Wednesday, February 26, 2014

NEW! Review of Joanna Howard

Foreign Correspondent by Joanna Howard. Counterpath Press, $16.

Reviewed by Rebecca Quillen

Joanna Howard’s Foreign Correspondent is a brief testament to the world of high culture and the journalists who endeavor to report it, blending the tangible and the fantastical as it proceeds in episodic bursts of prose unified by a whimsical reverence for the allure of the past. The novel delineates the struggles of free-wheeling heroine Johnnie James as she strives to extricate herself from the feminine drudge work of the “domestic correspondent” and launch her debut into the glitzy, highbrow realm of the serious reporter. Along the way, platforms such as the study of jiu-jitsu, sports journalism, and extensive insect collections provide unexpected moments for reflection on the complexities of societal convention and human communication. 

Johnnie’s story unfolds in a series of charmingly told vignettes that take the form of various types of correspondence, from heart-wrenching, soul-baring love letters to casual missives hastily tapped out on the screen of a “magical touch device which was recently outfitted to exact specifications at a retail outlet by a male youth in a midriff sweater wearing a tag that said ‘genius’.” However varied the mediums of Johnnie’s communiqués may be, the narrative arc is pleasantly energized, rather than disrupted, by this multifariousness of form. Two running undercurrents connect Johnnie’s numerous dispatches and form the backbone of the girl reporter’s tale: her efforts to win the respect of the philosophical man of the world Alphonso, and her continued ineffectual attempts to form a lasting correspondence with Scooter Mackintosh, a reticent boxer who hails from her hometown.

Johnnie’s narrative is very much an exploration of dichotomies: the foreign is pitted against the domestic, professional against personal, and the highbrow against the philistine. Johnnie plunges headfirst into the mystical world of yakuza mobsters, Dominican monks, and exotic birds, hoping to discover that certain intangible quality that will enable her to ascend to stardom while Scooter, the local “Bricktown Butcher” and the embodiment of everything with which Johnnie is familiar, remains strangely elusive to her, displaying a perpetual and unexplained reluctance to answer Johnnie’s plea for a continued correspondence. Scooter’s mysterious distance serves as a poignant reminder that the “foreign” may be closer to home than we think.

Also at the heart of the narrative is a deep appreciation for--and allusions to--the world of vintage mystery and intrigue. Though concrete details ground the story clearly in our own time, nostalgic Hitchcockian tropes dance from page to page, paying a whimsical homage to the 1940 film from which the novel takes its name. Despite being thoroughly steeped in the trappings of the twenty-first century, Johnnie seems to express an impractical longing for the covert thrills of World War II-era espionage and intrigue, articulated in indulgent flights of fancy when the circumstances her own life fais to slake her thirst for adventure. She even resorts to the careful construction of a fantastical alter ego that evokes the glitz of wartime reportage. “Next I’ll take up my pen name Ute Brynstock,” Johnnie rhapsodizes as a sort of apology for the mundanity of her career thus far. “Ute Brynstock, reporting from the aftermath. Ute Brynstock, on the trail of the assassin.”

Beneath the surface of this admiration for the glamor of the past, however, is a compelling and, at times, troubling tension between Johnnie’s fanciful visions of a bygone era and the realities of her own contemporary existence. In no instance is this tension between archaic and modern clearer than when the girl reporter negotiates the perpetually shifting of her own femininity. Johnnie struggles to escape from the outmoded stigmas that plague her journalistic work (“This is Johnnie James from the intimacy of your kitchen!”),  yet the pursuit of her sometime correspondent Scooter sends her into a spiral of desperation as she contemplates the unabashed deployment of every possible weapon in her female arsenal, ranging from the melodramatic (“Passionate declarations followed by suggestions of how many men are vying for my attentions”) to the comical (“Would a photo of me sitting on the back of a Harley Davidson holding two chainsaws seem like I was trying to hard?”), and when these methods, too, prove fruitless she begins to wonder at her own readiness to abandon the liberation won through the efforts of her forbearers. “Am I sending my sex back to the dark ages?” Johnnie guiltily muses, “Am I at the mercy of my womb? Seriously, in the twenty-first century?” It is a question raised and left unanswered and it hangs over the novel’s uncertain conclusion. In one of the novel’s more pensive moments,  Johnnie laments the ghostly loneliness that marks her existence as a liberated female. “Females who haunt often haunt from sorrow, or from love,” she reflects, “We must make the most of our feminine wiles because we can now pass through materials unscathed.”

Howard’s novelistic creation is as much a reflection on the complexities of modern existence as it is a paean to the embellished and even unabashedly fictionalized past. Though clearly indebted to a series of stylized tropes and images for inspiration, Howard’s prose deftly resists the pitfall of merely falling into weepy nostalgia for the clarity of ages past. Instead, it is a testament to the way our personal and national histories weave into the fabric of human existence, as Johnnie’s fanciful journey urges the reader to reflect on attitudes both past and present, and the ways we attempt, and often fail, to communicate those attitudes to each other. 

Johnnie James is a heroine who inspires chuckles, frustration, and ultimately a deep sense of resonance as she struggles to find her place in a world that is half-real and half the construct of her own wishful imagination. Though the veneer of whimsy and imagination occasionally clouds the underlying bitterness of Johnnie’s reality, Foreign Correspondent is really a testament to the complex and ever-changing nature of popular and highbrow culture, as well as the often tenuous line that divides the real from the imaginary, the foreign from the domestic, and the distant from the accessible.

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