There's snakes in the bed, and I don't mean biblically. In fact, they're everywhere in Stay and Fight—the debut novel from American activist, essayist, and performance artist, Madeline ffitch—ungodly stinking and hard as hell to purge from the home (its crannies, its closets, betwixt canned food) that surrounds said bed. It’s gross and it’s kinda great. Between the four hand-forged walls: a lesbian couple, their son Perley, and a woman called Helen, who’s helped erect the off-the-grid domicile somewhere in rural Appalachia along with the mothers, where they live on acorns and wield chainsaws, and pit higher education against schooling of the streets and farmlands. This unfolds atop a major oil pipeline, eerily similar in scope and threat to that of the Dakota Access, but this is not a heavy-handed, dramatic plot device for ffitch—rather a low-hum, economically necessitated way of life.
“I don’t want to call the book autobiographical,” states the author, whose previous work includes short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, “but I was running chainsaws for an arborist, and listening to my neighbors, and eating roadkill, and I was having kids, and I was living in the woods, and I started collecting stories about black rat snakes in these neighbors’ closets and beds and so forth. What I noticed living rurally is it's so common for people to live near these pipelines. And people aren't thinking about it all the time as this big, threatening thing. And I had been involved in anti-fracking activism for years, but didn't even understand our own proximity to this pipeline [400 feet] until we got this letter in the mail that they were gonna start putting high pressure gas through it."
Again, not an overbearing device in the novel; the pipeline is subtext. Overbearing, rather, are the patriarchal, bullshit mechanisms of oppression out there in society that have lead the three women to desire an escape, or rather, a more virtuous existence. That and heartbreak, defiance, and wariness; causality is limitless, and conjecture as to how and why exceeds the final spine flip of the book, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Overbearing ups the stakes, though, when it appears in the doorway of the trio’s home, only to observe poor hygienic conditions, absent or absconded male influence, and of course, the black rat snakes. This sees ffitch flex some finely honed talent with fictional conflict and plot, and as the prose hops perspective from the four central characters, including the wistfully complex Perley, we're engrossed in what’s next to a point of blind faith and hope.
I ask ffitch about the strands of conflict throughout, be they subtle or overtly life-altering. "I think for progressives,” she considers, “there's always this subtext, or unexamined belief, that if we just knew one another better, listened better, we would get along, and live in harmony, and we would reconcile, we would understand each other. I actually think that the better we know each other, and the closer we are to each other, the deeper and more directly that leads us into conflict, and antagonism. It's not about purging or shunning, it's about staying together, but that doesn't mean getting along."
This turbulence isn’t exhibited in continuous screaming matches or violence, per se. Rather, we witness manifestation in all the familiar forms: anger, passive aggression, withholding, blaming, and perhaps deeply intrinsic to an off-the-grid lifestyle, control. “All relationships that are about love and living life together are in turn about separation,” ffitch volunteers, “because of the reality of mortality. These are unbearable things to acknowledge, so as much as we can, we create systems of control—this effort to keep things static that can never be static, or stable that can never be stable, or things we don’t want changing that we know are ephemeral.” Conversely, control takes on fantastic forms for young Perley, and ffitch attests, ”Dipping into magical worlds can help a kid get through, especially if they're non-normative worlds."
Yes, atypical parenting as stubborn as the rat snakes, toxic masculinity, the pitfalls of higher education, self-imposed or reactive poverty (or is it destiny?) and bravado in many shapes and forms anchor the reader journey. Where ffitch shines is scaling these weighty ideas large to small, from infrastructural and political to a makeshift couch where an unusual family attempts to keep warm through a brutal winter. To punctuate this, ffitch cheekily reminds us that despite the hefty topics at hand, we’re being entertained. “I can get into talking about the big ideas,” she says, resolutely, “but I don't want it to get lost that this shit is funny.” Touché.
Creative Director: Revolutionary Jé Exodus Hooper.
Photographer: Colby Caldwell.
Location: Stuart's Opera House, Nelsonville, Ohio.