Certain states seem to be mentioned only when people are listing the ones that nobody ever mentions. Kansas is an easy target. Our broader understanding of Kansan culture seems to have been cut off at The Wizard of Oz, most of which takes place in a fantasy world that is explicitly not Kansas. Whether the setting of a book or movie is seen as essential, incidental, or an opportunity to condescend reveals much about the prejudgments we’ve made of its potential to produce the sort of forward-thinking art we expect from New York, Los Angeles, and other coastal cities. So it is telling that major works set in Kansas—by Langston Hughes, Truman Capote, Gillian Flynn, and so on—are often scrubbed of their setting, discussed as if it were nothing but a convenient blank canvas for the writer.
In the novella and seven short stories that make up her new collection, Mad Prairie, Kate McIntyre will have none of this: her home state is anything but a background. This brief but intricately layered journey through Kansas unravels all the pride, potential, entrapment, and horror that make it distinct yet uncannily familiar. Setting holds sway, especially over the women of these stories. There’s Miriam, who takes a teaching job in a town too little to have a highway overpass (she is an astute observer) and immediately has to endure suspicious gazes from nearly everyone besides her perverted landlord. In another story, an already lonely mother named Della is imprisoned by her husband behind a real-life moat. The protagonists are mostly women, and the collection is thoroughly invested in the repetitions and variations of the wrongs committed against them, from elementary school through middle age. Men suffer too, from impotence of all varieties and their inability to cope without resorting to unfortunate compulsions. There is one young man whose sexuality becomes a major issue, but otherwise the collection binds its characters in ultra-traditional gender and sex relations because they are fundamental to its vision of Kansas—a black hole that binds together people who know they ought to divorce, or finally share their big secret with someone, or pack up and leave for a coastal city.
All of this binding-together is crucial, considering Mad Prairie is a linked collection. For the most part, the stories refer to one another subtly, with few of the plot contrivances that can make linked collections feel forced. In the opening story, “Prairie Vision,” our narrator, who also happens to be the governor of Kansas, is greedy for the usual mix of political power and extreme wealth. But his real motivation, like the trapped miners getting rescued while the governor scrambles in front of TV cameras to be captured “saving” them, surfaces—without revealing much, it has to do with his brother. Right from the start, every character is driven to understand or atone for a relationship with someone else. The collection records an impressively wide variety of attempts to do so. McIntyre repeatedly places near-blinding obsession and fear about an important relationship at the core of a protagonist’s experience before unexpectedly revealing an outcome later in the collection.
This pattern links the stories in very tangible, although frequently surreal, ways: characters try to do better, they do better or disappoint, they deal with it or do the hard work of separating. Most importantly, they talk about each other and readers get to sit in. At any moment we might discover that a new protagonist is actually a sibling, child, friend, or long-ago romantic interest of a character we came to love or pity some pages ago. They are bound together by something much more sinister and elemental than gossip. They excavate and reconstruct each other’s personal histories, pulling us so effectively into the claustrophobia of small towns and the terror of a world in which a narrator couldn’t be reliable even if they wanted to.
The fact that the end of a story never means its characters’ narratives are safely sealed lends genuine suspense to Mad Prairie as it progresses. When Miriam makes it out of “The Tunnel,” a remarkably detailed account of her time in a junior high school with “literally grotesque” boys and ceilings that “sloughed pure asbestos,” we might hope she has been tortured enough. But she has a long way to go in this collection. It is Miriam who reappears as protagonist of the novella, “Culvert Rising,” in which she’s sucked back to Kansas after a few years at college in Boston to take that teaching job and endure her landlord’s shameless advances. Her former roommate and fellow Kansan, Elizabeth, is concerned about Miriam; but one tangible effect of the collection’s linkage is that readers have already encountered Elizabeth in all the surreally disturbing self-destructiveness she brings to her own story, “Elegy for Organ in Ten Parts.” It is hard to trust the severity of Elizabeth’s judgments of their home state, so the reader and Miriam trudge on together, mostly unaware, into the novella’s unflinching tour through all sorts of perversion and pain.
These stories never shy away from physical and emotional violence, but it reaches new extremes in this novella that some might find disturbing or gratuitous. In an earlier story, “Various Shortcomings of Mine,” letting spousal violence reach its highest pitch may be the only way McIntyre can show just how dangerous it has become for both husband and wife. In the novella, a similar argument can be made that wounds ranging from severe to potentially fatal must be inflicted unrelentingly upon Miriam for sixty-seven pages if we are to understand just how bad her life (which the collection has already shown to be a series of unfortunate events) has become. It is certainly a terrifying depiction of how bad a life can become, and like most of these stories it might stick in readers’ minds for quite a while. This twisted, ritualistic violence is also deeply rooted in the Gothic genre. Many of the characterizations, tones, and themes of Mad Prairie work to bring the Gothic to the Midwest, but “Culvert Rising” is the clearest example. Miriam’s torture is also the torture of Shirley Jackson’s lonely women and girls, alone and encircled by crowds. Mad Prairie rarely feels gratuitous in its dealings with violence, but it is worth knowing that the book won’t look away.
Alongside, and often disguising, this profound interpersonal violence is the endless dopiness of people going through everyday life. People being benignly inadequate is not a Kansan phenomenon, of course, but McIntyre observes both its universality and its local manifestations so well. The consistently funny dialogue (“Settle down now, Della, Mylan’s plenty old enough to run a backhoe”) is funny in large part because it brings us to uncomfortable boundaries between the mundane and the surreal. McIntyre’s not unwilling to use caricature, but halts right at the boundary between caricature and condescension. Readers familiar with George Saunders, the master of dopey couples, will find similarities. But, in Mad Prairie, interpersonal horror apparently cannot be sublimated by retreating into solitary work or play, as many of Saunders’ characters are able to do. Intentions to improve and habits of repression are especially hard for these characters to tease apart because they are so insistently midwestern and gendered: knitting/punching people, taking care of cats/accidentally killing cats, making jam/digging moats with backhoes. There’s nowhere to escape within these homes, not even in the museum-like midwestern den that Elizabeth’s chef boyfriend prizes, all the way in D.C.
The corn and wheat fields of Kansas are likened, in the collection’s final pages, to ocean waves. In another book this might be a remark about their shared beauty. But, unlike the writer who brought them into being, the characters of Mad Prairie are rarely in a position where they can stop to observe the redemptive qualities of their birthplace. They are even less prepared to leave it completely. Still, they occasionally manage to get pretty far away.
About the Reviewer
Patrick Carey writes fiction and occasionally nonfiction, and is based in Fort Collins. He is currently a candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Colorado State University and an Associate Editor at the Colorado Review.