Bringing Experimental Text to the Mainstream: Kirsten Krauth’s “just_a_girl”, by Julie Proudfoot

Julie Proudfoot is author of The Neighbour, a psychological drama, and winner of Seizure Viva La Novella prize 2014. When she’s not renovating houses she writes a column for Vox Bendigo, the Bendigo Writers Festival Blog. She’s Scott Cam with a quill when she’s not Carrie Bradshaw with a hacksaw. Julie is working on her next novel about a homeless man entangled in a love tryst. Website: julieproudfoot.com. Twitter: @ProudMumbles.

This piece first appeared in Issue Eight of the journal. Please buy a copy and help support our writers.

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Kirsten Krauth’s novel, just_a_girl (JAG) has been tagged as a curious blend of classic Lolita and modern-day Puberty Blues transported into the techno age of sexy videos, chat rooms, texting, and Twitter.

Krauth’s fourteen-year-old Layla stands out as the hooking character as she engages with the male gaze in all its various hosts: sexist and smug boyfriends; a sleazy groping shopkeeper; an absent gay father; a priest carrying the onerous attributes of infidelity and paedophilia; and a trolling chat-room groomer. The chapters alternate between the perspective of Layla and two other main characters: Margo, Layla’s lonely depressive mother, and Tadashi, an also lonely and searching man who romances a sex doll.

But for all the interest and intrigue in this complex and confronting story, it is perhaps the structure and text of the novel, in the context of the Australian publishing industry, that is of most interest.

This is not to say that anything Krauth has introduced in JAG is unique or ground-breaking. None of it is new. But what Krauth has done is throw a Santa’s bag of alternative devices and text, funnelled them all into a debut novel, and, as an Australian author, managed to pave a path for it into mainstream publishing.

We see work like this published frequently; JAG is far from the first book to take on alternative devices. To name just a few: A Visit From the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, The Raw Shark Texts, Jpod and The Tenth Circle. There are many more, but none from debut Australian authors.

Smaller Australian publishers and journals often take on experimental works. Spineless Wonders recently produced brb, a verse novel written in the language of chat rooms. Sleepers Publishing runs experimental work in their journal The Sleepers Almanac, and Seizure Online contributes a whole section devoted to alternative text. But it’s rare to find Australian alternative-text work like JAG in the long form of a debut novel produced in Australia.

JAG is a complex work; perhaps the reason for its success is inherent in this complexity. It speaks to readers on many levels while maintaining an accessible and simple prose style.

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JAG’s three perspective characters are sectioned into their own narratives across the novel. The individualisation of these characters gives the novel a filmic quality in which the reader stays with each character’s story for short bursts of time. Krauth’s experience as a film writer might be what informs this style, which mirrors the modern reader’s habit of consuming short visual and audio sound bits.

The three characters each have their signature texts: Margo, single since her husband left her after coming out as a gay man, suffers depression and seeks support from an evangelical church and its pastor. She’s introverted and inward-looking in her outward search for love and reason. Margot’s introversive stream-of-consciousness text is a diary-like dialogue, presented only in italics. It suits her perfectly:

I pray the lord is proud of me because it’s my first time in nine years without anti-depressants, and I know I can do it, I’m doing a self-help workshop with Pastor Bevan at Riverlay, and it’s the right time to attempt it because I don’t have any stress right now, you know, it’s school holidays and my clients are a bit on the quiet side, and it’s a new year and all, can’t believe we’ve arrived here already, 2008, and I’m trying to stay focused and keep up with how my mind works and use the Power of Now…

All of Margot’s chapters are in italics. And as the reader goes deeper into the book, italics come to signify Margot. Margot is italics.

Layla’s character has been given jolting, incomplete sentences, the uncertain speak of a teenager—the kind of writing that would make an editor’s head spin:

Mum told me never to trust a man. Who doesn’t look you in the eye. So you can’t win with her.

Cam actually kneeled by the bed the first time they pashed in her room. As if she was some kind of sacred object. That he was afraid to dirty with his hands.

She’s always whinging about money. About being a single mum. And praying loudly for more work. She said the only good thing about the divorce. Was that dad paid off the house.

Layla is perhaps the Author’s favourite—as a reader you feel Krauth is more in touch with her than the other characters—and Layla has been given many alternative devices that are used to provide a rounded multi-dimensional characterisation. She likes to list things, as if indicating her claim to space in the book—stop here, look at me—like a needy teenager:

So I know to avoid her after that. Before she starts to cry and tell stories about her Mum, Violet:

  • How she used to make her do a paper round to help pay the bills
  • How she used to bang doors and cupboards in fits or rage so that mum had to hide
  • How she can’t remember ever being cuddled or being told I love you

And Layla is the funnel through which Krauth appeals to the reader via popular culture in the form of technology. She records a YouTube video for Pastor Bevan:

I decide to make him a special treat. Fuckadoodle, just the thought of him watching it […] I’d love to see Mr C’s face. When he unzips his laptop and opens up his browser.

Then texts her mother:

All good @ Grannies

C u sun night

can u pick me up from statn?

Layla picks up youami33 in a chat room and we are privy to part of their conversation:

youami33: Does your mum know that you come into my bedroom every night?

just_a_girl: she’s at church now…I had to talk her out of getting a baby sitter i think I must be adopted 🙂 …

youami33: …Somehow I doubt that. No, seriously, being a virgin when you are heading towards 30 is not a good look.

just_a_girl: mmm well obviously I wouldn’t know would I LOL…

just_a_girl: btw coming up to newc in couple of weeks perhaps we could hook up r u in town

The use of chat-room speak gives the reader the sense that this is real. Speaking on a panel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, Krauth recalled that she staged a chat-room discussion with a fellow author and used the transcript almost word for word.

