The Dictionary of Animal Languages
  • March 20, 2019


  • Heidi Sopinka

    4The Dictionary of Animal Languages
    3The Golden State

    Lydia Kiesling

  • Match sponsored by

    The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn
The Golden State

Rion Amilcar Scott: Millions of disparate thoughts flood through my head on a daily basis. A good 95 percent of them are completely worthless. I would presume this is similar for most people, but I can’t climb into anyone else’s head so I won’t pronounce this as a cornerstone of the human condition, or anything. For me though, a good portion of that 95 percent (the amount fluctuates depending on a number of factors) is actively harmful—shame, depressive thoughts, replays of past losses with myself as the victor, etc. When too many of these harmful thoughts back up I become listless and unfocused, writing becomes extremely difficult. If I’m paying attention I can see this burnout coming. Fortunately, there is often an easy fix for this: simply engaging in activities that tend to bring joy and mental clarity. In the little notebook that is often with me I keep an evolving list of such activities: taking a walk, a long drive, listening to gangsta rap (it works), etc. Near the top of this list is visiting a museum; there’s something about the contemplative aesthetic engagement of standing before a museum exhibit—particularly a piece of art in an art museum—that makes my brain feel as if it is drifting on currents made of clouds.

Rion Amilcar Scott’s short-story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016) was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His work has been published in journals such as Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Rumpus, among others. The World Doesn’t Require You, his sophomore story collection, is forthcoming from Liveright in August 2019. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Daphne, the protagonist of Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, is a woman who could probably use a good art museum. She finds herself in crisis when her husband is deported to his native Turkey, leaving her alone to take care of her infant daughter, Honey. Daphne leaves where she’s living in San Francisco and retreats to a family home in Altavista, Calif., where her deceased mother was raised. The book takes us through 10 days of Daphne’s life and seems to document every action that occurs and every thought that passes through her head in that time.

On day four, Daphne describes a morning with Honey:

I feel very cheerful and businesslike this morning—there are some mornings that start out like that, where I transact matters of household or professional importance in an efficacious way. I remove the furze of orange juice and cigarettes from my teeth and I think Today things are going to be better. I am wearing the white shirt with the stew on it from dinner two nights ago…

Daphne goes on to describe, over the course of a page and a half, taking off her clothes and changing Honey’s diaper, Honey playing with her breasts, a quick shower, picking up assorted things around the house and throwing them in the wash (on hot), feeding Honey some Cheerios and carefully sliced bananas while wearing a towel, reading to Honey (two separate instances), Honey prancing, how she admonishes Honey for getting too near to the stove… There’s more. It’s a lot. The pileup of details indicates that Daphne is suffering from anxiety and its accompanying runaway brain that shoots off with the force of a firehose. And of course she is. She’s been rendered a single mother unexpectedly and now the full weight of parenting is on her alone. Kiesling replicates this state of mind well, and when this narration is at its best, I found myself right there with Daphne trying to sort it all out. Sometimes, however, Kiesling perhaps represents this sort of anxiety too well and I found myself dazed and overstuffed from dining on a banquet of tedious detail.

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If The Golden State shows the rush of a mind at its most frantic, Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages is the mind wandering through an ethereal zone that is akin to a lucid dream. The protagonist, Ivory Frame, is an artist, and Sopinka writes with a charged language that reflects her vocation. Ivory goes to Paris in the early 20th century between the World Wars and meets Lev, a Russian painter she falls in love with. “Standing near him,” she says, “is like being under a low rush of birds.” This is a description that’s not simply evocative of an indescribable emotion, in my mind it becomes a painting and I can see it.

Though Ivory’s life work ultimately turns into a form of cataloging—a vast logging of animal languages—the descriptions of the book do more than simply catalog; they often begin as a depiction of a piece of art and spread out with emotional or philosophical resonance.

“I once painted the village I was born into,” Ivory says. “I sat there and drew it over and over again. Then I realized that what I loved was not the village but what the village pulled out of me…It is like a beautiful religious temple. To the secular world, it retains its beauty even though its original purpose no longer exists.”

Observations like this decorate the tapestry of the text, enhancing the emotional resonance of the story in a way that moves far past the ornamental.

I began this piece by contrasting the burned-out mind—overstuffed with thoughts—to the recharged mind, floating buoyantly, clear and unbothered. It would be unfair and an oversimplification to say that The Golden State represents a cluttered, anxiety-ridden mind and The Dictionary of Animal Languages a clear one. However, immersing the reader in overwhelm, as Kiesling does in The Golden State, is a risky strategy that often backfires. I prefer the language of Sopinka’s Dictionary and how it makes me feel I’m walking through lush dreamscapes from an art museum’s walls. For that reason, this round goes to The Dictionary of Animal Languages.

Thank you to The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn for sponsoring today’s match! Since 1960, The Bookstore, located in Glen Ellyn, Ill., has been committed to providing excellent customer service with a knowledgeable staff that provides personalized book recommendations for all ages and readers. In addition, they offer a wide range of unique greeting cards, games, puzzles, and gifts. Shannon Burgess and Gail Dickson purchased The Bookstore last year, and plan to celebrate the newly renovated store with a grand reopening party on Friday, April 26, and then as part of Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 27.

