Review: 'The Pink Institution' a meaty pastiche

By Cherie Parker, Special to the Star Tribune

May 8, 2004

Childhood memories are choppy and questionable. Do we really know what we know? Some experts believe that childhood memories are really memories of memories, parts of dreams and things we've been told. Entire family histories are built on such snippets of treasured or tortured experiences -- be they fact, fiction or mostly in-between.

To tell the story of the doomed family at the heart of her debut novel, "The Pink Institution," Mississippi native Selah Saterstrom not only acknowledges this choppiness of memory and its fallibility as family record; she embraces it as a narrative form.

Saterstrom's work stretches the definition of how a novel should look and read. An assemblage of prose paragraphs, abstract poetry, lists, excerpts from real or imagined documents and old photos sublimely builds to create the undercurrent of a miserable family story. Like the woozy fuzziness of earliest recall, the beginning of "The Pink Institution" is the most abstract.

Some pages contain only a handful of words. As the apparent years pass and the book focuses on more recent generations, the text becomes fuller, more descriptive and closer to standard prose. But the ethereal mood has already been set.

Saterstrom's subject matter is not new to contemporary literature -- rot, drunkenness, incest and violence in the Deep South -- but her innovative method makes all the heat, the bad sex and the stale booze-breath seem startlingly alive. "The Pink Institution" includes a patriarch masturbating on the front porch, drunken parents swinging with the neighbors and repeated suicide attempts. Some images are so fanciful that Saterstrom must clearly mean them to be false childhood memories:

"One night after the family had gone to bed, there was a racket in the living room. It sounded like a stampede. After it subsided, Willie went into the living room. He said loudly, 'I think ya'll need to take a look at this.' The family gathered in the living room. They saw what appeared to be muddy footprints of a large man going across the ceiling. It looked like the man had been running."

Passages such as this unhinge the veracity of the other images, an effect that serves to replicate the mystery of human memory.

Experimentation of this style can be alternately exhilarating and irritating. Readers might marvel at how a page of jumbled words and sentence fragments can transmit mood and meaning:

". . . Yellow vitamin pills yellow vitamin pills iron claw-foot bathtub water iron claw-foot bathtub water a paring knife a paring knife thirteen bottles of liquor thirteen bottles of liquor a .44 a .44 requested strangulation requested strangulation pyre on fire pyre on fire starvation starvation self willed car accident with small child self willed car accident with small child jumping jumping tumor tumor vomit (possibly accidental) vomit (possibly accidental) severe electrolyte imbalance severe electrolyte imbalance in a swamp, alone in a swamp, alone an insane husband an insane husband an insane husband an insane husband splay ladder. A manicured menstrual cotton square, broken shells, a gray hair. I'm too exhausted to kill myself tonight, Dear, so just hush."

But those same readers might find themselves flipping back and forth to try to ascertain who did what to whom and when it all supposedly happened. And the material is unrelentingly grim.

This is not the sort of work designed or likely to cross over to mainstream reading audiences. It's Serious Literature, uninterested in providing diversion or entertainment.

For those inclined toward the darker fruits of the imagination, "The Pink Institution" is an auspicious debut by a compellingly gifted writer. This is an unusual work that deserves more than casual reading. It is best appreciated if savored once in its entirety, then revisited and re-examined several times soon after. The whole of this slim book can be swallowed in one sitting, but it will take much longer to digest.

Cherie Parker is a Minneapolis-based freelance reporter for alternative weeklies across the country.