Now Read This

The Listeners

A vivid novel explores childhood and death in new ways.

By Pauls Toutonghi April 27, 2012 Published in the May 2012 issue of Portland Monthly


Image: Courtesy Tin House Books

DISORIENTATION. That’s what I felt when I started The Listeners, the debut novel by Portland author Leni Zumas that sets her up to be a formidable, idiosyncratic new voice in American fiction, helped no doubt by the fact that it’s being published by Portland’s increasingly lauded literary tastemaker, Tin House. The Listeners’ short, fast-moving chapters—16 of them in the first 49 pages alone—feel like flashes of illumination that completely lack the comforts of exposition. Instead, the plot becomes clear only in the aggregate, as these close-to-the-skin images pile on top of each other: a family of four young children in a nameless East Coast city, marked forever by a sudden, violent death.

“A bullet is a mouthful of pennies,” Zumas writes. “A bullet tears metal and meat. A bullet shot on the night of June 2, 1984, went through my sister’s head and they found it later on the floor.”

The prose itself is beautiful, if unusual. It occasionally feels like Zumas has some kind of hidden relationship with language—as if she’s giving and taking something from it. Bargaining with it. The usual modifiers, sentence structure, and verbs-as-verbs and nouns-as-nouns are, if not discarded, then at least tweaked, making for some arresting, astonishing writing. Take this scene—20 years after the death at the heart of the book—in which the narrator is arguing with her brother:

Between my hips, where the eggs lived: a little heave.
I’m sorry.
I know.
“Who are you talking to?” my brother asked.
“The forgiveness department,” I said.
Giant hills ridden by giant trees; long spaces of water that I couldn’t tell if were lake or river; and bruisy clouds.

The children, it turns out, suffer from synesthesia, a condition in which colors have sounds—a metaphor perhaps for the book as a whole, which merges language, imagery, sound, and story in a particularly unusual way. The Listeners reminded me of the process I went through with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is also a tale about death, told episodically): initial resistance followed by deep interest, as the elements of the story floated to the surface.

Paired with Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers—another Tin House debut novel that’s attracting widespread critical attention—The Listeners marks the Portland publisher as one of the country’s most dynamic.

Leni Zumas will present The Listeners at Powell’s City of Book on May 16 at 7:30. 

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