Thursday, August 3, 2017

Roberta Allen's THE PRINCESS OF HERSELF & Samuel Beckett's old men wearing greatcoats

The old women in Roberta Allen's The Princess of Herself (Pelekinesis September 20th) made me think of  how (Samuel) "Beckett's itinerant greatcoat-wearing old men ramble throughout the pages of his fiction...". (Art of Salvage, Julie Bates). Her observations have a wit dry and ready without compromise to please.

In the title story, the narrator observes the Princess' "broad unlined forehead, the symmetrical features, the sallow skin, the mane of long gray curls falling past her shoulders, her shiny silver "moon" necklaces. Hippy necklaces. Behind her, the empty cafe. The polished wood tables."

In Allen's stories, her older women run from mortality, chasing themselves.The narrator, like Beckett, puzzles out consciousness. She observes, not devoid of sympathy, but wields words like a sharp knife, deftly uncovering what we know and don't imagine.

From a story called Forgotten:

"I remember thinking how young she looked even though she was retired and collecting Social Security. I was surprised a woman at her age would be hooked on Sex and the City, Social Security seemed far in the future then. It wasn't that far.

If I asked, would she remember making that remark?
Who can tell what will be remembered?
Is it true that with each telling, our memories change?
Without electronic devices, who can prove what anyone has said?
Even when we hear the same words, those words say something different to each of us.
What something means can change from one moment to the next.

What does it mean to remember four baby robins dead in the nest under the eaves of my cottage? Would I remember the baby birds and their mother who never returned if the friend who found them did not often remind me?

How many memories are fabrications?
Having said that, can I be certain anything I say is true?"
Was Katherine the loner I remembered?
Until her comment about Sex and the City, I thought she was fiercely independent.
She spent her time protesting for peace and driving as far as Vermont just to tango."

No softening with sentiment for this narrator, especially not for herself. It's almost as if she succumbs at peril of her sanity. Yet it's little risk with her sense of humor. And it's this that lets her live and move forward, staking out new territory.  I thought of Beckett's play Happy Days, when I read Hot. Both have a self-mocking and darkly celebratory feeling.

"He wants me to look hot. So I look hot. As hot as a sixty-year-old woman can look on Halloween without a bra. I'm jiggling under a shiny black teddy, trimmed with lace. Until I tried on the teddy in a thrift shop, I felt like those old women with long pancake breasts in ethnographic films, sitting in grass huts, kneading something dough-like.

In my short butt-hugging, stomach crunching black skirt-another thrift store bargain-I feel squirmy, wormlike, narrow enough to inch through tight spaces like the thought, 'Why am I doing this?' which sneaks through my self-admiration."

It's a trope of women's fiction, the aging woman who laments her "invisibility" as she walks streets without the illumination of the "male gaze."  In Allen's stories, while her astringent female voice is a welcome novelty, what's illuminated is the human experience of aging--for men and women.  In a timeless universe, I can imagine Allen and Beckett having a drink, saying nothing as they observe a world with and without people.


Language has been the focus of Roberta Allen's literary/innovative fiction and the inspiration for most of her conceptual art for many years. Her conceptual art, exhibited internationally, is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in many other public and private collections. A Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and Yaddo Fellow, she is a short story writer, novelist and memoirist, with nine published books. She has taught at Columbia University, and for eighteen years at The New School. More information at