the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Novel as Camera

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“I’m going outside now. Come with me.”

Over the course of four months, Lucy, the main character in Kio Stark’s debut novel, FOLLOW ME DOWN, takes readers on a noirish quest to solve the mystery of an undelivered letter. Sent  20 or so years ago, the envelope contains a photograph of a young man with the words “he has it” scrawled on the back. Finding the man becomes Lucy’s obsession and everything else in her life drifts out of focus.

It’s suiting that Lucy is a photographer, an amateur with an old, plastic camera but a devoted practitioner with a philosophical appreciation for the medium. Through Lucy’s observations, Stark crafts detailed, nearly-tangible scenes. The reader is brought onto the street, keenly aware of neighborhood routines, shown the humor in a man sitting on the steps of a bodega drinking from a porcelain mug, and, side-by-side with Lucy, navigating the invisible boundaries of casual relationships. Nothing is too insignificant to go unnoticed—hair colors, lines on the faces of the elderly, curves on the bodies of young women, and the hidden moods beneath external expressions; we hear the sound of the pavement as Lucy travels, probing for clues.

At times, these intricate snapshots of the city feel as if they’re the real reason to read the novel. They’re a reminder to the jaded urban dweller, drifting through their day in a half sleep, that humanity surrounds them—and that it’s worth taking notice.

Stark’s career in academia appears to play a role in her approach to fiction writing. A straight line can be drawn from Lucy’s hyperawareness to the courses Stark teaches at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. While the name of the school might sound obscure, even cold or inaccessible, much of the program focuses on communal interaction in everyday life—both by studying it and by practicing it in the classroom. The program is not only made up of those who you would expect to enter this area of study, engineers and technologists, but also includes artists and designers.

Stark teaches classes called For Reals: Technology and the Illusion of Authenticity, Mediated Intimacy: Closeness and Distance, and perhaps the one that most informed her novel, When Strangers Meet, a course that explores the idea that even “the simplest exchange among strangers can contain a tangled accumulation of meanings”.

“I become fixated on what passes between men and women in the streets,” says Lucy at one point. “For a week it’s the only thing I can see, these scenes of solicitation and refusal. At the grocery store, I catch the manager watching hungrily as the checkout girl bends down to pick up a dropped coin. He and I stare at each other for a moment. I would like it to be okay for him to appreciate her, but it isn’t, because he is the boss and you can tell by his face he uses that for what he can. Something, this or else the heat, leaves me nauseous.”

Although a proof reader for a large law firm, Lucy chooses to live in the projects. She stands out as “the white girl with scarlet hair.” Her otherness is intentional, she goes where she will be an outsider because, as she says early in the novel, “sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you don’t belong.”

FOLLOW ME DOWN is a poetic mediation on a city landscape and, with Lucy’s peculiar mission through uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous territory, also a lesson in urban sociology.

Kio Stark’s website
Kio’s page on Red Lemonade (publisher)

Written by Gabrielle

June 20, 2011 at 5:53 am

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