A gifted writer returns with an extremely poignant novel
This novel has been a long time coming. Carolyn Ferrell first appeared on the radar screens in 1997 with “Don’t Erase Me,” a book of stories, many about the spiritual if not material resources of underachieving but vibrant and intelligent young people on the streets.
It was a good start. One of the galvanizing stories in this collection, “Proper Library”, appeared in “Best American Short Stories of the Century” edited by John Updike.
For almost 25 years, there has been nothing but silence. Now, luckily, comes the second book by this Brooklyn-born writer, “Dear Miss Metropolitan”.
It’s a difficult novel to read. The subject is about as sinister as it is sinister. Ferrell tells the story of three young girls, black and mixed race, who are kidnapped and thrown into the basement of a decaying house in Queens. Once there, they are tied up, tortured and raped for a decade, recalling the kidnappings in Cleveland from 2002 to 2013.
The girls ask themselves: does anyone bother to look for us? They question the content of their own characters. Few novels summon Nietzsche’s poignant aphorism with more rigor: “Terrible experiences suggest that he who lives them may not be something terrible.
Meanwhile, their neighbors, friends and family wonder: how could we have let this happen, right in front of us? What kind of people are we?
“Dear Miss Metropolitan” is also difficult to read due to its structure. Ferrell mixes pieces of storytelling, collage style, with snippets from news stories, with letters and lists and spells and incantations and social service ratings and answers to tests and quizzes. There are atmospheric photographs. The effect is to keep the action of the book a bit distant, at a distance.
The stories of the lives of these girls have been amputated and almost cauterized. No real narrative force is allowed to develop in Ferrell’s novel either. It’s a test of endurance. I admired it hoping it ended.
Ferrell’s title, “Dear Miss Metropolitan,” recalls the black comedy from Nathanael West’s 1933 novel, “Miss Lonelyhearts.” This is a misleading title for this book.
An advice columnist appears: an elderly woman who unwittingly lives near the house where the girls are kept. But it is only in the novel for about 25 pages; she is at best a marginal figure. The glittering cover of this novel is also a red herring.
The names of the girls are Fern, Gwin and Jesenia. “Dear Miss Metropolitan” is not entirely about their degradation. Ferrell traces the girls’ friendship and the little ways they work to find bearable aspects of an unbearable experience. We get scenes from their lives before and after their imprisonment. Ferrell considers resilience and courage.
The author is a great sentence maker with a flair for casual surrealism: “The night air forms a halo of Cheetos around his little head”; “The moon is a huge sanitary napkin”; “Boulevards with a trout mouth”; “A whole wheat sergeant with Crisco eyes.”
She smuggles in literary politics. One of the girls comments, on a lesson learned from reading Arthur Miller: “The girl is always the problem. Spells and incantations are well done. “Love Spell # 36” contains this advice, to perform “a few moments before you see your ex get along with his ex, the bastard”:
Take three hairs of your beloved’s afro choice;
Burn a teaspoon of sugar in your mother’s kitchen;
Three times under a gibbous moon, recite:
Boy, take care of me, and name me your one and only,
In the directory or other similar publications.
Whenever there is a horror situation like the one this novel explores, in real life or in a work of art, the question arises: do we need the worst details? Why or why not? When it comes to torture in movies, I tend to agree with critic Clive James, who has said that “a scream on the other side of a closed door is usually enough to convince me”.
There are few scenes of applied and prolonged torment in “Dear Miss Metropolitan”. But the dry facts, unbearable in the smallest details, are more than enough. In the course of the novel, they cause something to collapse in your soul.
These girls are chained and hung upside down. The teeth are extracted with forceps. They are tortured with paper clips, thumbtacks and carpet nails. Jaws, legs and nose are broken. They are repeatedly raped and beaten to cause a miscarriage. They are barely fed and often naked. There are mentions of Krazy Glue and barbed wire. The ears are “sewn open” and the nails are sunk into them. These things are just a sample of the kaleidoscopic horrors.
The girl kidnapper is not an underworld lord drinking wine from a diamond encrusted skull. He’s a schlub, a loner down the block: totally mundane, totally evil.
The girls come out of their captivity as heroes. There are appearances on television and we are talking about a movie. Tourist buses pass the place of their hell.
Fascinatingly, the novel projects into the future – until 2039, which doesn’t seem so far away. The bad news is that there is something called the “Trump Spectacle Awards”. The good news is that Jesenia’s daughter is in Oberlin and making her way around the world.
She is, she knows, the product of rape and arguably worse. Asked about her race and ethnicity on a form, she replied: “I am the product of a hand, a belt, a chain, a pit. What would you call this race? “
It becomes clear, and not for the first time, that Ferrell is going through the trauma of America at large, as well as that of his characters. Some nightmares and subsidiary nightmares are not easily overcome.