Pocket Finger

Pocket Finger

E-chapbook by Ryan Call.  Illustrations by Christy Call.
Publishing Genius, 2008
20 pages

Reviewed by J.R. Angelella

A World Utterly Dissected

When I finished Pocket Finger I disliked it. Technically, all the basics were in place (characters, story, setting and so on) but so many nagging questions remained unanswered: Why did this story disregard classic literary standards of conflict and situation? What significance do these seven sections hold? Why this story paired with these pictures? Why does passivity prevail in the prose? How is this story intended to be read—real or surreal? What are these characters’ motivations? Why should I care?

But don’t despair. Like the father in this story, I, too, changed.

Pocket Finger is the tale of a brother and sister of young but indeterminate ages living with their parents: a sick mother and a possibly insane father. Told in seven numbered sections, it’s set in a dreary nameless place of overwhelming poverty. The story centers on the father fishing for food to feed the family and hording found objects. According to the kids, the father believed that “by stacking the world around him, he could somehow control it, keeping us safe.” The mostly bedridden mother suffers from seizures, and the children act mainly as the eyes of the story, never engaging in forward action, but instead stand still and passive.

As the sections continue, the father’s desperation builds (desperation about what we are never sure), before he acts out like a nutbag: contorting his body on the front lawn in various incredible positions and randomly appearing one morning hairless and burned.  But perhaps most disturbing is when we find the father fishing, using deboned fingers as bait:

My sister and I looked down into the jar to discover slick masses of bloody fingers: long, gnarled fingers; short, rotten fingers; the stubbiest, fattest fingers we had ever seen . . . pale, pinkish fingers, perhaps from children no larger than ourselves . . . fingers with nails gnawed down to the quick.  And upon one finger we saw the golden glint of a simple ring, an odd, startling delight in all that gore.

Wait, it gets better.

The father ratchets up the crazy by cutting himself into individual body parts. “He looked like a different man, a man broken apart by forces beyond his control.” But the father has no monopoly on madness. With the sister taking care of the mother (still suffering the effects from a recent seizure), the brother breaks off one of the father’s fingers and keeps it in his own pocket:

I  . . . put it in my pocket to celebrate the only way he had ever loved me: the beckoning finger, the shaking finger, the magic finger, the pointing finger, the goose finger, the shaking finger, the trigger finger, the walking finger, the puppet finger, the tickle finger, the double-jointed finger, the lightswitch finger, the finger pressed to the soft pulp of my trembling lips.

This is how the story ends.

Words like gothic, ethereal, and savage are immediate and easy hot-button words to describe a story like this, but the questions of conflict and situation plagued me. The language: spare and elegant. The pictures: desperate and deeply disturbing.

Aesthetically, the prose crawls around the edges of the drawings—a call-and-response of direness-to-salvation. The distorted, nightmarish images are the sad sketches of a serial killer, something one might find scribbled on the exposed brick of an abandoned basement.

But still I was unsatisfied. The story felt bigger somehow. Deeper.

Could this be my problem? Was there something in the way?

So I re-read the piece, examining and dissecting the e-chapbook form, in this case a short story with illustrations, for answers.

Then, I got it—an adult picture book.

I trolled the borders and boundaries, examining the Shel Silverstein-on-Ambien art and Ray Bradbury-on-absynthe prose. And the structure came into focus. The minimalist drawings evoke the text’s desperation by focusing on distorted body parts: fingers, heads, chests, legs, and hands. This theme of disfiguration and deformation plays not only to the text’s literal representation, but also to the deeper examination of family: the power, position, and placement of parents and children in a fractured world.

Pocket Finger is not just about amputated fingers. Nor is it using the theme of self-dismemberment as socio-economic commentary on middle America. Here the real rules of the literary world do not exist. Pocket Finger is not a love story or a character study.  It is not an examination of dementia. It is not a metaphor for poverty. Character motivation and story morals are unnecessary. Mainstream story structure complete with dénouement is completely irrelevant.

Instead, this story is allegorical in the most absurd sense.

Even more, this story wails.

This story pleads.

This story moans for familial forgiveness.

It insists to survive.

These characters function, but barely. They are dysfunctional—a family on the brink.  But a shift occurs. The story breaks from literary convention, shying away from the clichés of insanity and rests solely on the idea of survival. The Call’s depiction of dismemberment is an existential exploration of the self, its interiority and territory. The father, out of shame and failure, breaks his own life apart. For his children. For their future. There is an honesty and serenity in this work, something I incorrectly read as mere circumstance. To understand a unique work of art, one must first understand the rules of engagement. War and Peace cannot be compared to The Old Man and the Sea. Nor should they.

Sometimes a story mugs you in an alley and all it leaves behind are questions.

The questions raised by Pocket Finger will never be answered and, frankly, if they were, the answers would offer no meaning. This story distills the frill and folly of fancy prose down to bones, revealing a world of desolation, yes, but with light off in the distance.  This story sticks like gum under a shoe. Haunts like a grandmother’s attic. Cuts like broken glass.  Chases like a hunting dog. Relentless. Obsessive. At some point, surrender is the only option.

These characters are survivors; this story, their conflict. Each has a handicap. Each has a demon.  But each has the need to survive in a world utterly dissected.

My initial dislike Pocket Finger had nothing to do with the story, but with the sick pit it left inside me. It is a devastating story. And yet that devastation is just another word for redemption. The unanswered questions, the overall lack of mainstream story structure and action, the absurdist twists and turns—leave them be. This story has the most important element of classic structure: a hero takes a journey. The journey? A hint of the religious—a selfless act of violence for salvation, for redemption, for the possibility of hope.

So what is the point of it all?

Break it down to build it up better.


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