Review of Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets
Tuscaloosa, Alabama: FC2/The University of Alabama Press, 2013
$11.95 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Christopher Linforth
Hilary Plum’s debut novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is perhaps the type of book that David Shields called for in his 2010 call-to-arms Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Published by FC2—a stalwart of experimental fiction—Plum’s book offers a familiar form of experiment: the fragmented narrative. Told by multiple narrators (Vivienne, Ford, Sara, and “A”), who are friends, the story centers on the deaths of Jay and Zechariah. The short chapters provide disjointed glimpses into the nature of the friendship, the aftermath of the Iraq War, and the implications of terrorism. We are provided with crisscrossing narratives, interchangeable in time, shifting back and forth between events and points of view. The style, though on occasion producing confusion, is suitable to the subject material at hand. The novel is undoubtedly heightened by the quality of Plum’s writing. Here’s an example of her elegant, lyrical prose:
After all, the blood has its own business. Our vessels never meet. The miles of capillaries, breathing in waste and breathing out what they have gathered: they are only ours. This is the fact of our separation. Even in the moments we are closest to union, what we feel is the skin’s friction, the soft nerve-filled walls.
There is a constant refrain in dealing with death and what it means and what its relationship is to the act of living and to friendship. Later in the novel, Sara thinks:
I thought—maybe if we die communally we break down faster, back into the stuff that makes us all up.
Personal experience fuses in the novel with observations on patriotism and the symbols such nations produce. We read, again and again, cases of the abstract and the real colliding in the book:
Fake coffins wrapped in flags were bobbing down the street...The guy shrugged the coffin back up his shoulders and the flag slipped; Ford grabbed a fistful as it slid and pinned it back into the cheap plywood.
The mediations on dealing with the loss of friends are both visceral and haunting, a paean to what we all live with in a country supported by such a vast and far-reaching military-complex. And, indeed, we are cautioned of the prophetic consequences in the novel’s last line:
And warned the next generation that blood shed in the past would be visited upon them.
My only criticisms are those of personal taste. For me, the voices are too similar, too much in the singular voice of Plum, and the novel—especially the opening third—relies heavily on abstraction, and an iota more description would have balanced out the continual philosophizing. The book is challenging, yet we, as readers, need more challenging novels. What is most admirable is the almost palpable intelligence, and how it manifests as a deep sadness, a critique and an elegy on the problems facing a contemporary post-war America. Reminiscent of Carole Maso’s groundbreaking novel AVA, They Dragged Them Through the Streets is an impressive and ambitious debut.