Christine Stark's novel Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation is, in a word, stunning. It's a tough read on many levels, not for the squeamish or lazy reader. But for the reader who is willing to work a bit, reading the novel is an amazing experience.
The protagonist and ostensible narrator of the linear story is a girl variously known as are Miss So and So, China Doll Girl, crazy girl and numerous other appellations. For simplicity's sake, here she is S. It is the tale of S' repeated sexual abuse by her father, almost since birth, and its impact upon her ability to develop as a person.
The story proper opens with S as a five year old at school being looked over by the nurse for bruises. Though, S' mother denies any knowledge of the bruises, she is examined further by the nurse and school psychologist who conclude that she is being sexually abused. However, when brought before the judge in the presence, the fear of her father who is in court, make S incapable of demonstrating with a doll, the abuse that has taken place. The charges are dismissed: "judge honor bams session over case dismissed the girl must be crazy". Thus begins one of the many pseudonyms S is to acquire.
Soon after, the family moves to an area where S has hopes that a new life will begin, but the rape and abuse continue, while her fearful mother ignores what is going on under her own roof. S is told in no uncertain terms by her father that he will kill her if she ever mentions it.
Shortly after the move, while still in elementary school, she is befriended by a girl called Patty, who is socially ostracized for reasons of her own. Through Patty's friendship, S begins to have some confidence in herself as a person to the point that she and Patty eventually become the stars of their school hockey team. S begins to realize that she is physically as well as emotionally attracted to Patty, when the pivotal event of the tale occurs. S in raped by her father in front of Patty; he then turns on Patty and rapes her. Soon after, Patty disappears.
Patty's rape and disappearance together the blame that S assumes for it have such a profound effect upon her that until the end of the story at 25 she essentially becomes unable to function in any positive way as a human being. As a pompous psychiatrist describes her later in the story:
You may have a combination of mental illnesses or what I call multiple mental illnesses you have issues with authority especially male authority you are manipulative in your thoughts and actions you have gender confusion and your speech and thoughts race at times and those combined could point toward a sort of gender dysphobic Oedipus complex with a touch of manic depressive disorder.
While the doctor may not have real clue as to how it feels to be S, from outside appearances, the shoe often fits. In addition to the above, she becomes involved in alcohol, drugs and petty theft.
Just how S is able to tentatively emerge from all of this is what the reader needs to buy the book to find out, but a mere plot description only begins to describe the book and, if this were written in a conventional realistic style, Nickels could not possibly be the accomplishment that it is. Stark's approach is to take you into her protagonist's mind, as Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury. Unlike Faulkner's novel, though, the reader remains in the S' mind the entire time so that even when the reader sees the words that other characters speak, they can never depend upon the fact that this was what was actually said.
To simulate the rush of thoughts and their sudden shifts, Stark abandons all punctuation. She also dispenses with chapters cutting down the readers odds of being able to anticipate the structure or turns in the story in advance. What might be taken for chapters are signaled by a bold word or phrase on a new line the quickly drops back off into the narrative. These may or may not be a break in time or action. For example,
Paragraphing is accomplished through the use of double spaces between lines. Italics are used to indicated dialogue, changes in speakers, and, occasionally shifts in focus in S' mind.
I stand there like a stupid barely awake not knowing what to do or what's going on Me and Patty we were just sleeping keeping warm it's cold in here I blurt out one two three steps and she's got my arm her white knuckled fingers around my arm digging in to my bone I didn't do anything I say I should have known she says over and over only I don't know what she's talking about I try to look at Patty but mom steps between us shaking me she's going to ruin everything this is unnatural something is wrong with you Little Miss So and So and she slaps me across the face stings bees I must be crazy to have this happen to me
At times the reader follows S' thoughts as her mind flips back in forth between staring at the physical environment around her. When the protagonist's thoughts flip back between the events and the present so that she is unable to know just what is happening to her, the reader is forced to struggles with her in her confusion.
