The House is a Woman: A Review of Maison Femme: a fiction by Teresa Carmody with illustrations by Vanessa Place
Maison Femme: a fiction
by Teresa Carmody, text
with Vanessa Place, images
Bon Aire Projects
138 pp / $12
Maison Femme: a fiction is an experimental text in the rich tradition of experimental writing that Les Figues Press, the self-professed love child of the two authors, supports. Unlike many texts on the Les Figues press roster, however, Maison Femme can be enjoyed without being in on the joke of knowing the constraint. The book functions independently of its constraint as a piece of ladylike literature in the tradition of Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein, both of whom are referenced herein. This book knows its sources.
Knowing what the Oulipo constraint is that governs the text is often a precursor to appreciating experimental writing, limiting its audience. Carmody’s text does not explain its constraint up front. I know Carmody’s plan for it only because I was privy to a private conversation at a Mrs. Porter’s Art Salon in the early twenty-teens where I asked Teresa Carmody what she was working on.
Over one of my fig mascarpone cupcakes, Teresa said that she was writing a novel for Jon Rutzmozer and Amanda Montei’s micro-press Bon Aire Projects based on the house that she lived in with her wife, Vanessa Place. She measured the square footage of each room and wrote a section titled with each room in the house with the same number of sentences as there were square feet. I may have had a little wine that afternoon, so I may be inexact with the exact chemistry of the constraint, but I do recall it was affiliated with the size of each room.
When I heard Maison Femme was available, I immediately bought it and read it in an afternoon. True to constraint, it is short–as neat and perfect as a china teapot on a shelf. An element of claustrophobia comes from remaining continually inside a house, although there are moments when the protagonist looks out a window or contemplates a garden party. Having been to the exact garden party described in the first section, “Pantry,” I agreed with the epigraph that reads: “This may not be about you, but it’s definitely about your friends.” There is a cozy intimacy to this book that the reader feels included in as it describes a living space and a domestic world inhabited mostly by women.
The effect of reading Maison Femme is as if one is inside Carmody and Place’s home on a rainy day listening to Carmody tell stories about the different rooms. The story flows organically from room to room as famous lesbians and literary figures such as Andy Warhol and Jean Rhys arrive and socialize, art is hung, mundane decisions are made, a feminist small press is run, fundraising is done, and the mechanisms of life move slowly, inexorably forward, capturing a moment in time where two women can create a world: a literary and artistic world, for above all this is a book about writers and artists. The characters are mostly writers, or the children of writers. The last line is dialogue: “Tell me, what do you write?”
There is that memoir that hides as fiction, and I suspect that Maison Femme: a fiction is not very fictional, although I don’t really know for sure. Names have been changed, and more famous artists have been brought in as pseudonyms for the local Los Angeles literary figures that frequent their home, the most fundamental change that I noticed.
That meta-writers-writing-books-about-writing thing can’t be helped. Personally I enjoy it. Writers write books, and we write what we know. Teresa Carmody wrote this beautiful little book about the house she inhabits with her wife and two children, a sheltered domestic world dominated by the runnings of the small press located in the basement.
Part of the conceit is that Maison Femme is a play, although it is told in prose. The witty introduction by Danielle Pafunda and Reagan Louise textually confined within a floor plan of the house claims, “The object is to make the play in three stories.” The text is both literary and architectural. As proper for a play, the “Index of Images” and “Cast of Characters” are both “Properly Named (In order of appearance).”
We begin in the “Pantry.” The heart of so many homes is the kitchen, and the pantry is the most interior realm of the kitchen. We begin in the inside like a nautilus shell and spiral gradually outward in accordance with the architectural plan that frames the Introduction, ending with the “Dining Room.”
Marie and Louise, the two women who live in the house described herein, are married lesbians. Maison Femme immediately identifies as a queer book, tapping into a rich strain of literature that we need more of. True to the very insider view that this is of what it is like to be a married lesbian, it is not rife with gratuitous sex scenes or sordid party tales. The parties contemplated and portrayed are of the garden small press fundraising or dinner variety. Adult. It is both intimate and tasteful. Maison Femme takes place mostly during the day, seemingly in an afternoon as carefree as the one I read the book in. Carmody and Place’s neighbors play a major role in the text, as they are seen out of the window and visiting. Lesbian literary history is excavated within the text as counterpoint.
Famous dead writer Mina Loy makes a visit to the “Front Foyer” lined with art by people that the wives know. With the lines: “Art was like racehorse breeds and fancy cheese, Marie had grown up in a small town in the middle of the country, a town surrounded by small farms and a general feeling that farmers’ daughters aren’t supposed to be artists, for except in some country music songs, farmers daughters are wholesome and clean, and horses just pull things,” Carmody lets on a sophisticated consciousness of class informing a book that could be called a luxury product, as small press books so often are both in their publication and consumption.
In these lines the reader also sees process–the process of becoming an artist whose bildungsroman is not described here only inferred. It is the life of an artist who is already made manifest that we see here. As she recalls a mishap in a writing group, the reader sees a mid-career writer who narrates looping in between lesbian references, remembered MFA woes, and literary name-dropping. Mina Loy hangs out and offers Marie and the reader a drink.
