motherlunge is Thea’s irreverent love story, as it were, for her unborn child. And what she does want has something to do with “the weird joy of overwhelming responsibility” underscored—or “backlit,” as she says—by sadness. And that is the fulcrum upon which Scott’s brilliant and ultimately deeply satisfying treatment of motherhood rests. In the end the book is a gestation, culminating in the birth of a new world, a new heroine but without the cloying Hallmark-styling of mothers we routinely gaze upon when we should have, perhaps, been rooted in the smell of it, the terrifying biology and material of it.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
MEYER GALLERY UP: New Work by Andrew Ballstaedt.|1| "I use painting as a form of ritual and meditation," writes artist Andrew Ballstaedt, "where I often spend lots of time painting and repeating simple marks over and over again. I am compelled to spend repetitive hours making marks in order to reach my state of personal meditation through the ritual of painting."Through this repetition of simplicity Mr. Ballstaedt builds up to a level of complexity and sophistication which sets his abstract works apart. AND: Introducing Painter Rebecca Haines. Ms. Haines mixes oil paint (in the form of "oil bars") and waxed pencils on her wooden surfaces. She begins with a particular image in mind and then follows where it leads. Often her pieces suggest a story or fable that may include a trickster of sorts or spirits that are part creature and part human.|2|
Kimball Art Center UP: The Simple Life, Photographs by James Winegar.|3| "Horses have always been a part of my life. I grew up as a kid who loved to ride his mustang pony through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. For me, Horses naturally personify tranquility. They have a healing influence on me. Being around horses somehow helps me forget my worries and the current pressures of life. This series of photographs is meant to capture this simple connection of mine while displaying their noble beauty." The Simple Life is a stunning series of photographs exploring the majestic beauty and the tranquil spirit of the horse Photographed by a cowboy who is naturally drawn to their beauty, these pictures exude the sense of calm and serenity that he feels in the presence of horses. James Winegar is a California native, a graduate of the photography program at BYU and currently resides in Utah. AND: The Kimball Art Center Members’ Pin Up Show is a non-juried exhibition and sale open to artists who are 18+ years of age. UPCOMING: Painters of the Wasatch Mountains, a retrospective exhibit, drawn from the 2005 collector’s book Painters of the Wasatch Mountains and produced in a collaboration with the Utah Museum of Art and History, is a survey of the gamut of painters who formed and have carried forward an expression of nature's mighty gift to both visitors and residents of Utah.|4|
GALLERY MAR UP: FIVE, fifth anniversary show featuring work by gallery artists.
DISTRICT GALLERY UP: 3 is an exhibition of selected works in mixed media photography, mixed media and painting by three Los Angeles women artists whose work has been seen around the world and has influenced generations of younger artists. Nancy Uyemura’s work deals with memory, the physical artifacts of nostalgia and longing and suggests a fascination with the often whimsical associations conjured by cabinets of curiosity.|5| There are faint echoes of Georgia O’Keefe in the work of Sheila Rollins|6| and Jaimee Itagaki |7|whose graceful, abstract and subtle use of warm color and soft forms reveal complimentary sensibilities.
BOUNTIFUL/DAVIS ART CENTER UPCOMING: Northern Utah Landscapes featuring select works by LeConte Stewart|8| and Everett Reuss|9|. Additionally, there will be paintings depicting northern Utah landscape by 22 invited artists.|10| These paintings will feature areas in which LeConte Stewart may have painted in northern Utah. AND: A father-daughter exhibit will feature Don Prys|11| and his daughter Jodi Steen.|12|
Eccles Community Art Center UP: The paintings of Mac Stevenson of North Ogden and the Windfall woods of Joe Deru of Ogden will be on display in the Main Gallery; while in the Carriage House Gallery the paintings of Kirk Larsen of North Ogden will be featured.
Whitespace Gallery UP: MIGHTY/small. A group exhibition of diminutive yet powerful works. Each of the artists in the exhibition packs significant information and visual impact into a small package: Justin Wheatley explores the different sides of our region, where people are welcomed and also where they are asked to keep out. Wheatley uses photos, acrylic paint, and collage to create these works. Joe DeCamillis also approaches his exquisitely-rendered oil-on-copper miniatures (then set within books) with wit, but also nostalgia. Joe pushes the extremes of scale, creating paintings smaller than postage stamps that retain the precise detail that has become his trademark. Brad Greenwell's paintings withing paintings (and collage) are highly detailed, humorous, and possibly provocative. Dennis Mitchell's unique smoke drawings often resemble abstracted figures or ephemeral traces of gestures - ghostly byproducts of a normally-destructive force.
Brigham City Museum UP: Utah Plein Air 2013 Juried Art Exhibition.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: Female + Form, a selection of works from the museum's permanent collection embracing a diverse range of forms and showcasing work by important women artists. AND: New Acquisitions 2013 features nine works of art recently donated to the museum by the late Joe Austin including works by Alison Saar, Charles Gaines, Dewain Valentine and Peter Shire. AND: LUX, exploring how artists have used light as a medium or subject, including several large pieces by artists featured in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition from Los Angeles who are considered to be leaders of the light and space art movement of the 1970s.