by Selah Saterstrom
Coffee House Press; 186 p.
Slab is the third book by Selah Saterstrom on Coffee House Press. Though it is a departure from her previous books conceptually, it still maintains some of the hallmark elements of Saterstrom’s writing that make her books compelling. The novel is composed of segments, broken into acts and the design of the book emulates a play handbill at the start of the book and before each act/chapter. Meat and Spirit Plan, Saterstrom’s last book, is divided into sections that begin with lyrics and lines from poems and prose, so she continues to play with the concept of chapter framing, but not in such a radical way that it would lose a traditional reader.
Like her earlier works, Slab follows the life of a young woman in the south, who must navigate the seedier parts of the city, where unscrupulous older men prey on her naivety, innocence, and vulnerability. Moreover, like her earlier novels, the character grows into an savvy and intelligent woman who is capable of walking the line between southern colloquialism, customs, and stereotypes while cutting people sideways with keen observations, well phrased dialogue, and disappearing acts when appropriate. Saterstrom’s strength as an author is her ability to straddle this line between the colloquial and the academic while offering us a deeply flawed protagonist who is both compelling and tragic. For example, our protagonist, Tiger, receives a book called Profound Women for her birthday. She is most influenced by the story of Helen Keller, so she decides to honor her through a dance routine. Saterstrom writes, “I closed my eyes and held out my hands like a mummy, one hand holding the water pail, and stumbled forward. The pole represented the well. I walked around it in circles, as if searching. When Helen made contact with the well it was a transforming moment […] I slowly backed into the pole/well and slid up and down, then with one hand I swung around it, the other hand still hold the pail […] Occasionally I’d take off a piece of clothing and toss it into the pail.” Here, we see the young protagonist, clearly seeking depth and meaning, trying to translate that inspiration in perhaps the most ill advised strip tease ever performed. It is this naivety that makes Tiger so fascinating. The reader is subject to nail biting moments of poor decision-making and comically awkward interactions.
Admittedly, I’m not a plot driven reader. Language is what propels me, and because of this, the end of the novel is slightly less important to me than is the journey through language. Saterstrom plays more with form in Slab than she does in her previous books. Though much of the book is written in first person and in past tense, it’s interspersed with recipes, poems, interviews, and sections of text that some may call hybrid (a mix of poetry and prose that leans neither too heavily on either). These sections help break the story, which is already narrated in jumps and starts, mostly linearly but not entirely. They feel like pallet cleansers. Pieces that still convey information that support the narrative, but that change the musicality of the book long enough that the predominate prose pattern isn’t tiresome. Saterstrom is not a flowery writer and she has the ability to create horrific beauty in simple lines, lines like, “[h]er skin slipped an inch from her lean sinew body, pulling her slightly down and forward”; and “I cannot get out though all the mouths of water complain.”.
When I teach Saterstrom’s books, the class is usually divided about the endings; optimists find the joy and pessimists find the pain. Slab will likely have the same result when I teach it next school year. Though we know that Tiger is a very changed woman, it’s not easily determined if she is emotionally better off at the end. Though I find Saterstrom’s endings greatly rewarding, it is entirely up to the reader to decide whether Tiger’s fate is half-happy or half-sad.