Born of Identification

By John Yargo

In a 2007 essay in Tricycle, Hannah Tennant-Moore wrote about the Buddha’s “Reflections on Repulsiveness.” In the “Reflections,” the Buddha advises his followers to ruminate on the very corporeality of our bodies, down to the “swollen, blue, and festering” bodies in a cemetery. This, Tennant-Moore points out, makes us “aware of all the intricate processes and parts that make up our bodies” so that “we are less likely to identify the overall image as ‘me.’ Disdain for our bodies is, in fact, born out of detachment, not identification.”

That unforgiving process of examining intimately the bare self—dismembered, grotesque, and alien—is dramatized in Tennant-Moore’s strong first novel, Wreck and Order. What, the title asks, is being wrecked and ordered? The contradictory, messy self of a young high-school dropout in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.

Tennant-Moore’s protagonist is Elsie Shore, a richly drawn character, someone who is impulsively drawn to disaster. As reports of detainee abuse and deep crises in American institutions emerge, Elsie foregoes college and flies off to Europe. (Americans travelling abroad during the Bush regime attracted complex, often-hostile reactions, but Elsie’s travel experiences, unlike the narrator in Leaving the Atocha Station, are fairly commonplace.) She falls into a job editing a magazine in Carpinteria and then quits. Personally, she vacillates between dating a self-destructive emotionally abusive alcoholic and a stable, upper-middle-class, but emotionally withdrawn, professional. Elsie finds refuge in Sri Lanka, which she visits over several years, growing close to a family there.

Her attempts at giving meaning and purpose to her mid-20s are comically thwarted. During her disappointing trip to France, she discovers a French novel, “a monologue of unrequited love for cats, narrated by a forty-year-old bachelor who strolls the Parisian streets seeking out and caring for strays.” She spends the next few years intermittently translating the book into English, submitting the translation to publishers, and then drawering it completely.

I especially admire how the novel gracefully drifts from California to Paris to New York to Sri Lanka. The prose is strong, with threads of melancholic wit and clarity. Tennant-Moore can craft a sentence that explores all the hatched ironies and contradictions within a moment in a life.

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