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Match Commentary

By Rosecrans Baldwin & Andrew Womack

Andrew Womack: I have to say, Judge Scott’s assessment is absolutely dead-on right in the comparison of the styles here. However, I preferred the style of The Golden State over The Dictionary of Animal Languages for the very same reasons he notes here. He’s right—”it’s a lot” for sure. But precisely what I enjoyed about it was the rapid-fire level of detail and internal overanalysis, and what I couldn’t get into with Animal Languages was, I suppose, the beauty of it?

Rosecrans Baldwin: I received a copy of Animal Languages in the mail last year from a publicist and added it to the to-be-read pile next to my bed, which is pretty much a black hole for good books. A couple weeks later, I went to Portugal for work, and when I was boarding the flight home, walking down the aisle, I noticed a woman reading it, looking pretty engrossed. I didn’t get a chance to ask her how it was, but I picked it up when I got home, read it in two sittings, and completely enjoyed myself.

(Unrelated, but I was on a plane about a month later and the woman sitting next to me was reading My Sister, the Serial Killer—the first time I’d seen that fantastic cover in the wild, and she could not have been more enthusiastic when I asked what she thought. I guess I love to quiz people in the skies who are reading books. Do other people do this too?)

Here I like Judge Scott’s evocation of a “lucid dream” if only because I really felt myself drifting in and out of Ivory’s thoughts. The book had certain problems I tolerated (the love story, the vagueness around the “science” of her dictionary), and I heard that echoed in the Commentariat the first time the book came around, but the depth to which I could slip into Ivory’s point of view, the rhythms of her emotional responses, was a dealmaker for me. And the fact that the story’s way of evincing feeling and thought felt more evoked than stated—there was just so much in this novel that held me. So when we talk about books finding the right readers, I was the right reader here.

But as much as I admired plenty of things about The Golden State, including the tension and twists through the end, its manner of rendering consciousness never quite clicked for me. How about you?

Andrew: The Golden State felt like a peek into a real human’s mind in a very—very, really almost too much—unfiltered way. Like stream-of-consciousness maximalism, or what Buddhism calls the monkey mind.

Interesting to see a reference to lucid dreaming here, too, as, at least in my experiences with insomnia, it’s not unlike the way Daphne’s rapid-fire thoughts are expressed in The Golden State. These novels have a waking-dreaming connection, possibly?

Rosecrans: That is very much an argument you can make.

Andrew: Anyway, The Golden State, at least in style, felt very true to life in a way I don’t see a lot, whereas The Dictionary of Animal Languages was a DNF for me, I’m afraid. After the mental rollercoaster of The Golden State, I just couldn’t get a foothold anywhere in Animal Languages. I know this was a favorite of yours, though, so I’m really interested to hear what you think about the comparison of language and style in these.

Rosecrans: One thing I noticed was that while normally I have a pretty strong aversion to lyrical or purple prose, which The Dictionary appropriately stands accused of, the lyricism never bothered me. I was hooked. Maybe because so much of Ivory’s perspective on her life and her memories was wound up in the language (I’m a sucker for first-person) it helped me sink deeper, like I said, into her point of view. The language didn’t feel showy to me because it served a purpose my personal tastes value.

And again, I really admired The Golden State. I liked Altavista. I liked Alice. But the book’s deeper meaning never really meant all that much to me.

So here’s a question: My wife and I don’t have children, excluding the nieces and nephews and godchildren we love. But you and your wife do. Considering the importance of being a parent in The Golden State, did being one, too, influence your read?

Andrew: You know, even as Honey is a constant in the book (save cigarette breaks), I rarely thought of Daphne as, first and foremost, a parent. On the surface, anyway, in that Twitter bio kind of way, she’s a lot of things: wife, university worker, daughter and granddaughter, Northern Californian—and yes, mother. But everything that happens in The Golden State throws all those identities into crisis: Her marriage is conducted over Skype, she’s struggling with the death of a student, the familial support network from her childhood is gone, she’s entangled in a secessionist movement—and now she’s suddenly a single parent. The result of it all is her worry, playing on a constant loop in her head, of how all these things affect Honey. But rarely herself.

And that to me is a pretty well-realized version of someone who puts everyone and everything ahead of themselves and their own needs. In other words, a parent. There are a few scenes where this idea of parenting-during-crisis comes more clearly into view. One is, of course, her decision at the end, which I thought was such a perfect way to cap off the novel. The other is when Alice tells Daphne, “You should be sure you have a way to support yourself,” and that line carries a load of meaning beyond mere career advice. What do you do when all the facets of your identity have been dismantled? You have to find a way.

Rosecrans: That’s a great, great point.

Kevin Guilfoile: (knocking) Hey guys, don’t mean to interrupt here, but I want to update everyone on the Zombie balloting. The Golden State seemed to me to be the kind of book that might get a lot of Zombie support. It’s accessible and kind of timely and (I thought) really enjoyable to read. It does not have enough, however, to break into our top two. My Sister, the Serial Killer and Washington Black remain our contending corpses for now, while The Golden State officially secedes from the Tournament.

Rosecrans: And there we have it. Look for John and Kevin to be back in the booth tomorrow for a pretty heavyweight quarterfinal matchup: The Overstory meets The House of Broken Angels. Will Statler and Waldorf sleep easy in the trees, or a big comfy bed? See you then.


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