American Reader #12: On the Winding Stair
by Joanna Howard
Reviewed by John Madera
The Brooklyn Rail
Joanna Howard's lapidary debut On the Winding Stair is an escalier spiraling with brocaded lyricism, alternately swathed in darkness and bathed in phosphorescence. Metaphysical spaces coexist with vivid corporeality in a place where words aren't so much modified as they are baroquely embellished, cast in irreality; we have, as in "Ghosts and Lovers," "[t]he fantastic, the unthinkably thick swirl of sudden change."
Howard's book opens with "Light Carried on Air Moves Less," a story about a "perpetually insomniac specter" enamored of an eccentric beauty whiling away her hours reading from "a swollen, yellowed tome, Pauline's Life of a Madam," and sewing her approximations of the frilly outfits found illustrated within it. Consumed with desire as he watches her act out lascivious poses from the book, the specter pumps his handcar crank, the motion of which creates "a cyclonic whirl" that picked up the hair of the pale beauty, tore away the garish and delicate chemise and in a last, fitful tug, scooped up the long white body whose momentary rapture was focused on the vibrant earthly manifestation of a wind so powerful it could move rust-bound handcars on weed-lashed tracks, so powerful it could make a storm of scarves obscuring the moon, powerful enough to grant the wishes of pale, hungry girls.
Like a fever dream, every sense is heightened in these stories. Every smell is fermented, every sight is lush, every taste is pungent, every sound reverberates. The stories are sodden with detail, saturated with color and have a lacquered brilliance mirroring the luxuriant abundance of 17th century Dutch Golden Age painting. And they're simply choked with vegetation: the "melon-blossomed trumpet vines"; "long spindly shoots of Rose of Sharon"; "unvascilate" pasture grass; juniper shrubs; corn and sorghum fields; crops "yellowing and weeping downward, like, like suicides"; "trackside ditches of sumac"; the "weeping overhang of mistletoe clotted in the joints of spare-leaved elms"; catnip and crabgrass; mulberry trees; pyracantha; "lavender sprig nosegay" blooming from a dandy's buttonhole; the dandy's beloved apple blossoms; the "succulent leaves of purslane."
"Captive Girl for Cobbled Horseman" is about a waif of a girl who, "[s]evered and refitted… begins the flight to [a] strange future from [an] imagined past." "Exchange" is a tiny, mysterious gem almost bursting with intimations of seduction, intrigue, betrayal. "The Black Cat" is a dark set of nested boxes complete with car accident, hilltop mansion, creepy underground lair, and seance. Another apparition appears, this time from a "portrait in brooding oils" in "Seascape." Here, the narrator's unworldly infatuation with a dead sea captain gives way to love, and, in a bizarre twist, when the captain finally leaves, she remains to haunt the cottage. Another ghost appears in "What Was There Was Gone, Burning" and ends with another ghost's appearance. While the presence of ghosts is obvious in "Ghosts and Lovers" -- a novel in the Diane Williams sense of the word -- the atmosphere is no less mysterious.
On the Winding Stair's body count is considerable. Besides the implied, but long since decomposed corpses of "Light Carried on Air Moves Less" and "Seascape," there are the four great-uncles dead from gunshot wounds in "Captive Girl for Cobbled Horsemen," the car accident crumpled chauffer in "The Black Cat," and the drowned man in "Russian Doll" who bobs "like an undulating mound, a waterlogged paunch arcing out of the water." And there is the mother in "Ghosts and Lovers" who "had fallen from a train crossing the border."
While certainly sharing similar themes with Angela Carter, Shelley Jackson, Rikki Ducornet, and Kelly Link, Howard's style suggests Mervyn Peake, Jorge Luis Borges, and Michal Ajvaz, and Nabokov at his extreme descriptive best, as well a shared affinity for disjunction and refraction reminiscent of John Ashbery, all while gazing perspicaciously at language through the same loupe that master jeweler Wallace Stevens used. Howard's stories are, as one of her characters says, like "going through a maze, you can make so many turns. You may get to the center, but it would take awhile. At some point along the way, maybe you forget the center." In short, Howard's stories are, modifying a phrase from her book, "lovely views from harrowing ruins."