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After reading Kio Stark’s Follow Me Down, a distant, half melancholic feeling lingers, a question unanswered that beats in the back of the head for days. Stark's evocative writing is terse, tough, poetic, and at times profound.—Shannon Burke, author of Black Flies
Kio Stark reads people and their streets the way an animal reads the forest. For her, precision and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin. And she spends language carefully, as if she kept it in a coffee can—she makes it last.—Luc Sante
On Sundays the whole neighborhood sleeps late. There must have been a smattering rain at dawn, for now the streets and the trees have taken on the darker hue and a shimmer that the water leaves on their surfaces as it evaporates back into the sky. All the colors are rich and saturated, the peeling bark of the sycamore, the green weeds, the mangled red tricycle that sits on the curb awaiting the trashmen's visit. I spool a roll of film into one of my old plastic toy cameras. It's light and imprecise. My cameras are a good excuse to see the neighborhood, to stop and stare. The camera opens a space for that, and people always ask what I'm doing. They are puzzled, generally, by the antiquated equipment and the things they see me shooting: the buildings and the places where the buildings used to be. The surface of the canal, lambent with marbled oil. The trees and weeds overtaking the things man has left in his wake.
This morning I go first to the playground. There's a young woman there who I know a little, Carlina. She's tall and curvy and her clothes are always sculpted to set her roundness at best advantage. Even when she's in sweats, as she is now. She's watching her son, who is in constant motion, circling the playground and mounting its obstacles., He's around 6, I think. She waves. “You're taking pictures again? What's up with that?”
She asks me that every time she sees me with a camera. At first I tried to explain, I showed her some prints. But that's not really what her questions are really about. It's the meaningless but meaningful conversation of the street. She is acknowledging me as familiar, as a known quantity.I return the gesture. “You guys are out early.”
“He's hit a new surge of testosterone or something. If I don't take him out and run him in the morning he's hell all day long. Swings at everybody. Gets all pent up and sinks his teeth in another kid's arm. Jesus, men. You know?”
Take him out and run him. Like a dog or a horse. I want to comment on it but I don't. I just nod. Then I have an idea. I set the camera down on the flat edge of a bench and point it at the jungle gym, the speeding boy. I hold the shutter open for a long time, maybe a minute. The picture will be washed out with light, the physical structures barely visible. And the boy will be a blurred streak of motion, pure energy and light. I try it a few times, varying the time the shutter is open.
The boy's mother turns away to take a phone call. She seems uncomfortable, tries to hustle the caller off the phone. “I'm not in a good place to talk. We're outside. Hold on.”
She turns to me. “Can you watch him? I just have to deal with something.” She taps the phone. “Ten minutes. It's one of those kind of delicate matters, you know?”
No problem, I tell her. I load another roll of film and keep shooting the boy's flashing speed. When she comes back, he's hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, resting. She hollers him over, in the commanding tone of mothers and generals. It works. He drops down and trots to her side. She waves at me. “Thanks,” she says and turns quickly back into the tall housing project building she lives in. I wait a while, watching, hoping for a rustle at a window that will show me which apartment is hers. But nothing happens. Eventually I move on.
I loop through the neighborhood, down by the canal and back. When I get home, my lover Jimmy is sitting on the stoop. He doesn't like phones, he is undaunted by waiting. “I was in the neighborhood,” is what he says every time I find him like this. It's a joke that's always funny. He lives four blocks away.
He slides a hand around my calf as I climb the steps, and stands up to follow me into the house. I turn on the ceiling fans and a breeze picks up through the apartment, from the kitchen's wide back windows out to the narrower ones overlooking the street.
In my living room, a mosaic of photographs covers one long wall. I add a few new ones every week or so, and I shuffle them around, reworking the classification schemes, seeing which arbitrary rules make better compositions. Jimmy stands in front of the wall now, giving it his fullest scrutiny.
“You changed it. It's by dominant color,” he observes, pointing at the wall. “The greens of the plants. The gray of the fences and the empty buildings. The red of the bricks and the rust.”
“I think it's too much,” I say.
“Too much how?”
“Too obvious.” I step back and consider the wall a moment. It's not only that I don't like the workings of my mind to be so easy to guess, but that's part of my discomfort. “You don't see the pictures anymore, just a field of color. It blinds the eye to detail.”
“Never any people,” Jimmy says. It's not the first time he's observed this, and he’s pleased with himself.
“People are only interesting to me in motion,” I tell him. “But that's not really why. This is about a world without people at all. After people. That's what all these are,” I tell him. I'm pacing now in front of the wall, pointing, caught up in my own convictions. “These are the ruins we leave behind. The foolish pride of our skyscrapers and our factories, left empty and grown over with weeds.”
