On Stacy Levine's Frances Johnson
S. Levine, Frances Johnson, Clearcut Press, 2005
David Karp

It's August in Seattle, still really a small town. I've been reading Stacey Levine's new book for the last week, having just missed it in the mail before my wife and I headed off for my home town of Toledo, Ohio, even more still really a small town, to read the entrails of family life. We stayed in my parents' abandoned upscale rambler, littered with my deceased father's many receipts, tennis shoes and broken reading glasses. We made trips to my schizophrenic, smiling mother's retirement community, where we talked a little to her and more to her caregivers. We took swims around a moss-green, teenager-flecked quarry, where a water-slide deposited revelers a good twenty yards from the water. Now, back in Seattle, reading this book about a woman, a small town, romance, sleep and other essential, absurd things, I find my trip much more funny.

Frances Johnson is the second novel in Levine's published opus. Described in simplest terms, the novel concerns the titular heroine's efforts to decide who she is and whether she should defy the expectations of her mother and her friends by leaving her South Florida town or accede to their wishes. The plot orbits around these questions, however, never getting further from them than Frances' frequent, spasmodic bike rides take her. As in other of Levine's writings, Frances Johnson's world is insistently insular, if not hermetic. The novel does describe a woman at odds with her world: there is the heroine, Frances, uncertain how to proceed, and there is the small town of Munson and its male and female inhabitants, all with an angle on how she should proceed. But I don't want to make too much of Levine's portrait of the social landscape that surrounds Frances Johnson. The novel turns on its heroine's inability to distinguish what is proper to herself and to the people and places around her, to the point that her inability to do so appears to be an inescapable subjective fact.

Frances Johnson is another stage for Levine to pursue the essential figures and tropes that abound throughout her comedies. The world comedy, in its conventional sense of works that provoke laughter, is key here: the novel may have conventional elements in it, but to read it is to feel comedy in the skin. Among the motifs the novel picks up are critters--crawling in the soil, swarming in bushes, out of sight but always present to conjure up some alluring, secretive vitality just on the other side of Frances' hopes and fears. There are charged encounters with glamorously womanly friends, never quite at the center of the narrative but drawing it back toward them with their seductive gravity. There are mysterious ills of the body and obscure diagnoses that seem endemic to femininity. There are also voluble practitioners and would-be-advisers who tend to them with a mixture of cracker-barrel faux-wisdom, uncertain innuendo and half-sequitur. The last two motifs are seen in this encounter between Frances and a local restaurant cook, who has informed Frances that the odd scar on her thigh, which her doctor led her to believe was of little consequence, is no scar at all.

" I'll tell you," the cook said, squinting, grabbing up a metal spatula from the stove, tapping it on the grill, " That's no scar, Missy. That's a tumor.
The room seemed to spin for Frances, and she placed her hand on the cool refrigerator door. " How do you know that? Did you hear something in town?"
" Mebbe I did, mebbe I didn't." The cook paused, leaning on the stove. " Doesn't hurt, does it?"
" No."
" And it came up real silent-like, right?"
" I don't know. I just noticed it one day!"
" Tha's right. You listen t'me. Paul Buster out at the water tower had one of them tumors. He cut it out hisself, with his car keys. Go out an' see him. He'll tell you. Yeah, lotta people get them tumors, all the ladies, most 'specially."
" What ladies? Why do ladies get them?" Frances' worry grew, and she perspired.
The cook stared out the cafe's front window. He seemed to enjoy his cigarette, and the fact that Frances waited for an answer.
He said, " Folks get tumors when they take care of other folk too much." (80)

The sage cook goes on to explain that when one becomes too enmeshed in caring for others, " see, they give off a kind a' germ" that is one of the two causes of tumors, the other being soup. Funny as it is, this passage digs at us because it suggests what both Frances and the reader find it hard not to believe: the arcane collusion between emotional excess and the dizzying, seemingly random profusion of physical phenomena to produce sickness. Such logic breaches the psychic wall between interior and exterior that always seems on the point of breaking down anyway. The cook's ideas are of course inane, as any doctor might say, as even the doctors in Frances Johnson would say, though their advice is no less bizarre. Nonetheless, it's just these sorts of ideas that erupt everywhere in Levine's novel, germs that infects the reader and against which the only remedy is laughter.