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August 30, 2016

Book Notes - Kirstin Allio "Clothed, Female Figure"

Clothed, Female Figure

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kirstin Allio's stunning short fiction collection Clothed, Female Figure is filled with skillfully crafted stories of complex women.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"There is something reminiscent of Alice Munro in Allio’s stories, a similarity in how both writers can fit novel-like stories into fewer than 30 pages, flashing between years past and present without a hiccup. […] The way she works her way into and out of her plots is skillful, but it’s the writing itself, so deceptively easy at times, that is truly breathtaking."

In her own words, here is Kirstin Allio's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Clothed, Female Figure:

Music makes you a time traveler, and I found myself zoomed backward and sideways when I considered some of the stories in my collection through music. There were competing time signatures, a story in an even-handed 4/4 against a memory like a rushing heartbeat. If the collection were a piece of music it would be in polyrhythm, as the voices of mothers, daughters, wives, friends, housecleaners, and nannies swerve, collide, cross-reference, juxtapose, and echo one another.

"Isthmus," Dizzy Gillespie

My title story, "Clothed, Female Figure," skirts the edges of an unorthodox year I spent at Bennington. "All art and relationships," says the college girl, Leah, in the story. Yes, and for me it was also the walking bass line. "Clothed, Female Figure" progresses via a series of letters Leah writes to her estranged Russian nanny, Natasha, over a summer she herself is babysitting in Italy. The older woman chooses not to reply, protecting her private sorrow. Leah and Natasha become counter-narrators across continents, in an odd syncopation.

I listened to jazz for the first time at Bennington, after a righteously classical childhood. I'd quit practicing my cello, but brought it with me on a whim, and it turned out that the music department was open, and magnetic. Dizzy Gillespie's insistent Isthmus is emblematic of what I heard in jazz: conversation. Where classical music had seemed located on a sort of astral-emotional continuum, jazz was talkative, constructive, peopled. I love the way the instruments are differentiated—characterized—in Isthmus: the throaty horn, playing at crude, the almost slick piano, and then there's that matter-of-fact, self-possessed, street-smart walking bass line. I walked right out of Vermont and on down to New York City.

"Glasspieces," Phillip Glass

Phillip Glass was on rotation in steamy downtown dance classes in New York in the 90s—Twyla Tharp had grabbed "In the Upper Room," but I always like "Glasspieces" better, it was both ecstatic and intellectual. Trance-inducing and highly grammatical. The cassettes would get hot, thin, and finally threadbare; there were seaweed-colored ribbons of tape snarled in every street tree.

I was writing Still Life when I heard Phillip Glass live, a few years ago. The story is about female friendship in motherhood, and one woman's struggle to understand, and forgive, her friend's suicide. There's a lot of interior static, nerves misfiring, obsessive, bricolage thinking in the story, but a pattern emerges, and a kind of redemption, like in "Glasspieces."

"Close to Me," The Cure

I got my first Walkman and suddenly I could prowl for three or four hours through Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Longer than the life of a pair of batteries. I used NYU like a commuter school—I was alienated, on purpose—and there were long warps between classes too, charged with loneliness. "Millennium" follows a young woman adrift in New York, and "Close to Me" might as well be her soundtrack: the synthesizer dirge, quick panting breaths like footsteps on concrete, the inside-your-head vocals. "But if I had your face"—strange lyrics. Almost wracked breathing. All those oncoming faces, suspended—masks, mirrors?

"Where It's At," Beck

"Quetzal" is a novella about grad school, alcoholism, a lost mother, and social class in New England. It bleeds all over the place, and takes a dizzying look at the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Beck's "Where It's At," clamorous, twangy, scraping, homemade-sounding, and dense with reference, takes me to a windswept apartment at the top of a triple-decker on a backwards-feeling side street in deserted Providence. It's always February. Garbage cans tumble and bang around outside, grad students in unwashed jeans and layered sweaters seem to be perpetually, spiritually molting.

I love the refrain, "Two turntables and a microphone," the only furniture in one of those barren rooms, catching and refracting fragments of stories…

"The Wilderness," Ella Jenkins

"Ark" describes the claustrophobia of motherhood, and unfolds on the fourth consecutive snow day in the life of a stay-home mother. My first son would wriggle himself up on the kitchen counter in order to banshee to Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins. "Ain't gonna study war no more!" he trumpeted. (Later he asked me what war was.) But Ella's steady, driving rendition of the spiritual The Wilderness was what mesmerized him, and helped me through interior snow drifts.

"A Little Green," Joni Mitchell

I've never been much of a connoisseur of information, even as a teenager I left the lyrics on the inside of an album cover alone: life was moodier, more mysterious with mondegreens. I must have listened to Joni Mitchell sing "A Little Green" ten thousand times and I never knew it was about the baby daughter she gave up for adoption. Technology and motherhood arrived for me simultaneously, along with the sometimes desperate need to preserve a sense of self: as of this writing I still don't have a cell phone, but I do have a teenager who commands Spotify, and an 8th grader who pounds the piano with unprejudiced joie de vivre. My short story collection goes from pay phones to Pandora, and while I've assiduously buried technology as a time marker, I defer to time, always.

In "Green," Anna, 84, a former Dutch colonist resettled after WWII in Amsterdam, hosts a pair of American girls student-traveling through Europe. A summer evening spent in the old woman's verdant garden—wine, the girls' youth, their human warmth—seems to move Anna to tell the story of her first son, lost as a toddler during the war, in Indonesia. Then time collapses, and as if in a dream or a fairy tale, a reunion unfolds. I would never have had the chops to write such a story if it weren't true. I revisited Joni Mitchell in shimmering youth on YouTube—her pink blouse, her ear sticking through her long candy blond hair, her querying, brave voice, laying her true story out with tenderness but no self-pity, laying her secret on the altar of the universal.

Kirstin Allio and Clothed, Female Figure links:

excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Necessary Fiction essay by the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author

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