The first question I encountered as I began reading Anne Germanacos’s novel Tribute was how to read it. This book is not made up of paragraphs neatly winding down the page, leading from one plot point to the next. Instead, it is written line by line, each one separated by an asterisk sandwiched between two blank spaces. Add to that the fact that one line does not overtly lead to the next and the reading experience is not exactly straightforward. For example, consider these lines from the first page:
Peeling the dead skin from my lips.
She said: Come on Thursday and we’ll see if there’s some way I can help you.
Can you eat canned pumpkin without cooking it?
I admit that this form, while fresh, disoriented me at first. My confidence as a reader was shaken; I wondered whether I would be able to make the connections I would need to make. But I forged on and the more I read, the more at home I felt in the story. The only way to teach myself how to read Tribute was to read it.
Germanacos’s prose circles back, grasping at the same fragmentary obsessions again and again. And from these fragments, we can piece together a tentative story line: The narrator’s mother is dying and she begins to see a psychotherapist. As her mother’s body disintegrates, the narrator’s own senses become heightened. She becomes increasingly aware of, and obsessed with, her sexual desires, her appetite for food and drink, and the natural world. All of these different obsessions converge in the text and play off one another in interesting ways. For example, her mother is often spoken of together with sexual desire: “She brought the possibility of sex—in every sphere, dot, line, and plane—to fruition.”
There are other characters beyond mother and daughter—the psychotherapist, a husband, children, a sister, a possible lover—but none of them take center stage. I say “possible” because it’s not always clear what is happening in this story—whether the narrator’s ramblings are things that are actually occurring or whether they are simply imagined. The landscape sometimes feels dreamlike, or like sorting through the contents of a ruminating mind. There are as many questions as there are answers. And while the book is certainly an unconventional narrative, the word “experimental” doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps “exploratory” is more apt—less about tinkering around, more about pushing past the boundaries of the familiar into unknown territory. In this way, the form feels appropriately matched to the content, both narrator and narrative venturing into uncharted terrain.
In a recent interview, Germanacos called these fragments of story “moments of consciousness.” Although she gives us small chunks, one bite-sized line at a time, the meal is not instantly digestible, nor is it meant to be. The book does not give its story up willingly. It is not for those who require a map and clear trails. But for the brave reader, willing to trust in the narrator and become an active participant in the text, the book is full of gems.
While it seems that this disjointed narrative could get old fast, it doesn’t. That is because the most challenging aspect of this book—the standalone lines—is also its greatest strength. While wandering, the sentences are also beautiful, neurotic, and poignant. They somehow manage to be simultaneously specific and open-ended, both distant and intimate. As I slowly waded through them, I was hit again and again with a line so gorgeous and precise that it commanded my full attention. Lines like, “The snow came down, alternating with a swirl. At first, everything was darkened by the white,” and, “Isn’t every page written over with thousands of illegible words?” I had so many moments of getting caught up in the individual lines that, at times, it was hard to reorient myself in the story once I returned to it.
While it’s not always clear where the narrative is headed, the book is self-conscious about the trickiness of its form and whether the story is coalescing. The narrator says, “Amazing how quickly some words, put together, want to call themselves a story,” and, “Fourth wall? Rip, tear! Slash! Burn!” This metafictive element makes the form feel intentional and helps us trust that the narrator—and we as readers—while at times a little lost, will figure things out. While the prose is self-aware, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The book is strewn with witty one-liners like, “Instructions for a nap: Hold a set of keys in your hand, sit back. When the keys fall from your hand, the nap is over.”
The question of how to read the book? It turns out Germanacos supplies an answer on page 80, “It depends on what you think you want, in the end: story or sensation. But maybe one doesn’t preclude the other.” This line really gets at Tribute’s essence: loss as both story and sensation. Desire as both story and sensation. The body as both story and sensation.
There is a line in which the narrator seems to be speaking about her psychoanalyst, or maybe about her mother, but that also describes so precisely my experience of reading Anne Germanacos’s book: “Sometimes I don’t quite understand what she says; sometimes words don’t exactly matter.”
About the Reviewer
Lisa Van Orman Hadley is a fiction writer. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.