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“Jen Michalski’s second novel is an intense emotional commitment, but a worthwhile one.” – Ploughshares


“Jen is an astonishingly sensitive writer.” – HTML Giant


“Jen Michalski excels in subtlety that is made possible by her nuanced understanding of voice.” – The Rumpus


“Jen is a writerly heavyweight.” – Nate Brown, American Short Fiction


“We’re lucky to have Michalski before the rest of the world discovers her. But they will.” – Baltimore City Paper

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Living on the Edge


I just finished Kristin Hersh's memoir, Rat Girl. Hersh was the leader of the critically acclaimed (but virtually unknown) alternative band The Throwing Muses, who recorded records in the eighties and nineties. I discovered the Muses when I was fifteen (courtesy of the MTV video show "120 Minutes," back when MTV didn't suck as bad), and they've been my favorite band ever since. Hersh, who was diagnosed as manic depressive while a teenager and later had a brain tumor removed, wrote these incredibly dense, rhythmic lyrics, tantric images, I called them. And I aspired to be a writer the way Hersh was a musician. So it was a real treat to discover Hersh had written a memoir (since, for years, I'd considered attempting a Throwing Muses biography).

Rat Girl is taken from a diary Hersh kept when she was nineteen. In that year, the Muses quit school (Salve Regina University in Newport, RI), were the first American band signed to the seminal 4AD Records in the UK, and Hersh became pregnant. It would seem a good year to document, even if Hersh didn't know it at the time.

I'm ashamed to say I was a little (maybe more than a little) disappointed with Rat Girl. Although I know that Hersh essentially rewrote her diary from that year for public consumption, it feels disjointed, amateurish, whether by design or by accident. Simple grounding sentences, like where the Muses met, how Hersh, who grew up in a commune, came to Newport (presumably because her hippie father, "Dude," took a job at Salve Regina), where Hersh's mother is during this year that Hersh is essentially homeless, are missing. Tanya Donnelly, Hersh's stepsister and other guitarist/songwriter in the Muses, is referred to by her commune name, Tea, but for someone who doesn't know the Muses, would they ever make the leap that Tea is Tanya? Hersh doesn't make the connection for us, and neither did her editor find it important, I guess. (What is it with so many big-publisher novels and memoirs I've read this year that feel like first drafts?)

The pacing of Rat Girl is slow and meandering. People hang out, have boring conversations, leave. If anything, Hersh's account makes the life of Muses less glamorous than I always imagined it to be, even if Hersh is particularly proud of their freedom, of being honest to their vision and music. The only really interesting parts of Rat Girl for me were Hersh's song lyrics, interspersed throughout so that the reader could see the real-life inspirations for many of Hersh's songs (inspirations that were much more mundane, in many cases, than I imagined) and Hersh's friendship with aging silver screen actress Betty Hutton, who lived in Newport at the time and attended Salve Regina with Hersh in pursuit of her Master's (which she later obtained). There are many similarities between Hutton and Hersh: their refusal to compromise artistically, homeless at points in their lives, straddling the razor's edge of sanity, but Hersh's relationship with Hutton is left strained and unresolved at the end of the memoir. Were they ever friends again?

Which brings us to the point of storytelling, I guess. Yes, there is a lot of downtime between momentous events in our lives, but why is that? Novels and short stories must trim the fat and sacrifice these moments for dramatic effect and tension, but why? Aren't these downtimes, of grocery shopping and awkward conversations in bank lines and pointless hours of watching "WKRP in Cincinnati" necessary, a sort of waking sleep? Or have we evolved to the point in which 80% of our lives are unnecessary?

Chuck Palahuik addressed this phenomenon somewhat in The Fight Club, that humanity has lost its instinct to survive, to be stimulated organically, and it's true. We Wii exercise instead of going outside to the earth gym. We play war games and watch scary movies so that all of our survival instincts are exercised, tuned. But what has happened to us? Do we write stories for the same reasons? To live vicariously so that we may at least live?

Ideas for a story swim. Newport, 1965. A reclusive Norma Desmond film actress, a schizophrenic neighborhood boy who will later kidnap and torture a young child, a girl on summer break from Brown who drives an ice cream truck on the island, parking mostly at Second Beach all day to read (what?) and consider leaving school. How will these characters impact each other? How will they impact me?