The problem with Frances Johnson is that she cannot make a decision. She observes the voles, mice, badgers and cats that flow through...

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“Frances Johnson”
by Stacey Levine
Clear Cut Press, 230 pp., $12.95

The problem with Frances Johnson is that she cannot make a decision. She observes the voles, mice, badgers and cats that flow through her yard like a “river of pelts,” none of the animals impeded by the stasis and indecision she feels about everything in her life. She wishes “the future would appear right now, so we don’t have to wait for it like a bunch of dogs.”

In her blithe and humorous second novel, “Frances Johnson,” Seattle author Stacey Levine creates a parallel universe in the small, stagnant town of Munson, Fla.: Frances acts like and is treated like a young girl even though she is 38; and Levine is not concerned with popular culture or anything that might date the period of the novel. Though readers will recognize the small-town phobias against change, strangers and individual freedom, Levine’s writing aims to disconcert and make the familiar strange and wondrous. This is a book for adventurous readers.

As in Levine’s standout first novel, “Dra — ” (1997), there is a dreamlike illogic to characters’ motives and the sequencing of events. In “Dra — ” Levine depicted the employment-seeking protagonist in a nightmarish labyrinth of longing and fear of the future. Levine’s sharply drawn contrasts in that book — images of comfort and humiliation, encounter and loss, hope and despair — suggest a Kafka-esque existence in crisp, startling language.

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In “Frances Johnson,” the story takes place over two days, leading up to the town’s annual dance. It seems that nearly everyone who knows her has set their hopes on Frances getting together with the handsome new doctor. Frances is not the first heroine whose mother urges matrimony with a prosperous newcomer, but romance is not what Levine is after.

Coming up

Matt Briggs and Stacey Levine


The author of “Shoot the Buffalo” and the author of “Frances Johnson” will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Sponsored by Clear Cut Press (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

Rather than any “resolution” of plot or Frances’ dilemmas, we see an exercise in confrontation as Frances bicycles around town, seeking advice from various characters who alternate in pulling her back to a passive fate or urging her on to seek an unknowable future independence. The text is peppered with questions like “What kind of woman could Frances Johnson be or avoid being?” and “Was Frances Johnson similar to others?”

Levine’s humor is evident in a scene where Frances puckishly pins another woman’s legs on an ottoman with her own legs, and in merry descriptions whose peculiarities and omissions reveal a lively mind. When Frances speaks to her mother on the phone, she can hear oars falling in the background. Oars? She serves “further food, and a sauce” at one point. Where there is detail or a lack of it, Levine revels in an idiosyncratic and unconventional fictional view of the world (and of fiction itself), where the falling oars suggest perimeters beyond which we cannot go.