Not enough has been written about how punctuation creates a mood, a style. Or perhaps the lack of punctuation: eschewing certain marks can force the writer to sustain a mood. She might fail to use quotation marks when a character speaks and then decide she likes it that way. Absence is a useful constraint.
Selah Saterstrom’s second novel begins with the word Listen, in roman, and ends with Listen, italics. We listen. We listen to the nameless narrator tell us about her misspent youth, bad boys and really bad boys, dead-end kids in the American South: “We are trying to have a picnic but no one knows how.” Our narrator goes to reform school, college, Scotland, somehow for a degree in religion, despair and freedom tangled throughout. Then back to the States for hallucinations or perhaps lucid dreaming.
No semicolons. No quotation marks. A handful of dashes toward the end but otherwise no dashes. The most intense episodes are carved in the most patient prose.
We turn the pages, each paragraph with its own little cordon sanitaire: the white of the line space helps cut through the teenage grime, bad vibes. It sharpens our sense of the beauty in a sentence such as “Everyone is passed out in the hallway or in the Kitchen Slash Den.”
Lyrics from metal songs float away from their sources to serve as chapter headings.
“I offer him flowers. I provide him with flowers. I provide one with flowers,” run the lyrics to the narrator’s favorite song. She learned it in a class and thinks it perfectly captures her love for Jack, with whom she “hooked up over orientation weekend.” The teacher tells her it’s a song the Aztecs sang to their gods before conducting human sacrifice.
No exclamation points till the end.
I am writing this on an old manual typewriter. It has a period key and a question mark key but no exclamation point key. To form one you can hit the stiff apostrophe, which has the shift position above the 8, and then backspace and punch in a period underneath, a snug fit, legible enough.
But who has the time? The exclamation point needs to happen in a burst, spontaneous. The exclamation point, I once read, is a slenderizing of the word Io, for joy.
Joy is not the point of The Meat and Spirit Plan.
In the penultimate chapter the narrator is in the hospital, imagining or perhaps actually talking to an unauthorized visitor, possibly the hospital janitor, who addresses her as Ginger Rogers.
The Meat and Spirit Plan ends with the word Listen, which takes us back to the beginning like the snake swallowing its tail, and then six grainy paintings depicting the scene from Top Hat’s climax, “Cheek to Cheek.” You remember: Fred and Ginger ascending from a bustling nightclub to some private paradise of urns and hedges (“I’m in heaven…”), a number that snaps from rapt swoons to jaunty tap. Ginger wears the dress with the ostrich feathers, like she has turned into some magnificent alien creature. Her skin has sprouted a thousand intelligent tendrils, which wave and intensify the electric field between the two.
But what is the “meat and spirit plan,” exactly? Saterstrom never says. But we’ve moved from the miseries of the flesh to wordless rapture, ending on Ginger’s whirling hem. A wave about to crash or the last relic of someone floating to heaven.