by Selah Saterstrom
Coffee House Press, 2015
224 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Laryssa Wirstiuk
In contemporary American politics, the only way to be heard is from behind millions of dollars, a teleprompter, and a polished podium. However, in contemporary American fiction, a voice need only be compelling, coherent, and candid to reach an audience with its new perspectives. Glitz and glamour be damned! “What we want to know is if you can shake that ass. Ten ways from here to Georgia.” Author Selah Saterstrom provides an outlet for a multifaceted and charming stripper named Tiger, who tells her story and shares her own brand of wisdom from a slab, which is all that’s left of her Mississippi home after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it.
The novel Slab is Saterstrom’s third book published by Coffee House Press. Her first book, The Pink Institution, was published in 2004, and The Meat in Spirit Plan followed in 2007. All three books explore the major recurring theme of coming of age as a woman in the South, without privilege, surrounded by stereotypes and acts of self destruction, and under the constant male gaze. Furthermore, all three books are collages of the real and imagined; cultural and historical references like Ginger Rogers, Helen Keller, Barbara Walters, The Civil War, and Hurricane Katrina ground the sometimes surreal in cheek-slapping realism. In addition, Saterstrom’s narrators charm the reader with their mix of naivete, natural curiosity, and keen, intelligent observation.
Upon first glance, the pages of Slab seem to a theatrical script arranged in two acts: the first act, which occupies most of the text, focuses on protagonist and narrator Tiger, while the second act follows a character named Preacher. Though the book is being marketed as a novel, it has already been adapted for the stage, in a theater version produced at University of Colorado Boulder’s Atlas Black Box Theater in August 2014. A quick glance at the text will also reveal that the form does not appear like that of a traditional novel; instead, the book includes paragraph-long sections of text interspersed with song lyrics, poetry, recipes, and script-like dialogue exchanges between Tiger and Barbara Walters, who is interviewing Tiger about her accomplishments.
How can a reader not feel intrigued by a character who dresses up as Helen Keller for her stripper routine? On one hand, Tiger is the embodiment of fallen, young, white woman, but on the other hand she breathes her own meaning into stereotype. By telling her story from a slab, Tiger reminds readers that she’s giving a performance, in the same way that she performs for the strip club’s customers. The readers are not being given all the facts, and that is clear in the way that Saterstrom glosses over minor characters as if they are figments from dreams. The novel’s stark and varied form also mimics a careful sleight of hand.
Tiger is self aware in a way that’s been discouraged by her influences and environment. Saterstrom writes, “I only wanted to be like other girls. I did not want to be how I was: a stripper who worked in what could only be called a ‘sub-genre’ way. Then I saw myself outside myself: a woman sitting in a hot parking lot, picnicking on a crocheted blanket, dressed like Maria from The Sound of Music. I couldn’t finish my lunch. I did not want to be how I was.”
Most moving is the way Saterstrom portrays Tiger’s relationship with language, which builds upon her eventual rise to becoming a bestselling author. In one passage, she describes how Tiger longed for an early lover to describe to her the other women he was seeing: “I supposed the Girlfriend List was the first poem I learned. It set up a certain relationship with language, if you know what I mean. From the warm, just-opened space, the heavy light of the body leading to pleasure in the darkness.”
On the surface, Tiger may seem like another Southern stereotype broken by her environment and inescapable circumstance. But Tiger is a woman who receives the book Profound Women as a gift and then uses it as a tool to overcome the boredom of her daily ass shaking routine; it’s what inspires her to dress like Helen Keller for the male customers. Tiger is a woman who was once moved to tears by a game of Scrabble. “It was overwhelming and suspect to think of each letter having a point-related value.” Tiger has stories, like the one about the 18th century killers who used to live on the property of her family home.
Slab is a deceptively simple book. The language is spare, and the 200 pages can be read in one or two sittings. However, a complex and delightful character lives among these pages. Though Slab is not as powerful a Bildungsroman as The Meat and Spirit Plan, both books communicate Saterstrom’s quirky and eerily magical portrait of the American South as a force that can derail a person’s life or propel her to enlightenment. The slab, with its potential to be a sinking ship, serves as a launch pad for a character whose own natural talent and intelligence prevails despite all the forces – natural, manmade, and imagined – that attempt to destroy her.