2 January 2010

Selah Saterstrom's The Pink Institution (2004)

In the world of Southern literature, Southern Gothic is by no means rare, and indeed continues to be strong, but although Southern Gothic is stange and disorienting, it isn't 'experimental', by which I mean that the form and the style don't challenge existing literary norms. But unfortunately many people simply don't see Southern literature in the same serious way that they see other literatures in the U.S., and I've banged on about north-eastern literary hegemony for some years.

And the general misconception of Southern literature as 'realist' is as wrong-headed as the conception of working-class literature as 'realist' is, and in the case of Southern literature this label neglects, for example, such writers as William Faulkner, Frances Newman, Barry Hannah, and Padgett Powell.

And Selah Saterstrom. Saterstrom's first novel, The Pink Institution, is a short book that must be read very slowly, as its revelations aren't digested easily.

The novel is divided into five main parts. The first is extremely fragmented in that it contains four sections introduced by what appear to be (partly obliterated) thoughts on 'The Confederate Ball Program Guide 1938': these sections all contain large white spaces between the words, and there is frequent incoherence. The second part is as long as the first and divided into three sections: 'Childhood Objects', 'Maidenhood Objects', and 'Motherhood Objects', which are in regular prose but each contain information about the family. The third part is very brief, but the only titled one - PSALTER: (Birth Interim). Part four takes us up to the present day. The final part five is a kind of coda.

The novel, in effect, is a very short four-generation saga - from post-bellum decay and the attendant social problems of (self)-abuse, through to trailer park hell. Via any route you can think of. This is a very powerful, and very disturbing, novel.

I'll comment on Selah Saterstrom's second novel, The Meat and Spirit Plan, in due course, but I hope it's as accomplished as this is.

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