The prose of Joanna Ruocco’s remarkable debut novel The Mothering Coven is so exuberant and thoroughly enlivening in its contagious and cheeky love for the mutability of language’s meanings that its plot often seemed to serve a subsidiary role to its stylistic rollicks; one could read for sound and linguistic play alone – its rhetorical approach to story seemed a narrative unto itself, and one could enjoy and take from this element of the novel as much – indeed, far more than – one could from practically any other published work out there, contemporary or otherwise. Since reading Ruocco’s new collection of stories, Man’s Companions, I’ve been tempted to return to The Mothering Coven and see whether these two facets – its style and its "substance," that is to say, perhaps erroneously, plot – are quite as easily extricable from each other as the ready fun of the prose alone made it seem to me. Man’s Companions hews to a several few styles, none of them quite what one could call “Ruocco’s own,” if only in the sense that, unlike in The Mothering Coven, her method seems not so immediately and brazenly unique; where The Mothering Coven at times felt like something of a novel as tone poem, the stories in Man’s Companions all seem a more cogent commingling of form and function, each narrative progressing, informing, and slyly abetting their respective needs. I now suspect I had missed a great deal of The Mothering Coven’s virtuosity by believing it, in a sense, to be the singularized alloy of two separate products: a wonderful, funny tale, and an exhibit of stunningly confident and unusual writing. Man’s Companions is something of a corrective to my reading of The Mothering Coven – an entirely unexpected one, as the novel is one of my favorites. But the short story collection commends Ruocco’s abilities as not merely those of a stylistically inventive writer, but as of a thoroughly capable writer whose stylistic chops are no less honed than her narrative, structural, and emotional ones.
Where The Mothering Coven read to me as a kind of sui generis gem, Man’s Companions offers its readers a considerable breadth of influences to apply to its various styles and subject matters. The early Lydia Davis seems not unfairly applicable, as does Amy Hempel, not merely for their separately singular abilities to convey a tremendous amount of information and a great emotional range with an economy of text, but also for the alternately insouciant and piercingly human wit with which they do so. It is this voice that informs the vast majority of the stories in the collection: they are told in the first person and relate the subtleties of its narrator’s quotidian thought processes. Many conclude with minor profundities or alterations that render the preceding text in a new light, casting the lives of their narrators, with a quick and acute nuance, in entirely new emotional territory. This becomes something of a structural crutch for Ruocco, and, after a certain point, many of the stories constructed in this way bleed into each other; it took me some time to become convinced that the stories weren’t connected in a less severely obscurantist manner similar to those of The Book of Disquiet or the untranslated Los cuentos de Juana. “Ugly Ducks,” “Small Sharks,” “Cat,” and “Canary” are perhaps the finest stories within the collection to use this last-sentence-heavy technique, and it’s likely not coincidental that they are also the first four stories of the collection: the style begins to wear after a point, and Ruocco’s stylistic and diegetic expansion later in the collection becomes increasingly welcome, as fine-tuned, effective, and acutely perceptive as each story individually is.
I first read this collection about two months ago; before beginning to reconsider the work for review, I read it again, and found, not entirely unsurprisingly, that I had forgotten many of the stories that fall into this structural camp, or that I had conflated several. The stories prove themselves tremendously ripe for rereading: they are so unassumingly complete that new elements and possibilities emerge with each reading. They are also, particularly when read alone and out of order, great fun. I had largely forgotten ever having read “White Horses” come my second reading; and, upon my second reading – in which I read it separately from the others –, I wondered how forgetting such a funny and observant and subtly imaginative story was possible. The same goes for such marvels as “Flying Monkeys,” “Hart,” and, especially, “Unicorns.”
The reason, I imagine, is that they come in such a quick flurry of other like-minded and stylistically similar – if uniformly perceptive and poignant – stories, and that this renders them artificially interchangeable. The brevity and unpretentious ease of each story makes one feel as though it is entirely possible to breeze through the collection; and it is, but doing so would ensure missing out on a lot. These last-sentence-heavy stories largely hew to the kind of first person narrative story released under a title with a profusion of personal pronouns. The collection is a slow progression, with several hiccups, from this style into other, singularly represented ones. “Represented” seems off-putting, as if these stories were mere pastiche; but each story manages to recall others stylistically while forging an unexpected emotional and narrative path of its own. This is what makes Man’s Companion’s such a revelation: one would imagine, after The Mothering Coven, that Ruocco’s interests were predominantly in the purely verbal; the “corrective” quality of this collection is its proof that her interests are far more inclusive and wide-reaching, that she has a rare ability to fashion wholly believable characters quite quickly and that her understanding of their emotional states is paramount to her. As the collection progresses, the usage of the style of the first stories gradually wanes, reappearing only to upend the conventions initially laid down. And it is the stories that are not told in this style that have stayed with me most, and that I enjoyed most during both readings. “Endangered Species” and “White Buffalo” are to me the most effective stories in the collection; they are two of the best stories I have read in a long time. And they could hardly be more distinct from each other, the former a hilarious, obscured account of record-taking and naming, the latter a broad and painfully funny story of the numerous quotidian problems that beset, to varying degrees, a school and its teachers and administrators. I have read both countless times; I cannot tire of their quiet ingenuity and the fascinated receptiveness Ruocco grants her variously adumbrated and expansive worlds.
Because of the uneven stylistic mixture of the stories within Man’s Companions, the collection feels somewhat cobbled together from the author’s tremendous output; the stories are uniformly wonderful, but their order and form lends them a facility that ultimately does the collection more harm than good: each story demands to be read separately from the others, as a singular entity, but they are arranged with an informality that makes it easy to casually read one after a casual other. That so many focus on characters of varying degrees of obsessiveness, indecision, anxiety, self-consciousness, and idealizing wonder – it would seem important to note that they are largely female, particularly given the implications of the title of the collection, but this implication is as far as Ruocco's exploration of the relationship of women to men goes; furthermore, the female characters are not specifically feminine or primarily representative of notions of femininity; I could relate to many of them more than most male characters of any works in recent memory likely has only to do with the deftness with which Ruocco has created each person – only further lends the stories a conceptual cohesion that I believe just distracts from the collection's strongest qualities: the acuity of its prose, characterizations, and rendering of emotion. But it seems like senseless grousing to focus on such things: we are lucky to have a writer like Ruocco elucidating, examining, and celebrating so much for us, and we are quite fortunate to now have another book that attests to her wide abilities. I cannot wait to read The Mothering Coven again; I imagine it will be as if it were the first time.
The image used for this review is a detail of Birds, by Robert Hodgin. It is used for the cover of Man's Companions.