photo by Andria Williams
I just finished the beautiful and affecting Sleight by Kirsten Kaschock, and I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it. It was a novel written in poetry, in dense, brief little chapters — each one a rounded, shiny truffle with a spider lurking inside.
What two forms could be more different than poetry and the novel? Poetry produces gems, small rich things to turn over in your mind all day long, little hauntings to revist you as you dust the mantel or brush your teeth or let out the dog that last time before bed. And then a novel, for me, is a movie: for flopping onto your belly with a bowl of popcorn, for being swept away in, for falling in love with characters. I don’t usually fall in love with the characters in a poem — the poetic voice, maybe, but not the characters. And wouldn’t so much poetry be too rich for a novel?
Somehow, Kaschock makes it work. She is a poet who loves her characters, and her writing, though rich, won’t make you feel ill if you read a lot in one sitting. Somehow each poetic chapter doubles itself — you’re reading just a little more, a little more, and the language becomes not an obstruction but a guide, a guide on a subway no less, until you’re reading faster than you should be but you still can’t stop. Kaschock venerates language like a poet, but, like a novelist, she’s crazy in love with her characters. “The characters were/are like family—hard to lose in that way,” she says in an interview, citing the day that, while unloading her dishwasher, it occurred to her how the novel would end.
Novelist, poet, dancer, mother of three boys!, Kirsten Kaschock
The title, Sleight, refers to an art form Kaschock has invented for the book — primarily dance, but incorporating elements of architecture, spoken word, acrobatics.You won’t be surprised to learn that Kaschock, in her own words, “collects advanced degrees” — she has a Ph.D in English Literature and another in dance; she’s attended Yale and Syracuse universities, among others.
Lark and Clef are two sisters who have been practicing the art of sleight since they were young. They have been estranged for six years, in part because of a minor betrayal over a lover but also because of larger familial trauma; they have now reunited to dance for a troupe director named West, who is pushing the limits of the form. As the book jacket reveals: “When a disturbing mass murder makes national headlines, West seizes on the event as inspiration for his new performance, one that threatens to destroy the very artists performing it.”
While a murder is referenced on the book’s jacket, it feels less like a driving force of the plot than it is a sort of umbrella of commonality under which the characters operate. At the moment we find out about this murder, we find out who did it and why they revealed themselves. This is no murder mystery in a traditional sense. It is a rumination — on murder as a personal act, as a bad national habit, as a flaw of humanity. The murder referenced here is used to psychoanalyze the characters, to work towards their healing or lack thereof. How they will relate to one another, how or if they will forgive one another — these are the mysteries we wait until the end to see resolved. It might not work if Kaschock’s characters were not so immensely riveting. Her pacing is also dead-on — just when we might start to feel mired on one character’s consciousness (or, as the character Clef describes her sister: “narcissistic…focused on [her] own darkness”), we move to another character, to the delectable mysteries that make them both human and otherworldly.
“His father’s face has had, for some years, the blurred edges of a twelfth-century gargoyle — its granite angles sloughing off, one by one, degrees of severity. Deserts are not to Byrne location but pestilence: a desert is slower locusts” (p. 100)
A desert is slower locusts. You can feel the poet playing there, all those s sounds making you say locust, locus, deserted slower locus. And yet there’s the concrete image of sleightist Byrne’s father, his disapproving gargoyle face, aging, or changing in Byrne’s mind. It’s beautiful. Beauty throbs through this book like a heartbeat.