Sent to the Silkworm House. Gwen Hilton. Expat Press, 2022. 130 pages.
To call a literary environment “evil” is perhaps to engage in naive, milquetoast moralizing that would betray the reader responding to said environment as a sheltered, wide-eyed tourist who wandered into the wrong neighborhood, the dark side. Having said that, I feel mugged by the writers in the stable of Expat Press based out of New York City. Others will have to write (or have written) about the history of the press, its iconoclastic editor Manuel Marrero, and the peculiar angle it takes on writing in these years when the 21st century is apparently kicking into apocalyptic high gear. Why do I say mugged? Because during the handful of times I have read an Expat production, I feel like somebody pops out a concealed edged weapon and starts slashing at my face, at my eyes, as if to carefully ensure that this will be the last thing I ever read. These books victimize you. The books take positions and execute maneuvers that are to the reader — this reader at least — like the threatening gestures, signs, vocalizations of the cobra about to strike.
Maybe I’m overstating it. But I’ve been reading a lot of menacing things from menacing directions lately, and Expat has a unique flavor of menace all its own. The most recent example of this is Sent to the Silkworm House by Gwen Hilton. It’s a very short, segmented book, a novella really, that quickly gets under your skin. The aspect of this book that sticks out to me most is the truly fresh voice that Hilton uses to embody her first-person POVs. The plural form is misleading, because they all are probably meant to be the same person, although there is in each segment a trajectory of personality, a line that must be cohered in the mind of the reader with all the others. All together it’s a prickly, loose collection of sharp steel rods that is a bit awkward to carry from place to place but the aesthetic effect is fitting and the duration of the trip isn’t long.
The real finer point, that I will try to make without sounding like an effete art school peckerhead extolling craft, is that what makes Hilton’s sentences unique is the space between them, the mental jumps from one clipped sentence to the next that are in no way obvious. This is part of writing too: Hilton’s narration is downloaded in an impressionistic way that depends on how each sentence passes off a clash of mental energy to the one following. Each thought is presented as part of a multifaceted mosaic of contrasting colors and textures that I haven’t seen other writers pulling off.
There are thousands of good examples here of this voice, see for yourself. Each paragraph is a glittering example, but to show you what I mean, witness the narrator talking about her proposal to her fiancée:
“The ring was never really mine. Her mom said if I wanted to propose then I should propose now. I proposed on the Winter Solstice and had a Kardashian-level instant regret. … The insurer values the ring at about fifteen thousand dollars. I spent my life savings to pay for labor. Parts were provided by her family. She doesn’t wear the ring out or to classes because she thinks she will get attacked for it.”
From what I can tell, the “story” of the novella concerns the adventures of a bisexual trans woman living in Chicago, although that rather stale identity encapsulation seems too fixed for the fluid reality of the narrator or narrators. The “I” of the collected segments records her variously embodied relationships, traumatizing memories, work experiences, etc. I haven’t read a lot of autofiction and I feel like that term describes a certain kind of lumbering beast other people have seen on other safaris throughout contemporary literature which I have chosen not to go on myself. But if this is autofiction, sign me up for the next flight to darkest Africa. It’s good. It’s really good.
Many of the interactions between characters — were they based on real humans? can these people be anything other than real, 3D people with well-mapped out relationships? — are of a transactional nature. The narrator negotiates with everybody in Chicagoland from a stance of polished worldliness and confidence that throws the reader off but seems entirely credible in Hilton’s hands. She never once bats an eye or lets anyone see her sweat during meetings with high-powered, nervous professionals who seek her services as a “reputation manager”: a consultant who can get ugly, embarrassing photos and stories off the first two or three pages of Google searches should anybody look you up. The narrator talks over sexual arrangements during a date with a jet-setting, ink-festooned girlfriend known as “the Inventor” because she holds several patents; by the way, the world of the novella seems to be dripping with the trappings of money, which I enjoy reading about because I have none and there is a voyeuristic thrill at watching how the upper crust get down. It is with a professional tone that talks with the Inventor proceed, a detachment that is as lived-in and familiar as an old leather office chair, and at no point is the contractual debate over the coming sexual activity really jarring, until it gets hilariously out of control.
Why did I find the merciless, horrifying situations in Sent to the Silkworm House to be hilarious? Am I as sick as the people lurking in the shadowy neighborhood around Expat Press? Maybe I am not such a vanilla square from the sticks. I can’t help that the blackly humorous episodes elicited helpless laughter from me, I can only be thankful because it so rarely happens when I’m reading a book. It’s possible it wasn’t meant to be funny. As the one doing the laughing you just have to let it go, and I hope people buy this book and test their own senses of humor on its edges. Just don’t ask later how came the blood.