In his 1925 essay “Art as Device,” Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky coined the word ostranenie, meant to describe writing that leads “to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition,” or that employs “a description that changes [an object’s] form without changing its essence.” With ostranenie—in layman’s terms, the replacement of everyday terminologies for common articles and events with unique alternatives—Shklovsky argues, “something strange, something monstrous” occurs: the reader is forced to approach a familiar idea with fresh eyes, experiencing something routine with heightened awareness, as if for the first time.
Shklovsky says that ostranenie, translated by various scholars into English as “defamiliarization” and “enstrangement,” can be found in most fictional works, and there are books and stories that fully embrace the “make something strange” attitude that the term implies. One such novel is A Well-Made Bed, the first collaboration from authors Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts. Utilizing ostranenie’s principle on macro and micro levels, Frucht and Alberts construct a narrative that subverts genre conventions to effectively tell a new version of an old story, one with enough surprising prose to satisfy a wide variety of readers.
The novel mostly takes place in 2010 and concerns two women living in northern Vermont: Noor, the polished owner of a struggling horse-riding business for the handicapped, who suspects her veterinarian husband is having an affair; and Jaycee, the sheltered daughter of a once-famous children’s book author, who spends her days working at her father’s literary-themed park. As the novel opens, Jaycee breaks free from Vermont and secretly vacations in Peru, where she inadvertently acquires a cache of cocaine. Back in Vermont, she pairs up with Noor—the two shared a childhood friend who died in a hit-and-run accident, and Noor becomes acquaintances with Jaycee’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father while Jaycee tours Peru—and decides to sell the drugs. She argues that the profits will be enough to save Noor’s business and free herself from the trappings of her life at home, yet the road to good fortune is paved with a litany of pitfalls, from finding a buyer to avoiding the police, not to mention Jaycee’s habit of testing the product herself.
The oddball Jaycee and refined Noor make for an entertaining, funny pair, but at face value, A Well-Made Bed resembles little more than an archetypal “fish out of water” story. The idea of these women toeing their way into the underbelly of Vermont’s drug trade is engaging, yet it is simply a variation of a well-worn plot device exploited by a myriad of predictable novels. What raises A Well-Made Bed above these generic tropes is Frucht and Alberts’s curiosity in approaching their story’s expected structure. Though the novel’s overarching plot points suggest the familiar, the methods the authors employ to get there are unusual. For example, while most books of similar ilk would build to a drug-deal climax, here Frucht and Alberts choose to stage such a scene as a central pivot point that propels the characters into the novel’s second half (which involves another drug deal). And both before and after this scene, the authors tease a series of eccentric observations from their heroines that forces the reader to appreciate environments and objects in inventive ways. Jaycee dreams about “the Michael Jackson amputation song,” which turns out to be the Jackson 5 hit “ABC,” and her naïveté within the world leads to a confrontation with an ATM machine early in the novel, ending with the following:
The acronym, PIN, wasn’t up to the task of conveying a new personal identity, she thought to herself the next day on the skiff, imagining what PIN or code name she might conjure for herself if she ever did acquire a new identity. The misspelled crueler came to her, pastry and perversity.
Here, something we all take for granted, when perceived by Jaycee for the first time, becomes a springboard for her imagination to leap into the absurd. It is Shklovsky’s ostranenie in action, and A Well-Made Bed latches onto moments like this to maneuver itself down strange alleyways of reflection. Just as Frucht and Alberts choose to undermine the expected structure of the novel, so too do their protagonists exist in the world. While considering Jaycee’s drug-dealing proposal, Noor decides “she could live with selling recreational coke, that’s all—the kind of stuff rich people sucked up their noses using straws made of rolled-up hundred dollar bills.” Then, after her initial contact with Gerry, an old schoolmate who now slings weed to locals, she thinks, via close third-person narration:
That’s all it took, a couple of minutes of conversation, to step over the line from being a clean nosed good citizen to being a felon. Anyone could do it. Anyone could step onto a seesaw not knowing which end was going to finish up. Except, Noor thought, you didn’t ordinarily step onto a seesaw at all, did you, and if you did, it wasn’t by accident.
Again, the liveliness of language in this passage allows the reader to reconsider the banal concept of riding a seesaw, and it adds enough peculiarity to make the scene uneasy, much like the object described in its analogy. When combined with Frucht and Alberts’s decision to focus attention on the characters around the drug deal, rather than the deal itself, the novel refuses to be typecast as generic. It breathes as its own atypical entity.
Adding to this are subplot chapters told from the point of view of Jaycee’s father, Hil, crippled by Alzheimer’s and living with his own guilt: his once-thriving career came at the expense of a talented unknown writer, and he may be responsible for the fatal hit-and-run that took the life of his daughter’s childhood pal. Where Jaycee and Noor stumble their way through the world of drug dealing with inexperience, Hil faces his own darkness merely walking into town. His episodes are fascinating to pore over, as if sifting through sludge in search of a hidden treasure, and they place the reader deep within a mind that cannot grasp the bare necessities for everyday survival. When leaving his home, Hil’s thoughts scatter like pinballs:
The what you call it, the force Isaac Newton’s apple fell. It helps speed up the peds. The downward thing. Don’t forget, hold on to the purpose. They go easier on you if you turn yourself in.
In clipped sentences, Hil whisks the reader into a wholly new experience as he completes the minor task of walking down the road. We imbibe his actions in equally stuttered fashion, turning the mundane into the surreal. These chapters, so very different in style than everything else in the book, remain with the reader.
Of course, not everything in A Well-Made Bed works. An in-depth visit to the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Frucht currently teaches and Alberts once did, is a tad indulgent. And perhaps because two authors wrote it, the novel sporadically is weighed down by counterpoints and parity, as most characters receive equal narrative time. For every fascinating chapter seen through the eyes of Hil, there is a less satisfying section devoted to his business partner/partner in crime, Jeff, whose story contains fewer rewards. Also, the quirks that construct the character of Jaycee make it impossible for Noor to match her pure wackiness. Though this is less of an issue, as her “straight woman” personality keeps the novel on course, there certainly are times when the reader wishes for Jaycee to show up, if only to inject some supplementary life. Nevertheless, these faults are minor.
When a book is written by two sets of hands, two minds, it’s impossible to avoid wondering who is responsible for every shift in tone, every wisecrack, every revelation. After all, Frucht and Alberts have separate, successful writing careers that are quite different in style. Plus, in many ways, by telling their story through two female protagonists, Frucht and Alberts seem fully aware of this impulse and invite inquiry. However, by dwelling on such trivia, one fails to recognize the accomplishment that is A Well-Made Bed, for here are two writers pushing each other to develop a new way to spin an old yarn. It’s an experiment that succeeds, and it will be interesting to see what comes next from this writing duo.
Benjamin Woodard is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine and helps publish Atlas and Alice. His recent fiction has been featured in Corium Magazine and Storychord. Recent criticism can be found at The Georgia Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Kenyon Review Online.