Much as with Celie, in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, S' vocabulary and sophistication of expression continues to grow through out the tale. However, while the reader of Walker's story is ostensibly privy to the narrator's diary whose development as a person is also revealed through increasingly more literate use of punctuation, the reader of Stark's novel is a voyeur into another mind, one in which emotional confusion persists. At times selves from the past intrude upon S' present and when they do, vocabulary and syntax revert to more childish expression. Managing all of this is an incredible accomplishment on Stark's part.
While the dense texture of Nickels provides many opportunities for discovery and thought, two themes in particular stick out – identity and truth. As the many names that the protagonist is referred to by implies, S has no sense of identity, no sense of who she is. Some of these roadblocks to identity are straightforward. Her father, who is American Indian, forbids her from identifying with her Indian grandmother. More confusing for S to work out are her gender identification and sexual preferences. Whether or not born into a more normal home life S might have eventually identified as Lesbian anyway, it would be a cynical reader indeed who would not see how the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father expunged any desire for heterosexual relationships. As she discovers at once point in the story even when a male coworker who she knows is gay accidentally touches her, her visceral reaction overwhelms her.
Beyond even ethnic and sexual identity, however, S has no sense of self. Throughout the story, she unconsciously responds to other characters who she thinks have just called her name, yet it is never any of the names that she calls herself. The climax of the story comes when she recognizes her multiple personalities and tries to come to terms with this reality. Put aside any thoughts that these are macabre personalities from a gothic horror novel (though the horror is real enough), these are all aspects of herself that, formed as a child, have not allowed her to grow into an adult. S comes to the realization that though physically and chronologically she is an adult, emotionally she is still a child, a child who constantly cries for help yet alienates anyone who genuinely cares about her.
It is interesting to consider that for some Native American cultures, the name given to the public is not a person's true name. It is name only the possessor the name knows because of the power that names have over people. Certainly S' experience with the adults in her life make it difficult for her to trust adults, people in authority and even peers. One might ask if she even trusts the reader. After all, even at the end of her tale, she will not reveal her name.
A second theme of the novel is truth and its relationship to metaphor is at least as complex as that of identity. In a sense, Nickels is structured as a frame tale. It opens and closes with references to two well know folk tales that are classic children's stories: The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Five Chinese Brothers. These stories, read to S at the age of four years old (and probably younger) by her mother insinuate themselves into S' mind and take on metaphoric functions. The trip-trapping sounds of the Billy Goats Gruff and the troll become metaphors for her father in a four year old mind whose limited language can only think can only conceive of him as "bad dad" or "mad dad." The Chinese brother who tried to hold the sea in his mouth and drowned a little boy because he could not become S' metaphorical references to her inability to hold in everything that she is trying to deal with. Stark sets this transformation up beautifully in the final swords of the Prologue
The little boy disappeared! I think the little boy disappeared! Why! I say He drowned mom says
There is little wonder that S' internalizes her mother's admonition that if she were to tell what is going on in their lives that she would be a bad person who would destroy everything.
While it could be argued, as the Lakota writer John Lame Dear has, that metaphor and symbol are one of the ways that Native American cultures access reality, the therapist who eventually helps S to come to grips with her fears does not see it that way:
The point is I say I know the point therapist says sips her mango tea why do you talk in so many metaphors Metaphors I say keep me alive Uh huh I see therapist says Patty is dead I say therapist does not see
Despite Starks digs at liberal American culture with its mango tea, the therapist does force S' to confront the metaphors that she is dealing with to protect herself and eventually S begins to come to terms with what is happening to her. At one point, the therapist asks S what her relationship with truth is and then places an image of truth in front of S to deal with. The results make for compelling reading.
Any book with claims to literature that can be adequately described by a book review is probably not worth buying, but Nickels: A Story of Dissociation is exceptionally difficult to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. It is a singular book that merits every reader it can get , not only because of the subject of the book – worthwhile in itself – but because of Stark's artistry in writing it. When readers put the finished book down, they'll never look at nickels again in quite the same way. The book is available through Modern History Press and most major bookstores.