In the House
Lynn K. Kilpatrick, In the House
2010, 136 pages, paperback, $14
LYNN K. KILPATRICK'S first book, In the House, is a collection of stories with a rich emotional undercurrent. In precise, crisp language, these stories of stolen daughters and ending love affairs depict a desperate loneliness born of the impossibility of fully explaining what is felt, yet at the same time they show the tenuous ways we make connections, even in despair and heartache. As characters skip funerals of dead friends and turn away from also-grieving husbands, they choose instead to wait behind curtains and in basements, or to continue with the routines of living—their pain is experienced alone, so their emotion is truly theirs (and luckily, ours, too). These are sentiments rarely spoken of in polite society: thoughts and feelings that belie modesty, humility, and a sense of responsibility toward the people who are close to us. Kilpatrick’s honest rendering of her characters’ darker, unflattering moments creates a full picture of human experience that few writers capture so deftly:
He had the nicest collarbone I’ve ever seen. He was a drug, not like
aspirin, not a useful drug, but sugar or caffeine. I was addicted, I
needed the drug, but I didn’t love him. I didn’t love the drug. I
loved the feeling of running my tongue over the residue on my
teeth. And that is it. The ever after that, happily or not, lives on.
The title story will be refreshing for anyone who has ever taken part in a writing workshop, or for anyone who has ever pulled at her own work—whatever it may be—with such concentrated effort that the meaning begins to dissolve. In “In the House,” Kilpatrick draws attention to the ways in which many traditional and satisfying works of fiction are formed. We’re invited to explicitly notice the creation process and the general purpose of literature. Kilpatrick reminds us that, while storytelling may whisk us into other realities, those realities are fabrications meant to offer ways of understanding our own lives.
Kilpatrick’s roots as a poet are apparent in her skillful control of unexpected forms and unique stylistic arrangements. For example, interspersed throughout the collection is a series of seven “Dioramas of the Domestic Landscape.” The dioramas read as crude approximations of life: toothpick boys too fragile for their paper clip bicycles, paper-towel beds in too-blue rooms, baby bundles held in popsicle stick arms. The book explores the idea of the House and all the meaning implied in that word, and the dioramas’ repeated presence emphasizes the idea that domestic life is also a creation—a choice people make, for better or worse:
The man holds out his hand to the woman as if saying something.
As if his outstretched arm is sign enough. The woman stands,
hands at her sides. She observes the man, the modeling clay
landscape, the sky that opens like a shoebox. She seems to want
for nothing. Though she is plastic, and entirely red, she seems
content. Almost happy.
Echoes of non-fiction are present throughout In the House, too. In some stories, Kilpatrick focuses our attention on a specific object or theme—kitchen knives, say, or neighbors—presenting a character’s almost obsessive concentration, which effectively renders a given object as uncanny and interesting.
Funny, wrenching, like a secret you’re supposed to keep but feel compelled to whisper into someone’s ear, Kilpatrick’s fiction gnaws at the edges of human experience and hints at a thread of hope weltering beneath the surface—a sense of communal endurance even in the face of personal loss.