Jimmy sits down on the couch while I'm talking, and looks up at me, a little confused, a little smitten. “They’re pictures of impermanence,” he says, working it out. “You’re taking pictures of an idea.”
I chose Jimmy because I thought he was someone else. A nice guy who plays guitar and doesn’t think too hard about things. I had him all wrong, and that complicates my hours with him in a way that makes me shrink into myself. I suppress the uneasy feeling by kneeling down and unzipping his pants.
Posted July 5, 2011
Follow Me Down invites you in slowly, leading you into an dark mystery step by step. We only learn about the narrator from her small observations of city life in the downtrodden area she lives in. It's difficulty to develop an understanding or a relationship with her as she comes across with little effect or internal thoughts. No one in the neighborhood is particularly interested in revealing details about past events or the people associated with them. As a result, one is drawn quickly into the forgotten crime she has stumbled upon. With the arrival of an old envelope containing a photograph the questions surrounding an empty lot draw the reader into the tale.Stark's book reads like detective fiction, but is pursuing the conflict one experiences between surface vs depth and how we learn to trust our own perceptions. In fact, the only thing we truly learn about the narrator is that she is beautiful. It's the one thing she admits to and this appears to be supported by her ability to quickly acquire a boyfriend and her observations about her looks from people on the street. There is a unique oddness as we follow the story about uncertain horror of the hidden crime. We follow deeper into the tale and move toward the main perpetrator. The small observations and turn of a specific phrase are great to read. The story concludes with a direct confrontation that brings into focus some of the ideas explored in the book.It is satisfying there is a deeper consideration of the idea of how we know what we know and what clues we can use to determine this. The best part of Follow Me Down is that it's one of those books that you start to think about days, even weeks after reading it. For example, a investigative police show on TV reminds one of the journey into hidden history of an empty lot. I liked how the book reads like pulp fiction but feels like philosophy. Highly recommended.
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Posted May 11, 2013
[Originally reviewed at The Nervous Breakdown.]
"Sometimes what you want is to be somewhere you do not belong."
Kio Stark's lyrical Follow Me Down (Red Lemonade) is a densely packed novella that wanders the projects of New York City capturing the lives of the people that live there in glorious detail-photographs melting into still life paintings, fingers smudged from handling wet paint that should have been left to dry. Sometimes you get a little dirty when you dig, and sometimes people need to disappear. Our protagonist, Lucy is unwilling and unable to turn her back on a mysterious letter that has been freed from the dead-letter office by unknown forces-a picture inside lost for twenty years, the echo of her long lost brother murmuring in the empty corners of her apartment. We follow Lucy as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. She sees the world for all that it is: dangerous and heartbreaking and kind. The characters of her gritty neighborhood streets-the people she sees on the subway as she commutes to her dull job in an office high up in the metal skyscrapers-they are her muse. These people embody her every waking hope and fear. They are her touchstone and lodestone-her dysfunctional adopted family.
Early on in this story we get a sense of Lucy's mental state, her unique point of view, and her sense of wanderlust and fractured personal history, running from secrets and pain:
"There was a knock at the door and I didn't answer. The same knock, over so many years. The same man on the far side of the door, looking for redemption we both know won't hold. When his footsteps faded, I packed a bag and boarded a bus. Disappearing was easier than I thought it would be."
These opening lines set the tone for the words that follow, a heavy setting filled with emotional turmoil-a balance of numb loss and childlike wonder at the beauty that still exists around her. More of her past leaks out a few pages later, shedding some light on the darkness that shadows our heroine:
"I had a brother once. The last time he knocked on my door, I didn't answer. He had been the light in my eyes, an earnest and unprotected boy, foolish and charming. I lost him to the city. The last time he knocked on my door was the day I left him behind."
As we explore the world around Lucy, the misfits and delinquents around her-a mix of jealous girls, predatory suitors, and protective thugs-she captures these moments in lush, vivid details that reveal the eccentricities and mental instability of everyone she encounters:
"On a crowded corner there's a young man with tight shoulders and clipped hair. Tourists surround him but he doesn't see them, he's staring out across the street into the far distance of his imagination. His hands are moving in a pattern that repeats, it seems for a moment like the signs of the cross: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. But it's not, the motions are more intricate and subtle. He flicks two fingers at his chin, and suddenly I see that his fingers are talking, it's sign language, and by the long stare it is clear that his hands are talking to himself. He says the same thing over and over until at last the light changes and his hands drop to his sides, his fingers still moving like pistons, muttering at the sidewalk."
[Continued at The Nervous Breakdown.]