How do I write about Feebleminded? The stream of consciousness narration has not been simplified into overtly signalled shifts between present, past, dream, or reality. Instead, we are presented with a bombardment of visceral impressions and thoughts that express an intensity of existence, forcing the reader to find their own sea legs in the ebb and flow of this young woman’s mind, slowly understanding that she was forced into an early sexualised adulthood by her single, alcoholic mother.
Though her life might give the impression of someone feebleminded, her language won’t allow it. She describes her mother’s face as ‘The face of a zealous alcoholic, of someone caught in between, body tingling with desire, granted neither death nor satisfaction’. She describes a day in which her mother runs off – it’s suggested this is a fairly common occurrence – and after hours of looking she finds her under a bridge: ‘I move closer, she looks at me then walks off to finish filling the lake with her vulva.’ These aren’t the words of a feebleminded woman. They are full of careful observation and precise detail, buzzing with a longing for things to make sense in a way that drags meaning from taking a piss in a lake.
As she grows up, she becomes the breadwinner incapable of holding down a job. She imagines her colleagues looking at her and thinking her ‘a feebleminded woman who’s come to get rid of her foetus’. But, we wonder, what does it mean to be feebleminded? To have others decide your intelligence based upon the length of your legs, the curve of your arse, the depth of your cleavage or the colour of your hair?
These women are not making sensible decisions, true enough, but they do things that make sense within the confines of the world they have created for themselves within the one thrust upon them. And so, slowly, the narrative drives further towards the sinistre and their relationship, so constrictive of the narrator’s sense of self that she feels only briefly free in intimate relations with a man, forces her desire down a fiercely possessive route.
Compelling, conflating, convoluting and sharp, Feebleminded is another example of how brilliantly Ariana Harwicz uses language to explore the self and its complicated relationship to itself and others. Thank you Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff for this fabulous translation.
I’ll be reviewing I Remember by Joe Brainard next.