I came across Lucy K Shaw’s work in the alt-lit compendium The Yolo Pages put out by the small press boost house. I remember thinking her poetry was down-to-earth and jarring, but perhaps most satisfyingly, dryly humorous. In her bio in The Yolo Pages, Shaw muses that she and her “idiot friends are the avant-garde,” which to me might actually be true. Shaw’s work experiments: she renders the voice of the internet age into a musical, dream-like literature. Plus: Shaw strikes the balance between engaging with serious, abstract subjects—gender inequality in art, feelings of twentysomething restlessness, the evolving state of poetry—while never coming across as too desperate. Her book of prose entitled The Motion commands a great deal of attention without screaming, “Take me seriously, dammit!”—a trap many emerging writers (including me) fall into at some point.
Before delving into the content of Shaw’s work, one must admire the stylistic leaps present The Motion. Shaw is a list-maker and a meditative storyteller, which allows her to let her poetic impulses bleed into her prose. The effect is that The Motion feels less like a polished collection and more like a diary, an intimate glimpse into Shaw’s messiest observations. Her sentences, however, are finely-tuned machines. Some are so emotionally packed that I was reminded of Amina Cain and Susan Steinberg—that is to say, seasoned prose stylists.
Here are three badass sentences from The Motion.
1. “We were hung over because the previous evening we had drunk enough alcohol to be able to face one another.”
2. “I felt very aware of being myself in the present moment.”
3. “Throw your body around in the same ways that I do and try to keep all of the feelings in.”
The book, from the introductory story “Sylvia Plath’s House, Hung Over,” establishes a Heti-esque sense of self-awareness, in which Shaw entices the reader to believe the story really happened (she actually says, “This really happened,”) but then immediately calls into question any reader’s propensity to believe her words are anything but non-fictive. In literature, I always find this intriguing. One might recall Vonnegut’s famous first lines of nearly-impossible-to-categorize classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five: “All of this happened, more or less.” Of course, Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse, conveys a story that is part memoir, but also involves time-travel and aliens, naturally earning a response of: “Dude, none of this shit happened, more or less.” But Vonnegut was a postmodern, a gawky comic amidst a cast of writers hungry to push the novel into unfamiliar turf, and Shaw is a post-post-(post?)-modern, which hasn’t earned a concrete meaning, not yet. Shaw’s narrators in The Motion (or, perhaps it’s the same narrator each time) are voraciously hungry for cultural meaning. Shaw, though meandering through a murky sea of abstract ideas, does hit moments of startling clarity.
Shaw writes: “Everything I write is fiction. Same as everyone else.”
Of course, this is a complicated, important argument. I should probably employ Derrida to expound on this sentence, but I’m lazy. I’ll leave Derrida for the theorists and academics. Instead, I’ll keep it simple: Shaw appears to be arguing that all interpretation of fact is fiction because no two humans process the corporeal world the same. In terms of literary genre, it seems to engage with Blake Butler’s claim that realism is “wholly sated, lardy, and ready to be worshipped.” I feel this applies to memoir, too, because part of the genre’s appeal is: “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that actually happened!” Shaw seems to be asking if it matters or not. She seems to hold the position that those obsessed with capturing an honest portrait of life—I’m looking at you, Knausgaard—are immediately dishonest, because all recollection of fact is wildly subjective, distorted by sentiment, blurred by wordage.
In other words: Fiction, a form of storytelling which establishes itself as fictive, can’t be proven false.
Plus: it’s a waste of time to obsess over the actual persona of the artist at the expense of his or her work. Leave that to celebrity gossip rags and E!. Literature is a highly intimate art, and if the process is done right, it has the potential to reveal the inner-workings of the author’s imagination, rather than the mundane details of one’s personal life. That’s why I love David Foster Wallace so much: he let his imagination explode on the page.
So, what is Shaw’s imagination like, as revealed by The Motion?
Shaw reveals herself to be a nomadic writer. That is to say she, the protagonist of these poetic meditations on life and art, is either in constant search for a home, or happy to live transient life: within the greater context of visual and poetic art history, within the physical world (Shaw, in the collection, reveals herself to be belonging to 3 continents and the internet), and within her social sphere. Perhaps it is this “motion” to which the title broadly refers. Though the final sentence of the book links the word motion to a “revolution,” referring to the physical movement of the Earth around the Sun, perhaps Shaw, who founded the literary journal Shabby Doll House and is a prominent supporter of emerging women authors, is also calling for a major shift in the literary landscape.
If Shaw’s the bard of some literary revolution, then sign me up. The world doesn’t need another Jonathan Franzen.
In the spirit of Chelsea Hodson and Claudia Rankine, Shaw punctuates the personal and experiential with astute observations about art and culture. Shaw’s primary artistic concerns are the works she witnesses in art galleries, as well as the lives of indelible poets like Sylvia Plath, Robert Burns, and Allen Ginsburg. Shaw’s work in many ways seems like a blend of Plath and Ginsberg: confessional and brooding like Plath, steeped in the ecstasy of Ginsberg. Robert Burns functions in the book as a ghostly symbol of a “national” poet, a juxtaposition against Shaw’s cosmopolitan life.
“I kept getting sidetracked,” Shaw writes, ”and looking at statues and buskers and squirrels and people in rowing boats and everything else that was happening at the centre of the universe.”
It’s precisely such spatial awareness and cosmopolitanism that makes The Motion such an excellent companion. Shaw’s slender collection demands to be read in dingy subway stations, on camping trips, or alone in a hip coffee-joint, among the humming lull of espresso machines and chatter. Take it to museums, bars, restaurants. Wherever you go, wherever you are, The Motion is a glimpse into the mind of a wanderer—someone restless and searching, yet always right there.
About the author:
Greg Letellier is a Pushcart Prize nominated fiction writer, book reviewer, and teacher living in Boston, MA. He is the author of two story collections Paper Heart: Love Stories and Carpe Noctum, (2015, Thought Catalog), and his chapbook Karaoke: An Essay won the 2015 Be About It Press Chapbook Contest. His work is featured in an array of places, such as The Bicycle Review, Extract(s), HOUSEFIRE, Ray’s Road Review, and on The Flexible Persona Podcast. Most recently, he was awarded a Martin Dibner Fellowship by the Maine Writers’ and Publishers’ Alliance.