The Limits of Language in a Surrealist Age: Sabrina Orah Mark’s “Wild Milk”

[…] Like if the Bible was a room you could walk inside and there was nothing. Common reference points are consistently stripped away and replaced by implausibilities, superimposed fantasies, and overlapping realities. At this point in the collection, Mark wants the reader to consider whether the world we live in is so far away from reality because of its governance. […] What I mean to say, most of all, […] is that I love not being dead. Enslaved by the language of their form, characters can speak with assurance only of the nothingness that results from this loss. While Wild Milk isn’t an overtly political book, it forces characters to confront the powers governing their environment so they can regain control of their language. Mark’s language is filled with allusions to the physical world, but the reader may struggle to follow her train of thought, especially when the words on the page meander outside the author’s control. But Mark quickly strips these reference points away. Language struggles to characterize personality. Words don’t make sense, metaphors are jumbled, public discourse is snuffed, nature is murdered, children are vetted before birth — language has been co-opted by the unreality of the political climate. […] And mealy. The narrator manages a flock of new presidents, officials who will determine the rules and order of things. […] Who will feed us? It is a lovely, lovely tag. How am I supposed to know where to go?”
Surrealism does this: it throws the reader into a situation that feels uncanny and, through language, encourages associations between what’s on the page and what the reader has personally experienced, though it never truly allows full comprehension of the story. A spin on Plato’s allegory of the cave, perhaps, except that instead of light and shadow there are only words stripped of their context in the rhetorical darkness. Here, the collection evolves into an exploration of how human pathos is mediated by language and political influence. […] I mean, a ma. It becomes increasingly clear that the characters Mark creates aren’t prisoners of her language — they’re literature’s enslaved subjects. “Tweet” captures the feeling of hopelessness people experience when they’ve reached an impasse, or when what they’ve held dear suddenly disappears, but it also addresses sheep culture. The Presidents’ heads are bent, and they are making little gray sounds. […] I unfollow the Rabbi. That’s not it either. Mark asks us to consider what happens to a civilization in which language isn’t intended for human use, where words function as kinetic forces with their own consciousness. In “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” the author demonstrates this idea quite masterfully. […] What I mean to say is that your child is a real man. The narrator says, “God, it is lovely. However, they demonstrate their utter uselessness in the face of crisis: “The Presidents turn their pockets and out spill crushed flowers they’ve picked for no one. Further in the story, the narrator encounters another strange character: “I pass a mother covered in daughters. The best a reader can do is interpret. In “My Brother Gary Made a Movie & This is What Happened,” the narrator says, in reference to her brother,
Gary had trouble with words. NOVEMBER 16, 2018
ANY READER FAMILIAR with surrealist fiction knows that the experience involves systematic paradigm shifts, to the point where reality doesn’t make sense anymore. The narrator’s mother calls and asks her to describe the gap, and the narrator says: “Like an empty Bible. Who will keep us warm? […] ‘By the time they arrived, […] the daughters had turned. Your child […] is a real no one. For instance, in “The Very Nervous Family,” a family is so petrified by the outside world that they cannot leave the house without feeling crippled by fear rooted in a linguistic paradox. Who deserves to be followed? ¤
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. And why do we all perform the same gesture once that value has been assigned? The political message here is that no matter the scope of the struggle, the characters ultimately lose — always. Though the narrator can understand what her brother is trying to say, the reader wonders whose language he is using. He’d mean to say “human” and it would come out “cantaloupe.” He’d mean to say “dad” and it would come out “sock.” Even my name he malapropped. That we should all one day be tagged by a tag as lovely as this tag.” Of course, the reader has no idea what the purpose of the tag is and doesn’t know the identities of these people, or the Rabbi. While this gesture at first feels familiar, it quickly becomes apparent that something is off about this setting, as Miss Birdy, the teacher, tells the narrator,
[Y]our child is a mana mana. No Genesis, no Exodus, no Numbers, no god. As a poet (The Babies [2004], Tsim Tsum [2009]), Mark understands how far words can go to produce meaning, and it’s exciting to see this poetic kineticism applied to the short story form. To explore these notions, the author places her characters in situations where they’re surrounded by their relatives, those with whom developed language isn’t always necessary and intuition can go a long way. I count five. If he’s unable to express himself in his own words, what word bank is he trapped within? The narrator encounters a bully named Beadlebaum with a gap between his front teeth that reminds her of Poems, a metaphorical character in the story. No, no. He called me Mouse. What’s immediately striking here is not just that a day-care teacher tells a mother her son is “a no one,” it’s also that Mark introduces very early in her collection the notion that language is insufficient to characterize humans. No light, no darkness.”
Mark sets up a space in which the foundation of all literature, the Bible, loses its footing. […] ‘No daughters?’ she asks. In another story, “For the Safety of Our Country,” Mark shows us what happens when the lights suddenly come on in this empty room. ‘No,’ I say. It was his sorest spot. In “The Roster,” a teacher takes on a new classroom and slowly realizes that his students don’t need him. […] Not exactly rotten but gigantic. Poet Sabrina Orah Mark’s first book of fiction, Wild Milk, isn’t just a collection of surrealist stories with a contemporary twist. I unfollow everything. It’s an accumulation of highly astute observations on how people interact not only with relatives, officials, and pets, but also with the inadequacy of the language culture provides to lead lives as social beings. After “Wild Milk” ends, the reader is thrown into the quasi-religious space of “Tweet,” in which humans blindly follow and unfollow a person called the Rabbi. Through this subtle but powerful exploration of social media culture, Mark gives us an environment ruled by a language determined by the platform it’s meant to inhabit. […] I mean, a no one. The text shines when it hangs on to something tangible but gets lost in the fog of connotation when a linguistically amorphous story line dominates. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014. And Mark repeatedly uses the words “follow” and “unfollow,” which have more elastic meaning than they did decades ago: “A lot of my friends are following the Rabbi so I start following the Rabbi too. Disrupted, they are at a linguistic impasse, experiencing literature only through the faint echoes of the disembodied words it has left behind. In Mark’s eponymous story, the reader is introduced to a mother dropping off her child at day care. Sometimes he was so tragically far off I wanted to gather him up in my arms, climb a tree, and leave him in the largest nest I could find. Sometimes I look at the Presidents and dream of another life.”
After this poetic reverie, the presidents struggle to understand what “Aleppo” is. As a result, rejected teachers become obsolete ornaments in society. I sent the whole bin back.’”
In this opening story, the reader is given these two integral, foundational elements to hang on to: language in Mark’s world doesn’t quite work, and humans (or characters) are as disposable as rotten fruit.