Not a Place on Any Map
by Alexis Paige
Vine Leaves Press. 2016.
Organized as a series of forty flash essays anchored by their geographic location, Not a Place on Any Map by Brevity editor Alexis Paige charts a life that stutters and snags on trauma and addiction, a life where entropy looms and the “myth which insisted that matter falling apart was not moving toward something larger, like islands or stars.”
Exacting on a sentence level, and admirable in its overall orchestration, this book uses vignettes that feel like freeze-frame stills to create a compelling portrait of Paige’s life. Though the author herself must certainly have spent some time lingering in the darkness of sexual trauma, familial upheaval, and a Texas jail stint, as evidenced by the anxiety and alcohol abuse she documents in her debut book, she doesn’t allow her readers to dwell there. Instead, she moves the reader along quickly, narrating just what we need to know to grasp the heft of her experiences, and managing, still, to evoke the whole story, the harrowing incidents that belie her past, from which she emerges smarter and stronger.
In Not a Place on Any Map, family members are masterfully characterized by just a few telling details, and the places the author interacts with zoom by in clear but brief glimpses.
In one essay, Paige recalls in sparse yet revealing details being in the back seat of her mother’s car during a middle-of-the-night escape as another line is drawn on her ever-shifting map. In other essays, she remembers her mother’s suicide threats and the borrowed Golden Retriever for the “perfect” family photo. She portrays both flashes of disappearing desert landscapes and a permanent draw toward the familiarity of its dry heat as she invokes the kind of inner landscapes Terry Tempest Williams said we all carry within ourselves and yearn to return to.
Paige maps her family’s cross-country splits, father in one direction, mother in another, then later the way Paige herself leaves cities behind when she grows out of them or crashes and burns through them. She writes, “Driving west on Interstate 10, you can put a lot of distance between yourself and a place you shouldn’t be.” Such philosophical renderings of a body as a moving drop pin are bountiful in this book.
Though there is an unmistakable searching and fleeting quality to Paige’s flashbulb memories as she charts her comings and leavings across time and space that may leave some readers who are less appreciative of flash essays wanting for more, the author is unmistakably present in her prose and in the blurred recollections that remain.
Missing from this book are the oft-cited bookends of addiction—the implacable first and last times Paige drank. And though this isn’t a narrative omission necessarily planned by the author, but rather the circumstance of her memory gaps, it works as structural boon to the shapeshifting landscape of her narrative and reinforces her chosen flash form.
Paige moves forward and backward in time, across the country and back again, and the loss of chronology seems to echo a time of personal chaos, seems to know a straight line was once an impossible task, seems to insist there are times when time is irrelevant. The effect of this structural arrangement is strong and manages to whisk the reader into a dizzying state of empathy and understanding.
Stories slip in out of focus, then slide away like memories into alcoholic blackouts. The reader gets only brief opportunities to peek into the dark corners of Paige’s past because our narrative guide in this literary fun house of her life is not the woman in the dark but the one in the light, self-possessed, self-assured. Here is the hall of mirrors. Here, the chains rattle; expect hauntings. Quickly, now. Come along. There’s more to see.
This book possesses a perfect marriage of form and content that doesn’t try to explain itself, doesn’t attempt to thread any familiar needles of literary narratives of addiction or confess itself. It doesn’t attempt to shock us with the truth but rather humbly offers humanity. The author makes up her approach herself, as she as made up a stable life. At times, she speaks directly to that former self lost in the tangled veins of highways, or the unknowable passing minutes of a blackout’s darkness. “…I think drive, girl, drive west—back to Phoenix or Blythe, to a place before Florence and San Francisco and Houston, to a place before your own high mileage.” What a thing, to send love to one’s former self that can cross countries and the boundaries of time.
Winner of the Vine Leaves Press annual vignette publication prize, this gentle shock of a book, though slim, does not lack gravitas. If a reader can want for anything here, it is only the next book, and the full story of the two-month jail stint.