Graywolf Press, 2014; 160 pp
reviewed by annie won


IF THE TABLOIDS ARE TRUE WHAT ARE YOU? is Matthea Harvey's most ambitious work to date. At a whopping 160 pages, the book is a stone soup of Harvey's miniature friends, positioned for social commentary and ecological statement. Stone soup, itself a story, might also be deemed button, wood, nail, or axe soup. Similarly, Harvey's speaker is a sly chameleon and slips through guises of mermaid, Martian, animal, glass factory worker, creature trapped in ice blocks, framed portraits, and ultimately, faceless monologue (Harvey's installation piece, Telettrofono). We expect false starts and dead ends. We don't know what to expect.

Beginning the work is a mechano-fused mermaid silhouette, or perhaps "self-portrait with saw leg." As we see with this silhouette, and successive mermaids, the silhouettes substitute for actual people. The mermaids -- lacking legs, feet, or ground -- are portrayed as a metaphor for the common, every-day woman. Pick one out of a toolbox. Put her back when not needed. The mermaids are visually rendered with items more functional than feet -- revolvers, scissors, Swiss army knives. The homemade mermaid is upside-down with a wrench shooting out of her torso, "top half pimply teenager, bottom half tuna," The one time he brought her fries -- delicious fries -- she...dipped them, two at a time into the ketchup. The shared memory sprang to both their faces -- two severed legs, blood everywhere, and his hand gripping the saw."

Signature to Harvey's work is her creation of miniature worlds. In her other books, we have previously been introduced to her machines, her dioramas. Her constructions feature a thin, sheen of simplicity over a deeper, more troubled underbelly. The speaker's field of view highlights the hairpin turn between these two layers. IF THE TABLOIDS ARE TRUE WHAT ARE YOU? furthers the dialogue with visual elements. As if to demarcate sections, Harvey's visual media changes with thematic shifts -- from black-and-white silhouettes to still photographs to graphic "title" spacers.

After the mermaids are Martians ("M / Is for / Martian"). After the Martians are many objects, and characters whose own being is foreign, whose objectification is alien to themselves. In the piece, "WOMAN LIVES IN HOUSE / MADE OF PEOPLE," Harvey's speaker states, "They were lonely. I was alone. / Out of those two sentences, / I made myself a home." Harvey's characters slip as they encounter the reality of embodiment. In the glass factory, "they all gasped. It was the closest / they had ever come to another body."

Every transmutation of the speaker is another displaced miniature object, further miniaturized, other. While the written reference to miniaturization can be considered as surreal, the visual elements are actually photographed miniatures. Harvey's text blurs the lines between imagined and actual miniature, and full-blown reality. "Owls bathe in shallow water / and also in the rain." (MY OWL OTHER) What is real? Whose voices actually matter? Harvey's successive character introductions are encyclopedic, but serve to say that answers are less interesting than questions. "The world is already crowded with instructions -- crosswalks, implications, clues. We've projected too much on the moon. Maybe that's why they switched to stars?"

Towards the end of the work, as if to satisfy the empty spaces of her characters, external environments radically change -- if not better, different. The temperature literally increases, perhaps a nod to global warming, and a worldwide ecological destruction beyond any character's control. Harvey writes, "the sun was dim then done, but after months of treatments, the animals did begin to glow." Also, "In the fever hospital, the elevator / moves like a bead of mercury / between floors. The higher the floor / the higher the fever."

Ending with TELETTROFONO, characters are replaced with the elliptical sounds of voices without bodies -- as featured in Harvey's initial installation, now framing the end of the book. A spoiler to the entire work is contained in "PRESET FAIRY TALE MODE" in this section, consolidating the central narrative to the whole book.

"There was / an inventor who loved a mermaid / and would do anything to please her. / Because she loved sound, he invented a megaphone, a telettrofono and a drink / ....tiny effervescent / fireworks of fermented fruit.... / Because / her bones were not made for this loud / human world, they began to crack and / ache and crumble... / Because she could no longer / climb up or down the stairs, he carried her."

And so, the tale ends. To be continued.