Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall
University of Arizona Press
Paperback, 978-0-8165-3991-8, 168 pgs., $16.95
October 29, 2019
Chacón throws a burlap sack over the reader’s head then spins the captive around while tossing out verbal hints, defining up and down, left and right, inside and outside, plus a recommended reading taxonomy. Then, the bag is whipped off, the reader’s mind still reeling, and Chacón walks away with the suggestion, “Do whatever you want.” And that’s just “the Hidden order of things,” a second chapter-ette introduction to the short story collection whose table of contents lists every story’s page number as “000.” Are you with me so far?
Good, because there’s much for readers to sink their teeth into here. These stories are intricately freighted with layered, vivid iconography: insiders, outsiders, haves, have-nots; borders enforced and transgressed; time spent and recalled. Chacón dismantles the hardware of time, place, consciousness, and culture then reassembles the components with a curious, often inverted polarity. The result is a high-fidelity picture of bare emotions, explosive transactions, and symbolic reversals, in a Chicano-lensed portraiture.
It’s not an easy read. But really, Chacón isn’t so much unconventional as anti-convention: never mind punctuation and, in many passages, English: if you want the story, then you must fight your way in and take it. A casual reader can strip mine the collection and have an adequately rewarding face-value experience, but the jackpot comes from a deep-drill into the bedrock of Chacón’s reconstructed reality.
For example, in the semiotic hall of mirrors that is “lady of the silver lake,” Chacón stiff-arms the reader with a Cormac McCarthy-like bare bones punctuation and rudimentary Spanish interspersed with ragged Spanglish. The story arc is an ever-broadening misunderstanding clotted by layers of disparate perception. Misha, the rootless protagonist suspended between Russia and Mexico, lands in L.A. unable to sort out the polyglot, both cultural and linguistic. The common denominator of language becomes entangled with dissimilar cultural valuation: they all speak Spanish but the LatinX resent Misha not addressing them in English, while he can’t understand their resistance to Spanish. Nothing is as it seems when L.A. appears to Misha as a Hollywood film come to life, to Nacho as an X-rated video game, but ultimately, the never-named “lady” hurdles them both with a feminist power move. There’s a dreamlike intimation of maternal prostitution (“Misha, go play some more”) which may or may not be the cause of Misha’s and the lady’s incongruent connotations of the term “Chicana” that torpedoes their unlikely connection.
A story pitched even higher and tighter at the batter’s head is “The Enchanted Tiki Room.” Chacón fractures the mirror of introspection—a bit clumsily, as “he” in one sentence abruptly morphs into “the man”—and in the shards Chacón conjures an innovative triple simultaneity of past, present, and future. It’s a clever diachronic move that fuses the Bills’s singular consciousnesses into a revealing “now” forged from a vivid, trifold then.
There’s more, much more to test-drive in this compact collection. The writing attains a Sherman Alexie-ish caprice of time, place, and semiotics, and without a doubt, Chacón masters the art of pacing, imagery, and deft metaphor. Still, one wonders if he mistrusts the reader or perhaps even himself as writer: the second “chapter” spoof pulls the punch of what could be a bold cultural resistance a la Rigoberto Menchu, or a Salman Rushdie outright defiance. The signification of “the hidden order of things” is like a municipally sanctioned graffiti space: if it’s not transgressive, is it really graffiti? If Chacón forewarns the gabacho reader, is the revolutionary authority compromised?
That’s just one more elusive uncertainty to be pondered in this challenging but rewarding collection, best read and reread on Chacón’s terms, embracing his kaleidoscopic vision. “For our sake and yours,” urged Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, “forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.” That’s exactly what Chacón has done here, and if readers can hang with that, these stories soar.
Daniel Chacón is the department chair of creative writing at the University of Texas – El Paso. His latest book is a collection of short stories called Kafka in a Skirt: Stories from the Wall. He is the author of The Cholo Tree, and the shadows took him, Chicano Chicanery, and Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms, and Loops (2013), which won both the 2014 Pen Oakland Award for Literary Excellence and the Tejas NACCS Award for Best Book of Fiction for 2013. His collection of short stories, Unending Rooms, won the 2008 Hudson Prize. He is editor of the posthumous poems of Andrés Montoya, A Jury of Trees, and co-editor of The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes: The Selected Work of José Antonio Burciaga.
His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Latino Boom; Latino Sudden Fiction; Lengua Fresca: Latinos Writing on the Edge; Caliente: The Best Erotic Writing in Latin American Fiction; and Best of the West 2009: New Stories from the West Side of the Missouri. Chacón is recipient of The Hudson Prize, a Chris Isherwood Foundation Grant, The American Book Award, The Pen Oakland, and the Peter and Jean de Main Emerging Writers Award, among others.
He has a literary radio show called Words on a Wire.
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Chris Manno earned his doctorate in English at Texas Christian University where he teaches writing. He is the author of the award-winning Texas novels East Jesus and Blood and Remembrance.