Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess
In the book aisle of a Target in 2014, I noticed a pattern in the titles of novels which disturbed and compelled me.
“Do you see what’s going on here?” I asked my fifteen-year-old younger sister.
She saw it, I saw it. The consistent presence of the word that defined both of us, and would, no matter how old we grew or how many achievements we garnered.
Girl. The majority of books before us used the word girl somewhere in their titles. As though the word itself could ensure commercial success. Bestsellers, book club novels, up-market fiction, children’s literature. Girls gone or girls misbehaving. The absences of women seemed to be fueling book sales deep into the internet age.
From the myth of Orpheus to TV shows like Twin Peaks and True Detective, the missing girl acts as impetus for men’s adventures through the underworld. Each time the word girl shows up in a title, a real girl gets transformed into an infinitude of narrative possibilities. She could be dead, maimed, or beloved somewhere. If the girl is in print, then where is her body? Girl Zoo, a collaboration between Aimee Parkison and Carol Guess, published by Fiction Collective 2, takes us into the narrative negative, into the underworld of the missing, where the bodies of captured girls are perpetually contained and observable.
Each vignette in Girl Zoo functions as an exhibit in a menagerie. The reader moves through Girl in Hot Car, Girl in Centerfold, Girl in Halfway House, Girl in Drain, observing women in different states of captivity. If the text comes off as overtly poetic or plotless, it is only to reinforce the fact that for these girls, there is no plot, no salvation, no narrative resolution to their containment. If they are found, they will only remerge into a world of surveillance, not so different from our own, where:
you were groomed by reality TV, by pop-up ads in search engines that read your mind, by the NSA, by the 2017 election to expect that every corner held the camera’s eye, and every move, word, touch was simultaneously experienced and recorded. You were slowly trained to disengage from the idea of privacy, to leave privacy behind like childish things. Like dolls.
The difference between Girl Zoo and Target novels using the word girl, is the acknowledgment by Guess and Parkison of the word’s overuse. Girl Zoo is saturated by girl to an absurd degree. Girl is used wrongly, grossly, and comically. In Girl in Pink Flower, the word girl is footnoted as meaning someone 18 or older.” Girl refers to a 72-year-old librarian in Girl in Library, or an infant suffocating in a hot car in Girl in One Act Play. Guess and Parkison trace the broad use of this word in popular and pornographic culture, and the unintended consequences of its proliferation. The titles of the vignettes use repetition of the preposition in, to expose how naturally girls become trapped in a world built of language.
The girls of Girl Zoo are always in something. Girl in Atrophy, Girl in Refrigerator, Girl in Nude. Girls are not the modifiers, unlike the men who will rescue or capture them. Perhaps the only respite to this rule, is during circumstance of female-to-female collaboration or love. Girl Zoo is itself a collaboration between two female authors who share a desire to delineate the oppressive structures of gendered language. By turning a lens into spaces of female entrapment, the prose-poetry of Guess and Parkison renders a space of freedom from which we view Girl Zoo as readers.
If you are reading Girl Zoo, you are looking into the horrific space of lost women, and thus become potentially free from that space’s continuation. The most hopeful moment in Girl Zoo comes during Girl in Transit, when a girl with an RV gives a lap dance to a crying woman.
She thought about driving East, thought about asking the woman to come with her.
They would live in the RV and swim in the river.
They would get paid to spray orchards with pesticide, branches silver, apples white.
This fate is perhaps a nod to the freedom Guess and Parkison have found in working together. They have found comradery taking up the task of poetic dissection, and mapped the female underworld with footnotes, theatrics, and hybrid poetry-prose. They have conspired with Eurydice and Laura Palmer, in order to brush against the grain of lost-girl literature.
Surreal and terrifying, Girl Zoo acknowledges the longstanding mythology of darkness as dangerous.
The history of literature is filled with “dark this” and “dark that”. Every bride is white. Every heroine is white and fragile. I want to live in this dark room, the opposite of white, the opposite of brides and fragile lilies, dark for safety, dark for privacy, dark for the one place we can be together as we wish we could be if it were safe to be visible in the harsh glare of white lights, white noise, and white lies.
If the text is limited in any way, it is by its own whiteness. The focus on a white female reality in Girl Zoo is implied by a lack of writing about blackness or brownness, save in the above quotation. Certain trappings are not explored in Girl Zoo, which creates an alternate zoo for girls who may be trapped in a culture for reasons pertaining to race, religion, or non-Westerness. I found myself at ease as a white female reader, knowing that I could view the text-cages and see myself as both inside and outside of their confines.
Girl Zoo may prove a difficult read for someone unaccustomed to experimental speculative fiction, but its value far outweighs its eccentricity. The work of Guess and Parkison bravely calls into question the use of the girl in literature and popular culture. In the zoo we can peer out from the pages of Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Girl, Interrupted, and note the meaning of girl’s hypnotic repetition in prose. If the word girl is used haphazardly to market anything presenting a void, Guess and Parkison have set up shop on the edge of that void. They have put a fence around a space of lost women and charged an entry fee. We travel between exhibitions only to recognize that we are contained in the container of watching.
Girl Zoo marks to me the changing tide of the Target trend. That on the horizon is a world where girl is reclaimed by those it sequesters. Guess and Parkison have written a guidebook for a zoo that needs to be recognized as real. Though Girl Zoo does rely on the word Girl to sell itself, the work is perhaps exempt from the critique that it capitalizes on a trend. For in its pages, text has been lent to an otherwise textless place.