Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fiction Review: Bonnie Jo Campbell, "The Trespasser" (from American Salvage)

Bonnie Jo Campbell's treatment of a break-in's aftermath is a frightening little story about the most fragile of victims: one's sense of security, well-being, and identity.




"The Trespasser" is featured in Bonnie Jo Campbell's short-story collection American Salvage, a nominee for both this year's National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is available for sale from Powell's Books. To purchase a copy, please click here.


“The Trespasser,” the opening tale in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short-story collection American Salvage, is a chilling piece of work. The story begins with a shocking moment for the family at its center: they arrive at their vacation cottage, only to find that it has been broken into and used as a squat and a meth lab. The situation isn’t exploited for melodramatic suspense; all but one of the trespassers is long gone, and the one who stayed behind immediately flees the house, never coming into contact with the family. Campbell instead uses the story’s circumstances to take the reader inside the sense of violation the family feels. Her rendering of those feelings isn’t superficial--she doesn’t mine the scenario for reactionary anger. Campbell gets at something deeper; the story dramatizes how people use the objects that surround them to define their identities. The family's life finds expression in their possessions, photographs, and diaries, and it turns out the last trespasser has used their belongings as a focus for her thoughts and feelings as well.

Using a break-in to evoke feelings of anger and disgust in the reader is perhaps the simplest thing for a storyteller to do. Campbell, though, doesn’t take the easy way out; she mitigates those feelings by making the sole remaining trespasser a figure of pity. The trespasser is 16, she’s suffered through years of physical and sexual abuse, and she’s now caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. One can’t judge her harshly for the drugs. It’s obvious she doesn’t take them to get high so much as make herself numb. The pathos of her life is powerfully rendered by her appropriation of the family’s things. She uses them to imagine the life for herself that she was never given the opportunity to have.

Campbell intensifies the reader’s sympathies for the trespasser by juxtaposing her life with that of the family’s 13-year-old daughter. The younger girl is the model of a well-adjusted suburban teenager. Everything she has becomes everything the trespasser never knew but wished for, and everything the trespasser has suffered is the brutality the other girl has been protected from. The feeling of oh my God, this trespasser could have been my daughter/niece/what-have-you is slammed into the reader's consciousness near the story's end, when the girl's parents discover that the trespasser had been used as a whore by the men cooking the meth. One thinks back on the trespasser's odd celebrations of the daughter's athletic trophies, or the rearrangement of the furniture into a conversation nook for her non-existent family, and one wants to cry at the meaning those objects have for her.

But the pathos of the trespasser's actions is accompanied by the reader's horror at the deeper implications of what she's done. She's infused things that are not hers with an emotional meaning that cannot be dismissed. One cannot deny her the right to her feelings, but those objects also hold meaning for the daughter, and that cannot be denied, either. The horror comes from the realization that the meaning of those objects--those expressions of ourselves--is relative. Others can appropriate those objects as expressions of their own identities, and even after everything is reclaimed, the awareness of that appropriation is still there. In the back of one’s head, one has to wonder, do those objects really still belong to me? And if these totems of my life can be taken, can someone take my life as their own as well? Security is rooted in the sense of ownership over one’s life; once that’s gone, what is there? "The Trespasser" is a devastatingly effective story, and it sets high expectations for the author and the rest of the collection to come.

Reviews of other work by Bonnie Jo Campbell: