A young woman becomes increasingly aware of authority—and the urge to push back against it—in this linguistically free-wheeling and challenging novel.
Ruocco doesn’t engage in wordplay so much as she performs a gut rehab on vocabulary, reshaping the meanings of words and testing new resonances within a familiar narrative structure. In broad outline, this is a coming-of-age story centered on Melba, who lives in the small town of the book’s title working as a clerk in a bakery. Over the course of the story, she ponders time’s passing and talks with various controlling figures in her life—her mother, a policeman, a doctor, her school principal, her landlord and so on. Melba asks questions; the responses she receives are generally encouragements to acquiesce. But that plot sketch doesn’t capture the surreal quality of Ruocco’s sentences. “He said you have a kind of bleak power over people, that you turn men into stalagmites, but you don’t stay with them for long,” Melba is told. “You break into a stream of bats and rush away.” Sensible? Not exactly. But the emotional pitch of the sentences is clear, and if the novel is occasionally opaque, Ruocco has given serious thought to how much she can do with language while still preserving a story’s integrity. Ruocco suggests that Melba is trying to bring wisdom to a community that resists it—in one moment, Melba imagines resting against a rock and, Prometheus-like, being pecked at by birds. If you’re willing to submit to their weirdness, Ruocco’s sentences send off sparks: “Have you ever discovered voles in your pillowcasings?” “It tasted like when, as a child, she had mashed anchovy in the wall socket and licked the wall socket on all fours.” Modernist-style experimentation ain’t dead yet.
Giddy, intriguing stuff from a writer eager to let words misbehave.