Alyssa Quinn, Habilis, DZANC Books, 2022
If you are going to write a surrealist novel about "a museum that becomes a discotheque at night," you had better like writing about bones. This is an easy bar to clear for Alyssa Quinn, whose debut novel Habilis is what would happen if Anne Carson ate a paleontologist's notebook then sang out placard-like chapters. There are so many good lines about bones in Habilis that it seems silly for a book to be written about anything else. A pelvis is a "butterfly bone," then immediately a "calcium cradle," and you want Quinn to go on forever in this alliterative vein—dickless density perhaps, then elephant-eared epidermislessness, so on, her sentences relying on colons and dashes like tendons and ligaments.
So, 'check' for good bone-related writing. And check for tense bits of drama, if that's your bag. For all the fragmentation in these page-or-more chapters, there's good ole fashioned drama in certain scenelettes, neatly rendered. Menaces park in a car, then we hear "the slam of the car doors closing—one, two, three." Put "baby" and "African ants" in a sentence and voila: drama.
But specific scenes and rigid storylines are anathema to what Quinn feels is the truth, which "is this: language is a behavior that doesn't fossilize." In a lesser work, this nice poetic observation might be one of dozens that speckle important real estate in the novel—say, the end of section or chapter, the kind that says 'marinate on me throughout the space break, then forget me and move on.'
Habilis, however, is not a novel that gestures meekly at the tough stuff; Habilis takes a stab in the dark and takes ownership of the ideas it pierces. If language is fluid and stories are built from such a fluid material, then isn't any one story mere seconds from re-forming itself into some other shape? Quinn acknowledges the arbitrariness of which museum exhibits she chooses to write about: "Back perhaps to this Homo Habilis in the blue bathroom of the museum that is a discotheque." The arbitrariness concerns not just which exhibit she chooses to engage with but how that 'exhibit' has been arranged: "The body lies there in the soil, let's say next to a patch of African violets, why not." Skeletons elsewhere are "all mixed up in each other's femurs and teeth."
It's wrong of me to be relying so often on 'arbitrariness,' which translates too closely to purposelessness or unworthy of attention. "There is much to read in the shape of a rock," Quinn advises. She seems to say: Distrust anyone who uses the word formlessness. A kinder framing: Give such a person glasses. Better yet, guide their fingers to and over what they speak of, and ask what they feel. "This exhibit is okay to touch!" Quinn writes. "Try rolling in the chips, try lifting them in handfuls and letting them fall."
These playful incitements, when paired with reminders that 'language is a behavior,' create something of a dissolving agent when it comes to traditional story structure—or, more accurately, one's expectations about what a novel's structure can and should resemble. I came to think of reading Habilis as less like following a narrative and more akin to participating in narrative behavior—noting synchronicities but appreciating them in the present rather than theorizing their recurrences; receiving backstory but processing such moments as a way to live in the extreme present with a previous version of a character or bone.
One character, Dina, stands among the "shapeless fossils and chips of waste" and admits, "I have a soft spot for this particular gallery... It makes me feel such a stupid rush of love." At this juncture, I said aloud: I feel this rush too, Dina. I kept thinking things like: this narrative behavior feels both frenzied and studious, even hyperfocused. Kept thinking things like: that which is old and calcified is just awaiting new eyes. Kept thinking: species, language, and narrative structures were invented by "middle-aged men in crumpled white shirts and loosened ties." A thought: isn't form and structure just another word for capital? Evidence: "The shape is that of a man. He's in a police uniform. His face is little more than a smudge but his posture is like a grimace." To be given a clear, definitive, unalterable shape in Habilis means you're boring, sad, and possibly untrustworthy.
And yet. The narration in Habilis does recognize the necessity of certain structures and fossilizations. The narration does, at times, argue that it is "useful to be able to label your world, pin words to it like markers on a compass, share its reality with others and thus live a little longer." Quinn does—miraculously, unexpectedly, counterintuitively—seek a more rigid narrative packaging two thirds of the way through, as though feeling the pull of Freytag or Aristotle or Chekhov or some other fossilized story merchant. We as readers, it turns out, are navigating the bones of the museum not simply to speak beautifully about bones. We have slowly, across the novel's first half, been trying to help the main character, Lucy, determine her own origin story. Why? Because "It is tempting, though, this single point of origin." Lucy is billed by the press materials as "a woman with an uncertain past." To this description it seems reasonable to add: "...who has an awful lot to do with Lucy the Australopithecus." The Lucy character we come to know in Habilis "wants a direct ancestor. Not a side branch or an offshoot, not a skull fragment or a scrap of stone. She wants something whole," though not the whole of humanity, mind you, which has been the book's survey thus far.
And so Quinn tries to stuff Habilis back in the StoryCrest tube. She tries to more or less refute her own ideas about narrative and hew to some kind of linearity regarding a character and their origin story. The ways in which she fails are breathtaking, in that she demonstrates how invention, appropriation, and all other manner of tricks support these traditional, fossilized narrative structures, structures that hold our hand through some human's experience but that do not necessarily let us better know real human flesh and bone. If this sounds abstract or convoluted, believe me: you want the experience, not my summary.
We are capable, in other words, of apprehending so much more of the world than simply a linear story traveling without interruption from the past to where we are. As Quinn puts it, "To reassemble history is our task." Reassembly generally involves hands, or at least handiness, which is both the translation for habilis and the true subject of Quinn's book. "When our hand evolved, so did the rest of us," Quinn writes. "Prehensile: able to hold or grasp. But also: able to let go." Why cling to where we've been, story-wise? Why not point to the future and try to make space there for humans and fiction alike? After all, "to point is to love. It is to touch what you cannot and lose what you might have held."