Dao Strom’s feminine intuition

May 28, 2006

BOOKS

Austin writer's first novel, though girly to a fault, possesses an almost electric sensitivity to adolescent anguish

By Rebecca Markovits
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Dao Strom populates "The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys" with "a parade of the lackadaisically middle-class, the anonymous, the foolishly sincere . . . of believers in the effectualness of art and in the virtues of bare-footedness." Strom, needless to say, lives in Austin.

This debut novel — a short story collection, "Grass Roof, Tin Roof," appeared in 2003 — is made up of four independent novellas, each about a different Vietnamese American woman. It begins with the story of Mary, a contrarian film major who is so conscious of presenting the right image of herself that she can barely manage to do anything at all. Next we meet Mary's adopted sister, Darcy, a musician finding her feet in San Francisco while dealing with an unwelcome intruder. No. 3 is Leena, who was brought from Vietnam to Texas by her husband and struggles with loneliness. The final story focuses on Sage, a young, spiritually inclined mother who finds herself contemplating a life apart from her child's father.

 

Dao Strom's new novel 'The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys' is really the stories of four women in novella form.

 

'The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys'

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This collection of lives is rich with the promise of interwoven ideas: women's roles, displacement, loneliness. But the pattern is weak and faded, marred by musings of the most banal variety. To put things somewhat ungenerously, "The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys" seems written entirely on the strength of "feminine intuition." This is the flimsy force behind all four of the characters' thoughts and actions. Yet beneath the abstraction, there is something enduringly youthful about this book; the dominant voice is that of the restless adolescent.

There are advantages to this. Perhaps the most conspicuous, and redemptive, is that Strom has a teenager's sensitivity to body language, heightened by bodily awkwardness. Here is Mary, talking to a friend:

(S)he watched him lean back, his hands laced behind his head, elbows raised, his expression thoughtful; then (reaching to set her notebook on the coffee table between them) he swung his legs round and laid himself out over the full length of the couch, as if accepting an invitation. Mary got smaller and frozen in her own seat, her feet curled under her and her knees pressed together.

This is nice and plain, and invites us into the space between them. There are also subtler examples. Strom describes the easy confidence of boys "whose hands continually slipped under their own shirts to brush against their stomachs, as if they took their own bodies as casual comfort." She has a young woman's almost electric sensitivity to male physicality.

More often, though, Strom falls prey to the adolescent's penchant for vague dreaming, so often accompanied by poor writing. There is a general tendency towards hyperbole ("really," "truly") on the one hand, and ducking qualifiers ("almost," "like," "seemed ") on the other. Soft ideas, borrowed from pop-psychology or pop-philosophy, are expressed weakly — "attachment is a matter of the mind . . . freedom does not have to be physical . . . human nature is brutal." There's plenty of youthful talk of "truth" and "higher planes"; people have "inner essences." There's an uncomfortable discussion about "indigo children" and their sensitive auras. (It's true that such digressions are expressed through the mediating consciousness of Strom's heroines, but they are so dominant that they come to represent the book as a whole.)

Strom also has the habit of repeatedly rephrasing an idea without ever managing specificity. Mary's musings about a film in which a girl waits for letters from her distant lover are representative:

(A) typical scenario that nevertheless resounded for Mary. . . . The scenario alluded to something deeper, a buried web of feeling that was more profound than personal, almost. She felt a sense of desire that was precarious, beautiful, and dubious.

Here Strom begins with a cliché (the patiently-waiting lover), translates it into "something deeper" (another vague cliché), which in turn becomes "a buried web of feeling" (whatever that means) that is, incoherently, "more profound than personal." Oh, "almost." The ending line, so full of "feeling" words, does nothing to pinpoint the emotion.

Strom states her character's thoughts (which tend to dissolve under close inspection) grandly, as if they were revelations, and then immediately undercuts them: "Some people got romantic about the barrenness of the desert, and some people loathed it. Both sides, Sage thought, lacked the same thing, which was an honest acquaintance with their own inner starkness. Or something."

Sage, we are told, "had to transcend moralistic conventions at times, to preserve some far-seeking aspect of her spirit. She believed there existed a core of goodness (or something of that nature) in every person, and that it was reachable, most readily through sex — the meeting of people's cores." Note the parenthetical wavering, even in the midst of what is, already, quite vague.

There are smaller, stylistic problems, as well. Metaphorical qualifiers are squeezed in unnecessarily, such as pine floors that "shone like honey-blond wood" — they are honey-blond wood. Sentence structure breaks down: "(M)ost people are embroiled in a known way of looking at things, is how she feels." Even smoother passages lean heavily on clichés. Memories emerge "as if from a fog," characters feel they are "headed towards a precipice," women are either "in a state of undress" or "all dressed up with nowhere to go."

These flaws turn the book's moments of subtle wisdom into sweet surprises. As Mary says, "some things are a net that other things get caught in" — and one or two grown-up truths do get caught in Strom's tangles. The book's greatest strength is that it reminds us that adolescence carries on long into adulthood — that there are periods of time well into our 30s when we experience those same insecurities and uncertainties. Grown women can be as selfish as a teenager. Only the costs are higher.

Perhaps the best moment in "The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys" comes toward the end of Mary's story, when she reflects on her carefully studied balance between idealism and cold indifference. She suddenly remembers the biblical parable about the heretic being stoned, and the one man who knows him to be good, who, not wanting to be caught out by either side, throws flowers instead of stones. Strom's words are like those flowers: pretty, gentle, but strangely ineffective, with quickly withered meanings. They tend to float over their target.

"Flowers instead of stones," thinks Mary. "Isn't that just how some girls are?"

Rebecca Markovits recently completed work on 'The Fearless Critic,' a guide to Austin restaurants that will be released later this spring.

Dao Strom

What: Reading and signing

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Book Woman, 918 W. 12th St.

Info: 472-2785

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