Blot Lit Reviews’ Fiction Blast!: Slab by Selah Saterstrom
Slab, Selah Saterstrom
Coffee House Press, 2015
Reviewed by Kelsey Tabbert
Selah Saterstrom’s Slab is the kind of novel you devour in one sitting—one moment I would take it in sips, reflecting on the poetic precision of the language, the next moment I’d find myself gulping it down, eager to see the novel together as a whole piece. Slab is told through the abstracted lens of traumatic Southern history, touching on the Civil War as well as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Rather than a standard plot setup, Slab feels more like a series of moments strung together from one to the next. These moments, while they don’t always ground us in the standard linear way, they do ground us in the mind of Tiger—our wonderful and intriguing protagonist. To see through Tiger’s eyes is to see the world in a whole new manner, which is tremendously beautiful, incredibly dark, and fabulously abstract.
We get to know Tiger through a series of imaginary interviews. hosted by none other than Barbara Walters, that induce reflections on Tiger’s life. Each chapter has a theme—stripping, suicide, the devil, two serial killer named Micajah and Wiley Harpe, feminism, and the truth about dogs, to name a few. Each chapter focuses more on a theme than on a chronological plot, in fact, Tiger jumps in time regularly as she reflects. Sometimes these reflections take the form of one small paragraph in the middle of a page, but even these small sections pack heavy punches. For example, in the chapter “Tiger Goes to the Dogs”, Tiger thinks briefly about her fear of Cujo as a child on one page and then reflects on her grandfather’s suicidal guilt over shooting a rabid dog in the back.
There are so many little stories in Slab, stories that ultimately come together to create something beautiful, but are nonetheless difficult to explain individually. I decided the best thing to do would be to make a short list, see what came forward in my mind and what naturally felt most important to my experience.
One: Simply (and yet, impossibly), I thought of truth.
For me, a good story is one that gets at some truth of humanity. Saterstrom digs deep into that truth, and she’s not afraid to give the reader something gritty, dirty, or uncomfortable; sometimes, all three; sometimes, also, beautiful. She is able to abstract the emotional, unpack, and then reassemble into something foreign, yet unexplainably familiar. Take this quote:
The night after they took her to the graveyard I dreamed of a deer being disemboweled. This happens after the animal has been hoisted on a hook, and it is the stage between hunting and hacking, and when I looked into the deer’s face, it was my face I saw and that is how I feel about Kasumi’s death.
Two: Prose? Poetry? Prose-poetry?
Saterstrom’s writing is gorgeously poetic in style. This combination of poetry and fiction comes together to create something dream-like at times. Often I felt ungrounded reading Slab because of this, and it can sometimes be difficult to move forward if you’re the kind of reader who gets caught up in the “who”, “what”, “where”, and “why” questions. I think Saterstrom wants us disorientated some of time, for us to better understand the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and how it displaces the characters. For example:
The smell turned her inside out so that she wore her stomach around her waist as a belt and the storm crept into her.
Three: A strip-tease homage to Helen Keller—humorous, distasteful, or uplifting?
I think the answer to that question lies in how the content is handled. When simply stated this sounds like one of many awful jokes that make Helen Keller, an incredible woman, into a cheap punchline. But it’s not. In fact, this is one of my favorite scenes in Slab, or in any other book for that matter, because it is so creatively feminist. Tiger, working as a stripper at the Trophy Club, wants to pay tribute to Helen Keller who is featured in a book given to her on her birthday, a book of profound women in history. She does so by transforming her pole dance into an artistic interpretation of Keller speaking her first word: water. Rather than transforming, maybe it’s better to say the two people, the two acts, meld together naturally. Saterstrom beautifully depicts Tiger as an artist, blasting away preconceived ideas of female strippers and pole dancers. As she dances, she reflects:
I telepathically communicated to Helen. Helen, I love you. You truly are a profound woman from our past.
I highly recommend Selah Saterstrom’s Slab—for its truth, its poetic craft, for its feminist ideals, and being a damn good read.