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Close to Home and On the Open Road

Frottage and Even As We Speak, by Mona Houghton, 2012 –

Frottage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person as a means of sexual gratification. It is also the artistic technique or process of transferring an image from one source to another by rubbing. Transference, according to the same source, is the transfer from patient to analyst of repressed or forgotten emotions previously (in childhood) directed at some other person or thing. Loosely, transference is the emotional aspect of a patient’s relationship to an analyst. Frottage is all of this and more.

Claire, in Mona Houghton’s epistolary novella, lets us into her internal maze, as she puts it, through letters she writes to her therapist, Paul.

Claire grew up in the Hollywood Hills with two brothers, Richard and George. Claire was the middle child. Mom was a housewife; Dad appeared to be a solid figure.  Epilepsy runs in the family and Richard’s condition was particularly severe.  Of her adult relationship with George she writes, “Neighbors who know us will know we are siblings and the ones who don’t will think we are an old married couple, and everybody will be right.”

Both streets smart and edgy, Claire walks a tightrope between her public and private life. As we read letters that span a fifteen-month time frame, her adult sexual encounters and the secrets of her childhood are revealed to us, all the more poignantly due to the intimate nature of reading letters addressed to someone other than ourselves. We become spectators of the private childhood reality she and her two brothers inhabited, a world of cruel games (one is called “Singing Pillow” and involves an odd rotation of “slap/punching” and endurance), neighborhood vandalism, and incest. The tangled rearrangement of the children’s roles from instigator to conspirator, voyeur or victim, is fascinating.  As Claire writes, “I came to you, though, Doctor, for an exorcism.”

Claire has “an ocean of sadness”. She sees “childhood as this horrific battleground where the child loses almost every skirmish.” The hard exterior shell she has cultivated in her adult life helps keep her from splitting into a million shards. She will engage you in heart wrenching accounts of her childhood and then dismiss them by writing “Sad story, huh?”  She is compulsive and exacting, insisting she be billed for the letter-reading time, a calculation so convoluted it defies reason. She asserts the doctor is reductive.

“Dear Paul,
This is the problem with the whole process. It seems that in the effort to clarify you take a set of actions, feelings, and put names and words around these things that I, as patient, experience as amorphous and uncontrollable events and sensations, so eventually you, dear doctor, have only succeeded in being reductive because, bottom line, you can only categorize. You take a series of real life events, activities that involve the most private and delicate emotions, states of being, the tenuous and exquisite fibers that hold a person together-the threads- and then slap some diagnoses on this complex relationship. A sound – or two or three sounds pushed together-rejection sensitivity, compulsive-and you expect me to walk out of your office feeling better.

Instead I feel diminished.
Claire-“

There are sessions (recounted in the letters) where she lies to Paul and later confesses, and sessions where she must believe she is manipulating the process. She sexualizes all her relationships and fears she will always find her way back into a “dank pond” mostly because without it, she believes she will vanish. Her history, continually relived, is who she is. “I keep my sins cocooned so that I can visit them, pull them out of the file cabinet and replay them. Sometimes I’m warrior-like, returning to the battle ground, rebellious, powerful, free, scalps on my belt, notches on my gun, and sometimes I’m a regretful middle-aged woman who sits at dusk and lashes herself, cat-o-nine-tails, an inner voice screaming audibly.”

At or around Claire’s one-year anniversary with Paul, she writes that the year is worth celebrating because she is actually having a non-sexualized relationship [with him], and she starts to wonder how she will get used to putting words on buried things.  This is progress.

Frottage is a penetrating and disturbing story with perfectly constructed sentences that roll in one after the other and voice the protagonist’s strength and despair. Our emersion into Claire’s psyche is slow and steady, the intensity of her troubles skillfully measured by Houghton’s focus and control over the material.

