Miss Jane/Brad Watson: Reflections

Monday, February 8, 2016

I've written about Brad Watson here before.

I've told you the story—of how, through my first editor, W.W. Norton's Alane Mason, I began to hear this writer's name. How my dear friend Alyson Hagy, with whom Watson now teaches at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, has perpetuated the tales about his talent. How I have read his books myself, his essays, his interviews, and been grateful for the care he extends toward literature, the idea he seems to represent (and that he shares with Alyson) that, even today, in a world of quick and trending fiction, real literature rises.

Watson has a new book coming. It's called Miss Jane.

Friends, whomever you are, whatever you love, this one's for you. This one—the story of a young girl born with a genital difference in the early 20th century south—transcends all categories, will touch all hearts, will go down in history as a classic. I see no other way around it.

Inspired by Watson's own great-aunt, Miss Jane is the story of a child limited by her body and uncircumscribed by her heart. She discovers her own difference over time. She discovers it in parallel to discovering the beauty of things on the farm where she lives ("the burst of salty liquid from a plump and ice-cold oyster, the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the quick and violent death of a chicken, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom") and in the heart of the older doctor who treats her with kindness, adopts her as a near-daughter, and explains the facts of life—and the facts of her life—as simply as the truth allows. Jane will learn the art of aloneness. The art of forgiveness. The art of self-acceptance. She will have to starve herself in order to mask her terrible incontinence. She will have to say goodbye to a hope she has. She will have to live without physical intimacy, and yet—she will not live without love.

Watson's sentences are simpler here than they have been in his other work. His story streams. He takes the attention away from his own narrative self so as to give everything to Jane. It's the tenderness (without sentimentality) that I most admire here. The wait and the wrestling with the right scenes.

Paragraphs like these:

There were innumerable little faint trails her father said were game trails. Animal trails. Their faint presence like the lingering ghosts of the animals' passing. There was a particular little clearing she believed she had discovered, only her, filled with yellow sunlight on clear days, its long grass harboring primroses and wild sunflowers. A meadow she considered to be her very own, her place. The eyes of all the wild, invisible animals watching her. Time was suspended, or did not exist. She could linger there as long as she liked and when she returned from it no time had passed at all since she had stepped into the clearing and then awakened from it. That's what it was like.

The meadow did not exist if she wasn't in it.

Congratulations to Brad Watson. Congratulations to Alane, who, according to the book's acknowledgments, has waited a long time for this.

It was worth the wait.


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