Susan Tepper: dear Petrov
Pure Slush Books, 2016
Fiction Review: Bethany W. Pope
Published in The Ofi Press issue 47
Susan Tepper’s dear Petrov is a carefully considered collection of flash-fiction pieces formed from monologues delivered by an unnamed woman and addressed to her (possibly imaginary) lover. The fictions are occasionally intense, but there is a disquieting coolness in the diction, a detachment (conveyed through the revelation of small, unsettling details) which lends a hallucinatory quality to the work as a whole.
Some of the stories revolve around what life was like for the lovers before ‘the war’ came and forced them apart. Others project the narrator into a series of uniformly bleak possible futures. ‘Decay’ falls firmly into the later camp:
What will happen when the walls mold over and the softness falls in on us. Will we smother or find a way to break through. As fish do in the muddy bottom waters. The mold having what type of odor, dear Petrov. I am sensitive to smell. And what of our eyes. Will they go black from chimney soot pushing down into our rooms. Our rooms have always concerned me. You come and go as if no notice is taken. Decay. It’s the part that breaks me most.
Petrov, the idealized lover, is exactly as objectified as any Dulcinea. His hair shines, his sword gleams, he is always young and strong. He feels absolutely nothing beyond the basest physical sensation. He acts, but he almost never speaks. In contrast, the woman is almost always waiting. She ages; complains about aches and the lines cropping up at the corners of her eyes. She worries about her children. But even when she is the most engaged with the world around her, even when her fingers are clawing the dirt, there remains a sense of extraordinary detachment from the world around her. In ‘Embalmed’ she constructs a simulacra of a cake to feed the appetites of a man who might never be coming:
I knelt on the ground inhaling the scent of what’s to be. My bucket almost too heavy to lift. I dragged it into the shed, where my horse spends its glorious summer. Assembling your cake, dear Petrov. A layer of loam too soft to hold. I went back out and dug clay from the hillside, mixing it in. Watching your cake form— tiny pebbles cemented together the two layers. Decorated from the leaves of four seasons. How can this be time. When you finally return it will be set on a lace doily centered on the table. I am hopeful the yellow-green leaves won’t wilt from such long anticipation.
Tepper’s descriptions are exact, perfectly visualized. You can see what she is doing, as though through a pane of glass. It is that pane which presents the problem. The readers can observe this life, but they can never be moved by it. A part of this problem is caused by the diction that Tepper has chosen to provide for her narrator. The last sentence in the excerpt above, for example, is incredibly stilted. It reads like it has been badly translated from an eastern European language. The odd reversals of words, the strange choices (‘such long anticipation’) add and compound the sense of unreality infusing the text. If this is a deliberate effect, it is perfectly executed, however I strongly suspect that Tepper was aiming for desperate passion and missed her mark.
One of the things that Tepper does extremely well is capturing the sensations of waiting. In ‘Garlic and Lamb’ the narrator becomes so caught up in anticipating a moment of reunion (which might never come) that her own, real life falls to ruins around her:
My horse is spirited due to the bit of cabbage I put in his mash. That was the last of it, and the garlic has also been extinguished. Burnt, I am ashamed to admit. I burnt the garlic and the lamb while staring out a window. Watching certain leaves turning colors almost before my eyes. It is a strange thing, that what is called nature. We accept its vagaries unconditionally, yet we cannot accept love in that same way. I accept certain conditions about love. I accept its absences.
The speaker says that she accepts the absences of love, yet she does nothing to prove that she is ready to live in spite of them. Part of acceptance is moving on, and this narrator is caught, perpetually, in stasis.
dear Petrov is a strange, dreamlike book. Reading it can feel, at times, a bit like drowning. That is a testament to the skill of the author. While the supreme, almost alien detachment permeating the text was unappealing to me, personally, it is a legitimate stylistic choice that has been fairly well executed. Occasionally, the detachment uncouples the reader too far from the emotional core of this book, but for the most part the goals the author seems to have aimed for have been successfully met.