With Even As We Speak we are far from Claire’s closeted home office where I imagine she types her missives. This is a fast paced assemblage of characters, who, under a set of unrelated circumstances are altered by a random encounter. We are on the road traversing a part of the U.S. that is not in the tourist guides and stopping off in a myriad of settings:  campsites, casinos, universities and road stops. It is hard to track where these characters have started from, circled back to, and are headed, and for that I wish the travels were less widespread and complex geographically. More than once I considered this story in pictures versus words, with gritty character portraits and broad shots of varied American landscapes. Even As We Speak is peopled with an adulterous kidnapping father, a biology student with an admirable cleavage line, an accountant and a couple of drug addicts, to mention only a few. Through snappy observations, we have no doubt that the narrator is not only well acquainted with the counter-culture some of the characters embrace, but is often of similar mindset.

We are given Brandon, the prankster turned urban warrior/eco-terrorist/adulterer, and we are told there is a “growing distance between Brandon’s thinking and what his realistic options might be.”  While on the move with the five-year-old daughter he has kidnapped, Brandon ponders the connection between his emotional and his spiritual self, which, as he puts it, has taken a beating. He blames this on the saddled middle-class life he fell into. “It happened gradually: being pregnant, getting jobs with health benefits and retirement plans, renting a two bedroom apartment, buying a car on time. It’s the kid thing. That’s what gets you by the balls and if you get got by the balls your heart and mind will, indeed follow. Conforming is a slow and suffocating process.”

In Even As We Speak, all the characters are facing change, whether self-induced or dumped upon them, as with Kendra, the buxom biology student. She heads out of town in her father’s Chevy – all the cars in this story are of the beaten-up economy class – but her meanderings are laden with so many diversions her story gets bogged down. That being said, Kendra is a sympathetic character, discovering the boundaries of her libido and sorting out a family history that will be a life-long albatross.

I latched onto Suzie. She is a part time accountant who makes sure her boyfriend has enough vodka in the house to quench a “four day bender” while she organizes her life enough to steal his car and leave town.  “Suzie’s heart lifts at the sight of the national park sign welcoming one and all to Death Valley. As she passes into the park she realizes she’s back in California, a state she thought she’d left for good, in fact her thought was to drive, non-stop, through Nevada, to pretend Nevada didn’t really exist as an entity, but Suzie hasn’t stuck to the plan. “

Suzie’s adventures offer astute observations and authenticity, as with her layover in Beatty, Nevada. Houghton writes, “Anyone who is a hired hand here is a full-time looser who gets a free trailer with heat and air that sometimes works, one hot meal a day, and three hundred bucks, in cash, a week that within seven days finds its way back into the hands from which it came. A self contained system – an allowance that circulates.” Here Suzie meets Fred, the owner of the roadside motel she is staying at. From his Laz-Z-Boy chair stationed under a pepper tree, Fred stops Suzie on her way to the casino and asks her to place a bet for him. She hesitates, saying she’s been on a bad run, but Fred insists, “‘Come on. You’re young and healthy. What more luck to you need?’”  Fred tells Suzie, “not to fret, that he can afford to lose the five spot, and it’ll change the channel for him to be able to dream, while she’s gone, about what he’ll be doing with his winnings.”

We learn that Suzie has a gambling problem but enough sense to high tail it out of Beatty once she realizes she has contemplated selling Dave’s car to stay in the game.  Eventually, she seems to find her footing, possibly jumpstarted by the happenstance encounter with her high school sweetheart, Rick. In an elegant description of aging, Houghton writes, “She watches him as he turns and looks for his Suzie from thirty-five years ago; she watches him as he finds the face he remembers behind the one in front of him.”

Once the characters get to where the story has driven them, Even As We Speak wraps up quickly.  After crisscrossing the states, the climatic intersection links the fates of some and ushers in the fatal demise of others, all of which make this cinematic story of misfits a reflection of the fragmented condition of our lives.

*************

Frottage & Even As We Speak, Available on Amazon April 2nd

Readings:
Beyond Baroque —March 31, 7:00pm
681  Venice, CA 90291
(310) 822-3006

Katharine Haake, Mona Houghton, Chuck Rosenthal, Ramon Garcia

Booksoup—April 15,  4:00 pm
8818 Sunset Blvd.
W. Hollywood CA 90069

Katharine Haake, Mona Houghton

The Last Bookstore —April 21, 7:00pm
453 S Spring St, entrance is on 5th St

Katharine Haake, Mona Houghton, Karen Kevorkian

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