Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review of "Action/Figure" by Frank Hinton

          Though she is widely published online I haven't yet read much by Frank Hinton. A piece on Popserial maybe, but from what I can tell she is one of the more prominent names in the Alt-Lit scene and I have noticed her and her work referenced again and again. Action/Figure came out a few weeks ago on Tiny Hardcore press so this is some seriously fresh shit. The book itself is roughly half the usual paperback height,  pretty thick and the cover has this full color picture which is rare i feel on the small presses. This said it certainly stands out at first glance, though following the great maxim: judgement must wait until the cover is out of sight...
        The majority of Action/Figure follows two storylines disparate in setting but similar in themes and tone. The first opens with Rapunzel, who has suffered a strange accident in a foreign, war-torn country. We come upon her amnesic, blind, restrained and surfacing from delirium. She is cut off from those around her by the language barrier. When English speakers do begin to arrive and speak with her their intentions are not clear. The chapters alternate with the stories of Frank and Lili, two room mates in Halifax. Both are graduated students, aimless and confused about their imminent adulthood. While they only allude to past events it is obvious that in past years their house was once a chaotic party spot, but is now reduced to a shade of its former self as former room-mates left to pursue other endeavors. The way Hinton paints this setting, the ruin, and allows us to fill the gaps of the past through only a few dropped lines is quite impressive and allows each reader to potentially form a personal back story to suit.
        Rapunzel's story forms and resolves slowly as she, and we, learn about the events that lead up to her hospitalizaiton. At a certain point she begins to mention You. The reader or another, You are very important to Rapunzel and she did something very dire to attain You and which was the cause of her hospitalizaiton. You are home to Rapunzel, and in this foreign land her central desire is to get to you, to get home.
        Frank and Lili are almost defined by their inability to function in society, but in very different ways and Hinton mirrors this in their narration. Lili's chapters are told in first person and this fits well as she is wracked by an introspective obsession. When the novel opens she is on a "good" day and seems like any other 20 somethings, a little lost in the world but otherwise okay: she creates a city of clothes in her room, visits with her "boyfriend" with whom she has a confusing and complicated relationship and worries about a meeting with her family. In fact both Lili and Frank obsess over imminent meetings with their families, and both groups are toxic in appropriately different ways to each, their influence driving both into their respective mental cages. As time goes on it becomes apparent that this "good day" is a rare one for Lili, a fluke, and her insecurities begin to come out in disastrous ways. Frank's narrative is told in the third person; he is apart from himself, unable to connect with his thoughts, emotions or the world around him. He seeks and coerces sex from Lili and his cousin and seems unable to feel affection, simply screwing to pass the time and branding himself as abusive (and rightfully so). Frank's entire post college goal amounts to playing with action figures for half an hour a day to become more childlike.
       Navigating the hazy labyrinth between childhood and adulthood is a major theme of the novel. Frank and Lili are on the edge, either unsure or unable to commit to a stable adult life style. Along with Frank's action figure collection one night Lili takes cocaine with some friends and goes to a playground and meditates:
"I look around the playground. When is the last time I played on a playground? Why do people grow up and  work and do things? I imagine a society by balancing their time between self-sustaining farms and playgrounds. You work a little, play a little. You hoe a little, you slide a little. Why doesn't this society exist? Why can't I be the leader of a society like this? I want my childhood back." 
      The childish genius, the naive clarity of this statement... Some of us entertain thoughts like this every day, for others of us the very notion is completely ludicrous. Lili continues:
"I am going to unlock some secret from my youth in this playground. The secret will help to understand my adult-self more maybe."
          This is the thesis of the work, looking back to childhood to break through the barrier to adulthood, trying to find the spark that will carry one through the tedium and malaise of adult life. Lili and Frank are the casualties of this endeavor, and Hinton closes the novel before we ever learn whether they are successful or not. In a similar vein Rapunzel describes her first "awakening" in the hospital as a birth and she is cared for yet confined, much like as in childhood. At a certain point Rapunzel finds herself alone, yet free to do as she pleases and takes the first steps into the outside world. She describes this as a second birth: her attainment of a symbolic adulthood. Rapunzel attains what Frank and Lili fear and hope for and her story spirals off into a poetic journey into the heart of her forsaken country and ends ambiguously, at her darkest moment an apparent redemption arrives, perhaps.
        I felt a distinct sadness at the end of Frank, Lili's and Rapunzel's stories. Not a sadness for the characters themselves but that undefinable sadness one may feel as a really good journey ends, as you realize that the place you have been for the last few days or months is not and never has been real. The sadness that the world of the novel, no matter how flawed and dark was an almost realer place than the one we experience during waking life. I found this novel to be quite personal, Hinton allows enough room for the reader to fill in gaps and unconscionably make it their own.
        The final episode in Action/Figure is distinctly separate from the other two stories and follows a boy and a girl who eternally walk along an isolated shore. The prototypical love story: just two people finding solace in each other amongst the waste of the world. Perhaps this story is a dream or hallucination of Frank or Lili's, perhaps it is not linked at all. It does however draw the sadness birthed at the end of the novel out just a little longer and puts the relationship of Frank and Lili, Rapunzel and You into perspective. It brings out the flawed beauty of each and provides the ideal of love, unattainable except perhaps for in the realms of ourselves.

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