The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir)
by Clifford Chase
The Overlook Press, 2014
256 pages / $24.95 Buy from Amazon
Clifford Chase’s The Tooth Fairy begins with an epigraph, a line from a James Schuyler poem: “Out there/ a bird is building a nest out of torn up letters.” And this is Chase’s task in The Tooth Fairy, to weave a home from fragments of thoughts, memories, journals, dreams, and song lyrics, each ribbon and twig twisted with the other ribbons and twigs, until the strands form dense architecture, a story that holds one close.
At first, it seemed The Tooth Fairy would be an exhausting read. In the first chapter, an essay partly about the extraction of molar #30 from the author’s mouth, each of the fragments—which meditate on everything from blood oranges to antidepressants to sexual confusion—are, with few exceptions, a single sentence long. I’m a reader with an affinity for books made of fragments—I adore Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation—but I wondered if I could keep up. The sentences leap swiftly from image to image, subject to subject, developing few of the connective strands. The images are at turns funny (a fat little dog with a plastic steak in its mouth), and at turns lyrical (clouds are “golden cloth with a purple sheen”). My mind felt a little jet-lagged. Chase was building this nest from such small twigs. But the warp and weft of the first chapter continued into the second, and the nest began to grow.
Each chapter considers a different time in the author’s life: a trip to Egypt with his partner John, a period of sexual confusion in college and afterwards, the deaths of his parents, a strange luggage mix-up. And each chapter has its own narrative arc, a central focus for meditation. There are strands, too, that connect each chapter to the next: Chase worries, suffers guilt, attempts to be a good son, partner, and brother, loses family members, loses part of his city, loses his sense of himself, loses love. He gains things, too—understanding, occasional connection. The book is full of emotional punches.
The Tooth Fairy invites one to seek patterns, and some of the fragments can be sorted into categories, one of which could be labeled “meta-fragments.” In these, Chase often considers or directs the reader about how the white space between fragments is working. In one instance, Chase writes that the white space represents “the gap between the part of [himself] that was happy with John and the part of [him] that wasn’t.” In the final chapter of the book, “Ken,” Chase reconsiders his brother, who died of AIDS in the late 1980s and whose death is the subject of Chase’s earlier book The Hurry-Up Song. In The Tooth Fairy, Chase has acquired Ken’s journal, and uses Ken’s writing and interviews with Ken’s friends to gain a multifaceted understanding of his brother. In this chapter, Chase tells us that the white space represents “several months in 2009 and 2010 of trying to absorb and understand [Ken’s] suffering.” Here, the gaps between fragments represent time and thought and sorting. In another chapter, Chase tells us that he assembles these “simple, factual sentences” in an attempt to “make the past seem almost comprehensible—not normal exactly, but closer to it—that is, an objective story I can view without shame.” This proclamation is followed by three such sentences, each of which speaks simply and literally, and also hints at a narrative iceberg sleeping beneath the surface:
“Superman was a turn-on.
The basement used to flood regularly.
The pipes froze.”
In all of the white spaces, the reader (and maybe, too, the writer) builds a narrative while also accepting that there is no perfect, comprehensible narrative, no perfect answers to Chase’s questions. Each sentence stands like a tooth in a mouth, perfect on its own—an independent unit with root, dentin, and enamel—yet rooted and most functional alongside the others.
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