Sunday, July 3, 2016

Fishing for Truth

by Jean Roberta

Backcast, A Novel by Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

In this big, sprawling novel, a kind of coven of thirteen writers from all over the U.S. come together at a hotel in rural Vermont to help create a multimedia art project. Sculptor Barb Davis (whose cousin owns the hotel) has landed a grant of over a million dollars (yeah, right) from the National Endowment for the Arts for an art installation to accompany a lesbian writing project.

After considering various famous names, Barb chooses the “CLITcon Thirteen,” a group of women who attended a literary conference and all ended up in jail in San Diego for unspecified reasons. (Clearly, none of them revere patriarchal authority.) One of the guests is Mavis, the bailiff.

When the women arrive, there is much talk about creative process. Several of the writers call themselves “pantsers” who prefer to write from the “seats of their pants,” some call themselves “outliners,” and convene to form a plan, while a neutral third group call themselves “pantyliners.” All this discussion, which clearly seems intended to satirize both feminist political process and alliances and divisions in writers’ groups, turns out to be unnecessary because each woman writes an autobiographical essay and nothing else.

Barb’s contribution is to form thirteen distinct images of fish, one for each writer. Fishiness becomes a motif when Quinn, a writer of BDSM erotica who has never fished before, enters an annual bass-fishing contest and learns about a legendary bass, said to be two hundred years old (named Phoebe by the locals) who speaks to her in dreams and claims to bring messages from Quinn’s subconscious, like a watered-down Moby Dick.

While Quinn proceeds to learn about fishing from two local brothers and to do everything “wrong,” thirteen anonymous essays appear in the text, sprinkled into a plot about the developing relationships among the writers. Kate and Shawn (actually Shoshanna), who have had a dysfunctional long-distance relationship, must decide whether to commit or to split up. Mystery writer Vivien gets into a catfight with Towanda (who is married to a man and has children) about whether Towanda writes worthless “porn” or literary erotica and whether she has any right to write about “real” lesbians, but this conflict is a smokescreen over the deep sexual attraction between the two women and their shocking connection: as a novice in a convent, Vivien fell in love with a fellow-novice, Towanda’s sister.

Readers are invited to guess which essay was written by which writer. At the end of the novel, all is revealed. While this strategy creates suspense, it looks gimmicky, like several of the plot twists and the self-consciously snappy dialogue.

The essays, on their own, are powerfully convincing. In Essay #9, the writer describes a series of traumatic experiences after her parents discover her teenage crush on Charlene, a girl she met at summer camp:

“I was never allowed to see her [Charlene] again. My parents made sure of that. And once my grandma became involved with the orchestration of a plan to ensure my salvation, I wasn’t home all that much anymore. They pulled me out of school and shipped me off to Kentucky to “study” with a man who had experience turning young people away from the evils of homosexuality. It would be an understatement to say that his methods were unorthodox. At first, the snakes terrified me. He kept dozens of them, stacked up in special little, glass-fronted boxes inside a boarded-up porch at the back of his house. They were mostly timber rattlers, but he had other kinds back there, too. It amazed me that his wife and three kids just breezed in and out of that dark, close space to retrieve things like jackets and canned goods. I stayed alone upstairs in another small room. I think it had been some kind of closet because it had no windows. It was at the back of the house, and I knew it was over the porch. Every night, when I’d be locked into my room, I’d imagine I could hear the white noise of the snakes moving around beneath the floorboards. I knew they were awake, too. And I knew that it would only be a matter of time before they figured out a
way to reach me.

I didn’t have to wait very long. It was on the sixth night that he finally showed up. I wasn’t surprised. I knew he was coming. I could see it in the way he looked at me. I could feel it in the way he touched me—touches that were supposed to be casual, but were tainted with malicious intent. I knew the difference—just like all women everywhere know the difference. When I heard the sound of a key turning in the door lock, I knew my time had come. My education was about to take another path. When his shadow filled
up the entrance to my dark asylum, I didn’t bother to call for help. I knew it would be pointless. Who would help me? Not the shopworn woman he called his helpmeet. Not his daughters—they had matching sets of empty, unseeing eyes. I was on my own, and I knew it.”

Egad. The reader is relieved that this writer eventually escaped and managed to survive to adulthood on her own.

This novel, like the art project it describes, looks like an interesting experiment that isn’t completely successful, but parts of it are memorable.


  1. Sounds bizarre but possibly entertaining.

    I think I'm going to start calling myself a "pantyliner". That's priceless!

  2. I kind of go for pants less. Figuratively speaking, of course.

    The book does sound intriguing, although I couldn't help knee-jerk feeling that in Vermont, they should be fishing for trout, not bass.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Lisabet and Sacchi. Re "pantyliner," I appreciated the wit, but like several of the other snappy words and phrases, it seemed somewhat thrown away, since I'm not sure why a long discussion of creative process would be necessary for each writer to produce a relatively short essay about a turning part in her life. Sacchi, you would know more about the fish of New England than I do! (Trout vs. bass = freshwater vs saltwater fish?) There is a fairly detailed map of Lake Champlain at the beginning of the novel, showing a route that follows various sightings of the famous bass, Phoebe (after Phoebe Campbell, a Canadian woman who killed her husband -- this name applied to a fish for no obvious reason). Much is made of the visual effect of the route on paper, which looks vaguely like the sign of Pisces.

  4. I was just nit=picking about the fish. Don't know what came over me. Trout vs. bass= swift streams on the cold side vs. lakes on the warm side. There certainly must be bass in Lake Champlain. Vermont is noted for trout fishing, and I think of bass as being a big deal farther south, but bass are stocked in lakes and ponds in NH and Vermont as well.