As I recall, Chavisa Woods’ first book of short stories concentrated on the downtrodden, disenfranchised, hard scrabble working poor in small Midwestern farming communities. By contrast, her powerful new collection, Things to Do when You’re Goth in the Country, opts for a much wider canvas, centering (with one interesting exception) on a broader range of Midwest types, from young lesbians dropping acid in St. Louis to a set of church matrons discussing church business to a jailed, addled druggie musing on blood in the sky.
One might say that in the book’s depiction of a depressed, victimized rural part of the U.S. itis not unlike the work of the last-last century’s Local Color school, which included such trenchant social critics as Mary Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland and Sarah Orne Jewett. If Things to Do superficially resembles Garland’s Main Travelled Roads with its bleak depiction of a sterile, culturally dead, oppressive Midwest, it shows even greater affinity to Jewett’s masterwork, The Country of Pointed Firs. In Country, a New York artist arrives in the “picturesque” coastal village ofDunnet Landing, Maine. It’s 1896 and the town is nearly deserted due to the collapse of the fishing industry. All that is left in the town are elders, all grown eccentric or even psychotic-- one thinks she is Queen Victoria’s simulacrum – due to the area’s loss of commercial vitality.
Woods’ equally bleak depiction of the Midwest is more savage, both in its delineation of economic decline and the residents’ pathologies. It also begins with the visit of an artistic New York City type to a broken rural burg, but the resemblance ends here. Jewett’s visitor is an interested, sympathetic outsider, whereas Woods’ visitor is a returned native, whom, in one of the book’s delicious ironies, has great difficulty making the mental shift back so as to minimally fit in with the cultural lifestyles/mind sets of her brothers and their seemingly inexorably jail-bound friends.
Another separation between Woods and the Local Color school is that she moves beyond their simple equation: deindustrialization = stunted lives, by adding the mediating factor of religion. But, again, she doesn’t settle for simplistic idea that religion is purely a compensation for wrecked lives, that is, the view that religion is the meth of the people. Rather than endorse such an un-nuanced idea, Woods depicts religion as a crucible from which can emerge both dysfunctional patterns and innovative ways to handle and surmount the Midwest’s situational bind. Indeed, what is the Goth style itself, but in many ways a flashy, purposely twistedriff on Christianity? The actions and ideas of the lead character in the book’s title story, such as her obsession with dead animals and self-mutilation, would not be out of place in medieval Catholicism with its bent toward contemplating human skulls and wearing hair shirts.
Still, it’s all about context. If Catholic Christianity in its traditional form is a repressive institution, being Goth in the country broadcasts dissent by manipulating religious tropes to present a rejection of … coping. Peter Lamborn Wilson, in Spiritual Destinations of an Anarchist, points to the possibly liberatory uses of religion, saying, “Even within the most religious of religions the natural human desire for freedom can carve out secret spaces of resistance.”
As the book establishes, many small town residents have internalized their economic displacement into an imaginative impoverishment, which is fearful and antagonistic to departures from the anemic status quo, whether they involve gender-bending, Goth dress or playing with Troll dolls. Yes, in the story “What’s Happening in the News,” a little girl, with aspirations to be a Christian actress, has to burn all her suspect dolls. The reader can see this is necessary because the Christian program Action Sixties “featured interviews with three kids, teens and preteens, claiming they had been woken up in the middle of the night by demon-possessed Troll dolls.”
In marked contrast to these forms of religion, the Goth style and other DIY religions that appear in the small town-- and this includes that of the church elders who seem to be secretly using a church basement to become Druids! – offer the sense that new spiritual configurations are necessary to overcome the social morass.
However, the depth of the presentation of religion, which is only one theme in this multilayered text, is that in contrast to Wilson, who for polemical purposes, sometimes over-glamorizes heretical faiths, is shown by the fact that Woods acknowledges that these forms of alt-Christianity, such as being Goth, are jumbles of self affirmation and self laceration. She suggests that in such a “burnt-over” zone of the nation, polluted both by toxic chemicals and toxic forms of hard-shell Protestantism, no one can emerge unscathed. Thus, the teenage Goth of the title story throws her Bible study group for a loop by “coming out,” as it were as a full-blown freak. She appears in church on the day she is to read the day’s scripture selection.
I approached the pulpit with my big red Bible … Chains rattling from my hips, and fucked-up Barbie doll-head necklaces hanging around my neck; Vietnam ear tokens honoring the violence of girlishness.
Note, though, this is not a repudiation but a detourning of Christianity since the passage the protagonist selects from the Holy Book runs: “And I will lay the dead carcasses of their children before their idols.” That is not Marilyn Manson but god speaking! Yet, to continue with my point, the Goth protagonist not only has the strength to repudiate the hypocrisy and mealy mouthedness of the church, she (at other times) also has the weakness to cut herself in a masochistic manner.
I mentioned that there is one story that isn’t set in the Midwest. Here, in “A New Mohawk,” the protagonist suddenly finds on his head a miniaturized, wall-penetrated portion of the Gaza Strip. Whenever there is a real life conflict there, little bodies fall off his head. Read allegorically, this story reasserts a point just made, from a global place, that, one way or another, the traumas of the world of patriarchal capitalism, cannot be sidestepped. You have a choice. (Or should I say, as in “Deuteronomy”: “I set before you life and death.”) You can go with the flow by joining with the life-denying forces or you can fight the power.
Woods book is consequential because it carefully unwraps the outcomes of each course, showing, in terms of how one practices one’s religion, this is not a black and white dichotomy but rather one of black/white and white/black.