In GENEVIEVES, Henry Hoke proves himself a master illusionist, slipping us through veils of reality to meet an echo of who we might be in our deepest selves. An excerpt from the just-released book of surreal, gender-bending fiction and a Q&A with the author.
Carolina Cone had finally come home the night before from wherever she’d been, and when she got there she was introduced to her father. He was just Doctor Wentz to her before that, her whole life. Now, he insisted, it was Doctor Father.
He had delivered her. And for this, Carolina Cone’s mother felt Carolina owed Doctor Father at least the common courtesy of a polite greeting. But Carolina Cone came home and went straight to bed. She dreamt a crime film.
Delivered from what. Into what.
That feeling as you wake that you are waking up in your childhood bedroom, you can feel the comforter, smell the detergent, the slow realization that you are in fact still in a strange city, a stranger’s bed, a motel on the road, and then that no this is your childhood bed, you’ve been drawn back, forced to regress, you haven’t left.
Carolina Cone came home to the house where she grew up, a house in a neighborhood that ran alongside a golf course, strategically slanted so no fairways were aimed directly at the bay windows, no drives could injure the black labs.
An OB/GYN of course, but Doctor Father’s passion was for prosthetics. He kept them out of sight.
There’s a secret room in every house. It might not be hidden away, it might be a room you’ve spent tons of time in, but is in fact a place for secrets. In Carolina Cone’s house the secret room was now. Doctor Father kept it, where the wine cellar should’ve been.
Carolina Cone came home and invented a new way of playing golf, sneaking onto the course at night like it made sense to do when she was young. Eggs and legs rules. Prosthetic legs subbed for clubs. Eggs for balls twelve in a pack, eleven hard-boiled for smooth sailing and one raw for laughs, danger and bonus points. This was the ideal arsenal, but that night she could only find a single sphere, and left it untouched.
Today I’m going to wake up and be just one girl, today for sure, today. But no, I’m always two or more girls, or one girl and one boy.
Carolina Cone came home to find that all her stuffed animals had come to life and devoured each other in pursuit of dominance. Or maybe a dog got to them., it wasn’t important, either way what had been inside them was now cotton candy curtains for her room. Only a pig and a bear had survived, laid out on opposite sides of the room. Let’s kiss said the pig. Yes let’s kiss said the bear. And they never did, the distance was too good.
Just do something to take your mind off it. Something mundane but ethereal, like washing a whisk.
Excerpted from GENEVIEVES (Subito Press, 2017) with permission from the author
Shilpa Agarwal: Many of your characters seem to have “a secret room in every house.” Many hold something that exists just beyond our perception. Can you speak to this concept of secrets, and why they commandeer such power?
Henry Hoke: One of my favorite feelings is that of having a secret, or holding something unspeakable inside and using it as creative fuel. My characters draw vitality from this source, so I wanted the book to brim with it. A secret about GENEVIEVES that I’ll tell you now is that each of the nine stories was originally a screenplay or treatment for a movie. At some point I gave them all literary life instead.
SA: Genevieve exits and enters, dies and appears. She is a collection of luminous fragments, and yet you seem to be pushing at a concept of wholeness. What does it mean to be “one person again?”
HH: My friend Lincoln Michel, in his blurb, compares the book to a strange necklace. I think of Genevieve, the multi-faceted figure, as the string that ties the various ornaments together. The “key” below the table of contents (which signifies the Genevieve in each story) is a bit of a feint: There is no one right way to view the connections. Perhaps each protagonist is also the Genevieve that haunts another story. This elusive linkage feels closer to how a consciousness operates, how narratives function before they’re told. The only true unifier in the book is that everything is me, especially Genevieve.
SA: In your first story, “Wentz,” you write, “You need a sidekick,” said Doctor Junior. “If you’re going to win. Someone to work the desk at your P.I. office. A boy Friday.” In referencing the mute island man that Robinson Crusoe takes as his servant, and who is textually silenced, can you speak to this linkage of language and power, and what it means in terms of the children who seek power in this story?
HH: Here “boy Friday” is a play on “girl Friday,” the screwball movie trope of the obedient secretary that itself is a play on the original “man Friday” from Defoe, so kind of a twice-removed double negative of a reference, repurposing an idiom with both racist and sexist origins. What’s important to me is the inverted gender dynamic. In “Wentz,” Doctor Junior emerges halfway through, as if conjured by the protagonist’s childhood sigil: My name is Carolina Cone, and I’m a private eye. Language is one of the tools I have at my disposal to dismantle patriarchy, and I give it to my characters in service of this fight, often pivotally. Weaponize your juvenilia.
SA: There seems to be an overarching feeling of loneliness, of that precious something or someone that holds us together breaking apart, such as when Tie Neck vanishes, or when a patron understands that a waitress will never see her the same way again:. “In Dani’s eyes I was no longer the slender, polite woman of routine, not someone she could count on each morning. With this affront I was to her like I am to everyone else, something other, bigger and more frightening …” Why are these human connections so tenuous? What tethers us to reality when these break?
HH: I think of being lonely as sister to being special. When my characters encounter something that only they can see, whether it’s a magical object or an epiphany or a ghost, it comes with the curse of isolation, of being forever apart. This can be a transcendent moment, and is, for almost everyone. Reality is overrated.
SA: In “Surprise Island,” you let us slowly sift into each of the four characters and into their disparate realities, experiencing their isolation and fears. It’s a story we can all relate to, about four kids hunkered around a lake, trying to out-scare and out-brave each other. You tell it in such a measured way that the story veers from humor to suspense to horror before we’ve even caught our breath. I was struck by how distinct your voice is in this story. Where did it, and these characters, come from?
HH: This story, unlike any of the others, came entirely from real life, the setting and characters if not the exact plot. It’s a lot easier to veer, as you mention, when I’m always anchored to a real night, real people, in the telling. I’m working wholly in this mode to create one of my new books. More horror stories are coming, more true stories.
Henry Hoke is the author of GENEVIEVES (winner of the Subito Press prose contest) and THE BOOK OF ENDLESS SLEEPOVERS (CCM). His stories appear in The Collagist, Electric Literature, Winter Tangerine and Carve. He directs Enter>text: a living literary journal, and teaches at CalArts and the UVA Young Writers Workshop.