Sunday, December 12, 2004


"Interstitials," by Kate Schatz
Blithe House Quarterly

Here's one for you language freaks out there. The narrator of "Interstitials" (spell that five times fast) has a profession that explains the story's speed and gloss: "I make - design - interstitials. Short graphic works: pre-commercial lead-ins, post-show showcases." In other words, she does graphics for TV, filler for the empty spaces between content. She speaks in streams of disconnected words and phrases, each one shorthand for a visual effect, a mood, a time period -- the jargon of visual design. For example:

He goes: "It all reminds me of last month, but OK."

Last month was pinstripes, ineffective love, security concerns, code orange, the same old dill sauce, a brief heart stop, the helicopter over the bridge, a missile pointed, everyone I love in a metropolis, another doctor, the only not-sham.

Schatz, of course, uses this shorthand ironically: the lists are meaningless, not just because all jargon is meaningless to outsiders, but because the words are so divorced from reality. The emptiness at the core of her work has infected the narrator's life, and though she denies it, she does suspect it:

Sometimes the thought comes: what if I leave? What would happen? To me, the world, my stuff? To just go, be one of those people with no money but nice simple foods, in a place with a great deal of green, and space, and animals. I go with this for a moment, then remember: that is unappealing. My life is amazing. There are 17 new messages in my inbox.

Fittingly, "Interstitials" is formless -- it's a snapshot of the narrator on an airplane and in an airport (both places where people are in between their point of origin and their destination). It falters occasionally, particularly toward the end. The narrator stops to explain her profession (fortunately for me, so I could quote it here) to an intrusive, unwanted companion in the airport bar; it's clear that Schatz felt she had to explain what interstitials were. I'd argue that this is untrue -- it's clear from the text that the narrator creates TV advertising. We don't really have to have it spelled out for us, and if we do, Schatz is good enough to do so less obtrusively. As it is, the passage reads not as if we're eavesdropping on the conversation between two characters, but as if Schatz is talking to the reader -- a temporary failure of point of view that pulls the reader out of the fictive dream.

It's almost as though Schatz couldn't quite figure a way to finish after a great start. As the real world intrudes on the narrator, her linguistic pyrotechnics fade away, and the story's energy goes with them. One can argue that this is part of the narrator's growing disillusionment with her work, but this is ultimately unconvincing. The reality around her -- represented largely by the conversation of her companion at the airport bar -- is unpleasant and unattractive. No, I think Schatz understands that for her story to be more than a glossy portrait of a profession and its attendant worldview, she needs the everday world, with its low production values, to intrude upon her narrator's bubble. But once it does, Schatz seems to find it as enervating as her narrator.

As if to revive the story's flagging spirit, Schatz conjures up a violent event on the runway, which the narrator, watching, instantly begins to mentally translate into a graphic sequence. As an ending, it's serviceable enough, but here's the final line:

We grip our stools and sit glued to the scene, and the acrid airport begins to violate my nose.

"Glued to the scene?" Schatz, like Homer, is nodding here. She displays a sensitivity to language that's far above average, so it's hard to believe she'd finish her story on such a cliche unless she was distracted or rushed. The same is true of "the airport violates my nose."

But don't let my grouchiness dissuade you from reading "Interstitials." It reminds me at once of Donald Barthelme, with his elfin humor and preference for surrealist juxtapositions, and of Joan Didion -- whose best essays unfailingly record the way language is used to misrepresent uncomfortable facts -- and that's no mean feat. I'll be looking for more of Kate Schatz' work, and so should you.

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