The previous owner of the house, Mr. Whittle, is discussed with the conditions of the selling of the house as we learn a little backstory in the section called “Bedroom 1.” That section never mentions the bedroom but instead discusses the basement which holds Kathy Acker’s desk and the back stock for Les Figues Press.
In the “Front Porch” section, Carmody riffs on a pink pony piñata that is given to her by her wife on that “Front Porch.” In the party presentation and written-about destruction of the piñata, we see the end of a friendship that the wives had with another writer who the piñata was a gift to. It is a memory encapsulated and deftly told with the line constraint previously defined by the square footage of the “Front Porch.”
The memory of the “Second Parlor” is a Super Bowl party attended by the neighbors in which Marie loses herself in a reverie about a photograph of a member of the Weather Underground on the wall. Again there is this theme of interiority. Marie ignores the Super Bowl to think and we go inside the photograph on the wall to its history, burrowing continually deeper inside the house.
Immediately following the “Second Parlor” section is an image by Place: a cornice that looks very much like a vagina, continuing the themes of architecture and femininity. The house is a woman, as some houses seem to be.
In the “Downstairs Hallway,” Marie and Louise consider moving some of the art around while thinking of Virginia Woolf and ways of writing about lesbians, as she so meta-mindedly is doing in the text. These are lesbian thoughts described herein, and they are about Virginia Woolf and art placement, appropriately.
An image by Place of a blank, featureless light fixture follows, both Modernist in its plain monolithic-ness and descriptive of the actual fixtures of the home.
In the “Deck” section, intermittent with memories of yard work, visiting poet Clarice Lispector says what may sum up the book: “There is no difference between life and writing.” This is above all a book about life as it is led by these people, lesbians, had you ever wondered what that was all about.
The hierarchies and blurring of lines between poet and publisher are discussed as concurrent with the fact that Carmody herself is both poet and publisher. Although Carmody is not the publisher of Maison Femme, she published another book she wrote called Requiem on Les Figues Press in 2005 and has continued to publish many other authors’ works. This interplay between writers and small presses is investigated again and again. Some of these female poets writing about female genitalia are subsequently quoted, cunting the already female text much like recent Les Figues press release Cunt Norton by Dodie Bellamy. Intertextuality is king here, or is it queen?
There are sly and witty references made to writer drama as it affects the characters, woven so subtly into the text that one might not know what recent scandal they reference. In many cases I don’t either, although I am sure that they are a coy little references that another reader may get. As Marie drinks wine on the deck with some friends, she thinks that Louise/Vanessa Place is in a foreign city far away presenting “her poems to be unliked,” referencing possibly the woes of being an obtuse experimental poet or the shade that has been thrown at Place lately.
In “Back Staircase,” Marie reflects on the racial history of the West Adams neighborhood where the house is located as being somewhere white people lived and then moved out of as black families moved in, as it is currently.
The following image by Place of the molding on some unidentified part of the home focuses again on architecture and abstraction as befitting an experimental writer as Place is.
In “Basement,” the longest section, the setting up of the basement for the small press by female volunteer painters is discussed. Famous writer Dennis Cooper is substituted for Matias Viegener, Les Figues Press author of 2500 Things About Me Too and actual executor of Kathy Acker’s literary trust who bequeathed her desk, “her carpet, her dining room table, her side tables, her coffee table, and her big red reading chair” to the press. Therein Maison Femme is as it claims, “a fiction,” yet a fiction full of concealed gossip and isn’t that juicy. As Marie thinks, “It can be good…to imagine the subjectivity or another, as imagination makes us real.” Marie then recalls an evening spent stuffing envelopes with past intern Leslie Scalapino and Andy Warhol.
The following image by Place is of a tangled length of chicken wire, seemingly echoing the “Basement Stairs” next described. In that section Marie falls down the “Basement Stairs” and remembers a distinguished lesbian writer party that the ladies hosted at the home.
In the remaining sixteen sections, Carmody moves between these themes of literary intrigue, femininity, lesbianism, memory as history, gossip, and architecture as she continues to describe her home and the goings-on there, interspersed with Place’s deliberately obtuse Modernist black and white photographs of small, mundane locations within the home. The book ends with Marie being asked, “What do you write?” by Claire Denis at a lively literary dinner party. Now we know what Teresa Carmody writes: this delightful sojourn into a writer’s world both interior and domestic.
Andrea Lambert is the author of Jet Set Desolate, Lorazepam & the Valley of Skin and the chapbook G(u)ilt. Her work has appeared in HTMLGIANT, 3:AM Magazine, Entropy Queer Mental Health, and Enclave. She has been anthologized in Writing the Walls Down, Off the Rocks #16, The L.A. Telephone Book, You’ve Probably Read This Before, and Chronometry. She is a visual artist and CalArts MFA. She is currently working on a memoir called Diary of a Hollywood Hedgewitch, an autobiographical fantasy called Scaffolding, and a poetry manuscript called Bleed Almond. Find her online at andreaklambert.com