KR Reviews

“Two Theatres:” A Review of Amy Fusselman’s Idiophone

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2018. 132 pages. $16.95.

It is not until page sixteen of Idiophone, Amy Fusselman’s latest work of nonfiction, that she defines the title: a percussion instrument that makes sound via whole-body vibrations rather than by strings or membrane. Cowbells, triangles, glockenspiels, and horse hooves populate the book, as do themes of instrument, resonance, buzzedness, and body. However, before the reader arrives at the title’s definition (and scrambles to Google-image search “Venatu slit gong”), Fusselman has already introduced the book’s other seemingly dissonant threads, among them Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, alcoholism, pancakes, and her mother’s “skinny, eighty-eight-year-old arm [reaching] across the country to rabbit punch [her] in [her] sleep.”

Fusselman’s deadpan flurry of anecdotes rings with the energy of the best stand-up comedy sets, pinballing from one topic to the next like Wile E. Coyote strapped to a rocket. But despite the g-force with which the book moves, the effect is not disorienting. Fusselman straps her reader in beside her, eschewing the heady, lyric mode of much other contemporary nonfiction and opting instead for a conversational tone: “I can’t sleep in this uncomfortable New York City cab. / It keeps moving. Like the bed in The Nutcracker. / You can’t sleep on it, you can only pass out on it.” The tension she creates between observational humor and figurative reasoning makes her narrative gripping and urgent. In one moment, in deftly researched strokes of prose, she explains how Tchaikovsky adapted The Nutcracker from page to stage. In the next, she poetically recollects how “trombone slides would glide up and down in skittish ecstasy when [her] mother walked down the street.”

These sweeping tonal shifts make for good theatre. And theatrics—specifically the suspension of disbelief—is a central theme of Idiophone. Fusselman is interested in revealing the inner mechanisms of things, questioning authenticity, and toeing the outer limits of performativity. In fact, the book begins with a very literal pulling back of the curtain: a backstage tour of Lincoln Center during a run of The Nutcracker, where Fusselman observes a row of man-sized nutcrackers waiting in the wings with the other props. “I didn’t know the nutcracker had identical brothers,” she writes, “but when I saw them together it made perfect sense. / More nutcrackers are needed in case one gets broken. / One always gets broken.” This stepping backstage is enacted again and again in Idiophone as Fusselman knocks on the walls of her imaginative world, looking for hollow spots and hidden doors.

She also questions performativity in terms of her strained relationship with her aging mother. Fusselman tells a story of a car accident involving her mother, an upsetting fairy tale a la Tchaikovsky, in which all of the characters are bunnies, cockroaches, and rats—a sort of play within a play. These vignettes are cartoonish and sweet, but Fusselman undercuts their sweetness with her intellect: “The room at the end of the hall where they wheel my mother,” she writes, evoking an emergency room staffed by mice, “[ . . . ] isn’t an operating theatre. / It’s a theatre-theatre. That’s not to say that there are two theatres, but one theatre that is itself.” This nesting-egg logic seems to inform Fusselman’s every move. It is a lucid dream, a mise en abyme; behind every image, there is another identical truer image, and behind that pair is another truer pair, each iteration representing a process of entropy, an infinitely recurring sequence.

At its essence, Idiophone is a hilarious, fast-paced, deliciously messy voyage into the thinking mind of a very smart person. But much like The Nutcracker itself, the book is not merely entertaining. Its gravity is not in its drumline of men in mice costumes but in the great tragedy of its apotheosis: “Suddenly the Mouse King jerks into an exaggeratedly stiff position; his hands freeze in mid-claw, his legs in mid-run. He is no longer dead, he is ‘dead,’ . . .  and the audience laughs at how, with this choreographed movement, the Mouse King overcomes his death. He lives.” For Fusselman, too, humor offers an access point to questions of mortality. “How bold is a work of art in which we laugh at death?” she asks. She claims that the ballet is organized more like a joke than anything else, but that “this joke organization reflects a human truth that is often danced around,” that “the narratives of our lives tend to end not with a bow but a punchline.”

And so does Fusselman’s narrative. She writes with dire, unsettling sarcasm, cross-pollinating poetry and prose, but her book transcends others that have tried to chuck the same components into the blender of genre-blending. She achieves rare urgency that, in part, is driven by her form. Line-broken sentences, in sequences of numbered vignettes, comprise the majority of the book. You can almost hear the definitive press of the RETURN key after each period (an idiophone in its own right). Each sentence revises the last, taking a stab at the same unachievable goal. She compares her writing process to the game of telephone, a game in which “the sentence is always changed from what it was in the beginning, and the way it changed is something to marvel at. . . . It’s a game about a sentence in which a sentence is free to transform.”

It is fitting that Fusselman is stuck on The Nutcracker, whose protagonist Clara transforms in violent and sweeping ways. It is hard to say whether Clara shrinks in order to enter The Land of Sweets, or if the fantastical universe expands to accommodate her human form, but this lack of resolve alludes to the ballet’s major dramatic question: what is the cost of imagination? Like Clara, Fusselman is both miniature and oversized at the same time, and this is the duality that drives Idiophone to its graceful, inconclusive end. “How bold is a work of art,” she asks, “ . . . that does something, abandons it, and moves on to something better?” In suit, Clara returns to her uncle’s house on Christmas morning seemingly unchanged. She isn’t Scrooge, suddenly overcome with Christian charity; or Dorothy, ravenous to testify about the other side; or Odysseus, who can no longer reconcile with the notion of home. Despite her witnessing, Clara gets on with her life. And so does Fusselman. Read this book in an afternoon and then read it again. For a book so decidedly about ballet, pointe shoes and all, Idiophone is delightfully indelicate and tiptoes around nothing.

Jane Huffman
Jane Huffman has an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa, where she is currently an instructor for the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, The New Yorker, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She is editor-in-chief of Guesthouse, a literary journal. Twitter @janechuffman