REVIEW: Follow Me Down by Kio Stark
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Follow Me Down
by Kio Stark
$13.95 (paper)/ Free (e)/ 160pp
In her exquisite debut novel, Kio Stark captivates. Protagonist Lucy discovers a tattered envelope from 1978 addressed to an empty neighborhood lot in her mailbox. Curious, she steams open the sealed flap and discovers a photo of a handsome man inside (the statute of limitation for mail tampering, Stark keenly informs us through a librarian, is only five years). In the back of the photo three words are written: “He has it.” The novel follows Lucy’s quest to discover who the man in the photo is, what he has, and what his relationship with the empty lot is.
Judging these elements of the novel — its basic plot — it may be simple to flippantly categorize the novel as a mystery, in which Lucy behaves as a detective. Lucy certainly sleuths; however, the novel portrays more than just a bland recount of her various clues and journeys. Instead, Follow Me Down is a complex psychological portrait of longing and loss. The novel contains so many physical doors and so much knocking, as Lucy travels boroughs and streets to discover the origin of the photo. But the door which concerns me most is the one Stark introduces at the novel’s initiation: a knock on the door, which Lucy does not answer, which she runs away from. Though the novel’s plot focuses on discovery (who is the man in the photo? What did he do? Where is he?), the novel’s psychology concentrates upon transition, yearning, escape.
Ironically, when Lucy does learn the location and story of the man in the photo, she is plagued by “the pangs of withdrawal and the deeper thing that is no longer numbed.” As Lucy comments earlier in the novel, while most people want to be “known,” it makes her “want to run.” Herein exists the paradox of knowledge, of redemption: once free, one is exiled by the finality, the ending.
Lucy’s hobby as a photographer, capturing scenes of the city, intrigues me. Similar to her protagonist, Stark provides vivid and clairvoyant snapshots of city and subway life (“The younger [sister] has a halo of curls, a face like a heart, and eyes the color of wet slate. She spins around the pole while her sister watches mournfully from her proper seat. It will always be like this between them.”). In this fashion, content (Lucy as the photographer) mimics form (Stark as a writer who provides snapshots).
The complexity of the content-form dynamic deepens when listening to Lucy share her stories with the strangers she meets, the strangers who she wishes to charm and obtain information from. Lucy lies. Like Stark, she is a creator of fictions. Both photography and fiction displace the creator from the subject. Creating art, Stark seems to be commenting, requires distance.
Lucy observes through the aperture of her camera because the camera “opens a space” for “stop[ing] and “star[ing].” Behind her camera, Lucy watches, examines, and even imagines. What is provoking, however, is Lucy’s simultaneous role as the observer and the person being observed. “Everyone sees you,” she is told. She cannot fade into the cracks, blend in, though she is the thing that is “displayed,” she cannot become “invisible.”
Perhaps this is why Lily’s narrative voice so achingly compels me as a reader: despite her presence within the text and words, her display, she never quite fades into the structure of the story, always on the edge of the page, popping out slightly, like a friend who we are surprised to see. Lucy claims, “the world is beautiful, but I am not quite in it.” She is not quite within the novel either. In Lucy, Stark has assembled the most subtle, compelling character I have read in a long time.
–Bracha Goykadosh received her MA in English Literature from Brooklyn College in May and begins law school this August. She reviews for Booklist, Kirkus, the Rumpus, and Electric Literature.