Original photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
Jen Silverman Original photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
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Jen Silverman Skins the Cat

The deeply absurdist, darkly hilarious drama, poetry, and fiction of a woman who wants to shake us out of our routines

Jake Marmer
September 16, 2019
Original photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images
Jen Silverman Original photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images

In Jen Silverman’s multidisciplinary work, Eros is like gravity: irresistible, ever-present, and beyond anyone’s control. Silverman’s play Wink, which opened at the Marin Theatre this year and just wrapped up a summer in Australia, however, takes Eros to a deeply absurdist, darkly hilarious dimension. Filled with references to Franz Kafka, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Allen Poe, with tantrums and violence, seduction and obsession, it is a tale of a grotesque murder of a cat—who comes back to life to take revenge, but instead seduces his murderer’s therapist. When I saw it, in a quiet and pristine suburban theater a short drive north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, with a few dozen mostly older patrons, this raucous and loud play seemed all the more absurd and luminous in its oddness.

I discovered Silverman’s poetry, short stories, and plays in a very old-fashioned way: at a dinner party, where a friend read her poem from a literary journal. It was sensuous and mythic, and I was instantly drawn to these lines:

We were naked as stones, arguing like birds about
nothing, meaning nothing, just

preparing for flight.

Stonelike nakedness is a striking metaphor. It is a more primal, natural, nakedness: smooth, perhaps silent and uncompromising. The proximity of the line’s two metaphors—birds and stones—creates a dangerous, sinister undercurrent. And of course, the blank space between the second and third line of the excerpt is implicit of the flight—that of the birds, and thoughts, and imagination. While beautifully crafted, the poem also feels casual and free flowing, made of entirely contemporary language.

Before long, I discovered that Silverman is a young, but incredibly prolific writer, whose short stories are similar to the poem that I found so striking: They are smart without being over-intellectual, mythic but sharply contemporary, and, at all times, concerned with the question of desire, which is not derivative from social norms and expectations, but is, rather, itself a source from which all else derives. Silverman’s The Island Dwellers, published by Penguin Random House last year and long-listed for the Pen/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction, is a collection of loosely linked tales that erase borders in a way that’s unmistakably new and striking. Action takes place in a variety of settings—New York, the rural American South, and Tokyo—the latter, specifically, as the juncture of the migrant community, peopled with characters from India, Ukraine, Mexico, North America, and more. Nearly every story features at least one character, central or secondary, who is queer—sometimes, ambiguously so. What is unambiguous, however, is the electricity of discovery, search, and humor that permeates the narrative. “They call it sprezzatura in Italian,” says Ancash, in the story “Maria of the Grapes,” referring to the literary style of feigned effortlessness. A young Mexican, living in Tokyo, Ancash is a host in a gay nightclub, a bleary-eyed daytime philosopher who is translating Harry Potter into Japanese to master the language. Sprezzatura, the hard-earned effortlessness, is precisely what it takes for the author to bring this unusual, and striking character to life.

In “Surveillance,” another story in the collection, readers will find themselves at an uncanny intersection of neurosis and technology. One of the protagonists, Agnes, is obsessed with fear of being spied on by the government and slowly comes apart, plunging into profound alienation as the story unfolds. In a peak moment of the tale, the protagonist comforts Agnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the NSA. So maybe I could find that comforting. Like, no matter how alone I feel like I am, somebody somewhere, behind a tiny camera, in some control room somewhere—that person is watching me, and that person will know if something bad happens to me. Even if I never see him or her. There’s two of us who care what happens to me.” The absurdity and desperation of the sentiment is both darkly funny and heartbreaking: the spiritual impulse is haunted and replaced with the fear of being recorded at all times. The story raises a number of irresistible questions: With all of the security cameras, virtual assistants, and drones, is it ever possible to be truly alone? And what does that do to our friendships and sexuality? What happens to our spiritual life, and the metaphors we use to describe it, as a result?

Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free) and Wink (John William Watkins) (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free) and Wink (John William Watkins) (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Every so often, Silverman pulls back the curtain and offers readers a glimpse into her poetics and creative influences. In “The Pike,” the protagonist researches the life and circumstances of Assia Wevill—German Jewish lover of the poet Ted Hughes. The affair with Wevill led to the rupture between Hughes and his wife, Sylvia Plath, before Plath’s suicide. The story is well known: A great deal had been written about Hughes and Plath, and their relationship is mythologized by now. Wevill is far less known as a writer, far less researched, and precisely the sort of character Silverman is interested in: marginal and odd, dark, powerfully seductive, and with biographical gaps so wide one’s imagination could sink within them. Wevill, who escaped Germany to Palestine, was “someone without family (nearby), without home (-land), whose self-description as an orphan and a refugee made her both infinitely sympathetic and utterly exotic. But more than that, she was desperately hungry. … If all eyes in the room weren’t on her, she couldn’t be sure she existed.” As in “Surveillance,” the desire of being seen and the costs of that desire come to the fore.

While learning about Wevill, the story’s narrator encounters Cora, who seems to possess many of Wevill’s characteristics. And that is the story’s twist: On the one hand, you see a reader-protagonist unable to separate her reading from the outside world; on the other, meta level, you notice the writer who is pointing to the source of her inspiration and its results.

Far more mysterious than Plath and Hughes, Wevill’s persona embodied trauma, guilt, and, above all, obsession. Concluding the short story, the narrator states: “On the one hand, obsession is a tool. Boats are built and fleets set sail and books are written and languages are mastered because of it. And then on the other hand, when it descends like a veil, we forget that there was anything on the other side. We lose contact, and then context.” Perhaps this is the secret sweet spot of Silverman’s writing: that space where the trajectory of obsession and desire begins to topple toward the loss of contact and context, toward the breakdown of sense and language—raw and exposed, real and shocking.

Silverman’s play Wink, too, focuses on irresistible obsessions and, like “The Pike,” it is built around literary allusions. The play opens with a confession: Gregor, the unhappy hard-working husband, has skinned his wife’s beloved cat. He admits this to his therapist, Dr. Frans. Needless to say, Gregor is a 21st-century version of Kafka’s Samsa—obsessed with work, he exists in a surreal social vacuum, alienated from his own wife, Sofie, and the rest of the world. Both Sofie and Gregor are seen by the same therapist, and it is as if there is nothing else for either of them beyond each other’s private hell, and the uptight therapist to normalize it. When Gregor, gritting his teeth, admits that he finds his work depressing, Dr. Frans replies that it is perfectly normal to hate one’s own work.

Everything changes, however, when Gregor skins Sofie’s cat, Wink. Although he buries Wink in the backyard, as he confesses to Dr. Frans, Gregor keeps Wink’s hide and strokes it, feeling unexplainable arousal. Dr. Frans immediately diagnoses Gregor’s urges as “latent homosexuality” and proceeds to prescribe Gregor a vacation with Sofie. At that point, in a Frankensteinian twist, with lights out on stage and thunder in the backdrop, Wink returns to life—as either a man, or a cat, or some combination of both: That much is never made clear. In the Marin Theatre production, the actor playing Wink hangs around the stage, vastly naked, save for a tiny Speedo strap that leaves nothing to the imagination. Wink is flamboyant, queer, untamable—he comes to Dr. Frans to find refuge and recover, and before long, Dr. Frans is in love.

In the meantime, Sofie, following Dr. Frans’ advice, attempts to assuage her mourning with vacuuming. She goes into a rage and destroys her apartment, hurling across the stage boxes of colorful cat toys, and spraying the content of a gigantic litter box. She breaks the apartment walls with a baseball bat, and shivers, in erotic ecstasy, as she pours out a bottle of rosé on the carpet by the litter box. She tells Gregor all this was the doing of “Roland, international terrorist,” who had his way with her and is lurking near, very near. Very quickly, Sofie’s fantasy of Roland unravels dramatically, and near the play’s climax, letting her hair loose, she morphs into Roland. Wink attempts to take revenge on Gregor but lets him off, and Gregor, adorning his crotch in fur, howls.

The play gets wonderfully gritty at times, and during one such scene, as half-nude Gregor triumphantly revealed the animal fur and pressed it against his body, one of the California audience members in a row ahead of me jumped up and scampered out, making his excuses as he went. The sexless marriage and Sofie’s rage may be well-worn bits of all-too-familiar household drama, but what makes the play original is the brash and dark humor, stellar cast, and simple but witty stage setup.

“One must recover depressing routines to recover from tragedies,” Dr. Frans says soothingly to a disconsolate Sofie. You could almost hear Kafka snickering in the background—and feel the play’s electric beckoning call to disruption of all routines, particularly the depressing ones.


Read more of Jake Marmer’s Tablet magazine essays on poetry here.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.

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