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Allen Boyer: A Review of “Patchwork” by Bobbie Ann Mason

Editor’s Note: Bobbie Ann Mason will read and sign copies of her book “Patchwork” on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, at 5 p.m., at Off-Square Books.

Bobbie Ann Mason.

“Patchwork” is a fascinating collection of works by and about Bobbie Ann Mason: short stories, novel excerpts, journalism, New Yorker sketches, short-short “flash fiction,” essays, and interviews. Mason’s writing has always been memorable, and “Patchwork” is particularly intriguing because its contents were chosen and edited by the writer herself.

“A collection like this is a patchwork autobiography of sorts,” she writes. “I see in it my lifelong tendency to look for patterns, and I see my rebellion against them too.”

As an autobiography, “Patchwork” often follows the history of Mason’s career. As any consideration of Bobbie Ann Mason should, it opens with stories from “Shiloh” and “In Country,” books that announced a great talent. After opening with fiction, Mason talks about herself – partly from her family memoir “Clear Springs,” partly from her 1975 book “The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide,” on detective fiction about teenage girls, and partly from stories about her fictional double Nancy Culpepper.

Ironically, the chapter on “Literary Meanderings” contains the most closely argued passages in the book, an essay on Vladimir Nabokov and an introduction to Mark Twain’s eccentric novel “The American Claimant.” What Mason says about these two writers may speak volumes about her own fiction.

About Twain, Mason remarks, “I claim Samuel Clemens-Mark Twain for my own personal heritage, as regional kin.”

“Mark Twain’s original boyhood language, the deepest source of his artistic energy, is familiar to me . . . .The language – not just the idiom but the intonations and rhythms and cadences – is the way my grandparents and parents talked, and it’s a language that is still spoken throughout the mid-South.”

Nabokov and his novel “Ada” gave Mason the subject for her doctoral dissertation. She remembers “trying to track down the hundreds or thousands of literary allusions, obscure words, and intricate patterns in this seemingly abstruse novel.” But Mason hardly stopped dealing with allusion when she left off teaching and started writing. In her own fiction, she unleashes a telling barrage of references – the story “Shiloh” alone mentions Popsicle sticks, Lincoln Logs, Rexall, the Phil Donahue Show, needlepoint Star Trek pillow covers, and Diet Pepsi – dropping brand names so constantly that that Mason’s writing was called Kmart realism. That counts as allusion, not to literary arcana, but to the ennui and banality of consumer culture. Mason’s carpet of allusion may be as thick as any piece that Nabokov wove.

Before four interviews close the book, Mason includes a selection of recent work, “flash fiction” stories published on-line. “Flash fiction,” she writes, “attempts to be a poem that reads like fiction, or a story that has the intensity of a poem.” For an example, look up Mason’s story “Cumberbatch,” which is about human love and the life cycle of the Great Pacific Octopus. It has 621 words and it hurts as much as any longer tale in this book.

In “Patchwork,” rightly, sewing is a theme. Mason writes that her grandmother quilted and that her mother sewed dresses from Butterick or Simplicity patterns. Yet a pattern is not all that dressmaking calls for, Mason writes; no design is ever complete. And likewise, “a story with an ambiguous ending is a reminder of the uncertainty and mystery – and hope – we live with, an ending that isn’t there yet.” Mason’s stories often finish on those notes, without clear endings. That hasn’t kept her from producing a fine book.

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