As Krauth allows us to see more of Layla’s relationship with Pastor Bevan we learn that Layla follows him on twitter:

—3pm: Devistated/hopin/prayin for @Henderson family. Chelsea & I always here 4 u

—11pm: congrats to yet another Riverlay member for getting 2 finals of idol. Go Hannah!

It’s an eclectic collection of tech-speak that Krauth has given Layla, a language that many readers are comfortable with and engage with in everyday reading. This technique may, by default, reach out to an audience who would not normally engage with a literary text such as JAG.

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Tadashi, an almost third-wheel character in his separateness, has been given a slower more contemplative almost dreamlike and poetic third person text.

His head surfaced through the angelic flaps of arms and legs in the water. He swam to the edge of the pool, resting. Around him, the bodies shifted, distorted, Baconesque slivers through soft-hued light. He framed thigh, nipple, gentle curls, the groove of a lower back. A tattoo.

The use of this third person poetic style against the other two characters is a clever tool; it calms the jolting first person text of Layla, and the self-absorbed, inward first person Margot; it lets the reader breathe. This may just be the essential glue that keeps this book cohesive, continuous and whole. Tadashi holds a tenuous thread with the main theme; his ache for human contact runs parallel with both Margot’s and Layla’s reaching out for connection, and it’s perhaps Tadashi’s most defining characteristic; his search for—and love of—his sex doll (that looks somewhat like Layla who he has watched on the train) ensures this is what defines him, and keeps his connection with the Layla and Margo characters.

 The blend of experimental text in JAG is, with credit to Krauth, so smooth you almost don’t notice the complete absence of quotation marks or the incomplete sentences of Layla, although readers have said it has taken them a couple of chapters before they are comfortable with the butchered sentences, albeit a butcher with a studied knowledge of the primal cuts of the beast.

 As well as the filmic quality and the pop culture references and tech-speak, JAG also speaks to the reader through its use of intertextuality. The connections to classic works can be missed if the clues don’t stir up the vague memories or if the reader is not familiar with the work—but this is one of JAG’s qualities: what the reader desires, the reader sees, and the rest is immaterial.

Krauth uses the device of directly addressing the reader, arguably first used by Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, “Reader, I married him”, and a technique used by many since. A much-loved example is the character of John Self in Money by Martin Amis, “…With a flourish I fastened the middle button of my new suit (off-white with colour seaming: I’m not sure about it—I wish you were here, I wish you were here to tell me it looked OK…”

It’s a device that demands intimacy with the reader, like sharing a secret with a friend. Layla jumps out of the text to speak to the reader, “So we’re back in the now. Right here in the hotel with youami33”, to get the reader up to speed with the time frame, as though he/she might easily be left behind. Layla, and Krauth, treat the reader as a friend, drawing them in close.

The allusions to Nabokov’s Lolita within JAG are many and varied. JAG begins with a scene in which Layla meets with youami33, whom she has met online. He is much older than Layla, and, after an angst ridden tussle in which he notes:

…You’re quite mature for your age, Layla. Not what I was expecting.

He deserts her under the guise of a condom purchase and never returns, presumably because, as his words were the only clue to his dislike of the situation, (“quite mature”) at fourteen she is too old, or, not young enough. This directs us straight to Humbert Humbert’s detailed description in Lolita of the age of the nymphets under whose spell he falls:

there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell.

JAG also alludes to the well-known introductive speech given by Humbert:

Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

By having Tadashi consider Layla’s name for the name of his sex doll:

Her name had dangled, strangled in the air, a name he struggled to pronounce as he breathed out; too many L’s.

This mirrors the poetic rhythm in the sentence structure of Nabokov’s: the rhyming of ‘dangled’ and ‘strangled’, and the repetition of the word ‘name’, and the alienation of the letter, ‘L’.

Krauth has Layla bring the reader’s attention directly to Nabokov’s Lolita, when Layla sympathises with Lolita, “…All Lolita wants is a bit of attention.”

In a direct line across time to Virginia Woolf, Layla grapples with the presence of a moth in an enclosed space. For Layla, it is on the train:

…In a dance of death. It keeps falling towards me. I hold my school folder up to cover my head. Ready to swat the moth away. It’s so soft and ugly. The big brown wings never stop.

It’s an almost four-page-long scene describing the moth’s escapades that touch on fear and death… “feeling the soft wings of death.” Layla’s long tangle with the moth brings to mind Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth”, of almost the exact same length and theme.

…there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him…the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death…one could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom…nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again…

§

In embracing the complexity of alternative devices Krauth encourages an attachment to popular culture, and while taking on literary allusions; scenes of filmic quality; and simple prose, she ensures a connectedness and accessibility to readers with diverse interests. Ironically, it may be the complexity of structure and text that has led to JAG’s success, running against the trend of Australian publishing that is generally reluctant to take a chance on experimental novels.

References

Amis, M. Money. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin: 1997. Print.

Nabokov, V. The Annotated Lolita. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Print.

Woolf, V. The Death of the Moth and other essays. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1970. Print.

Write Note Reviews. Author Insight: Meet Kirsten Krauth. 7th April 2014. http://writenotereviews.com/2014/02/10/author-insight-meet-kirsten-krauth/.

One thought on “Bringing Experimental Text to the Mainstream: Kirsten Krauth’s “just_a_girl”, by Julie Proudfoot

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