[Biblioasis; September 2021]

In an interview with the publisher of her award-winning story collection Householders, Canadian author and playwright Kate Cayley explains that she originally set out to write a novel. While that vision for the book was not realized, traces of Cayley’s intention are visible in the structure of the collection, which pairs a generation-spanning novella in four acts with four standalone stories that range in style from domestic realism to speculative horror. What unites these diverse stories is their characters’ shared connection to a 1970s commune in the woods of Maine, and to the particular spirit of anti-capitalist, utopian imagining espoused by its founder. 

In the collection’s second story, the commune’s leader delivers the following provocation to his gathered and gathering acolytes:

You live in the belly of the beast, you good people. . . . whether you want to or not, you sell yourselves to the progress culture and the development culture, giving you a metal body in place of the good body you were born with, making you flip switches until your hands are curved to the shape of a switch. . . . We must make small things now, we must find where we can be foolish and slow and move slowly into the light. . . . Why should we be always waiting for the promised land?

As the collection weaves between storylines and skips across decades, we find characters variously attracted or repelled by this radical project—either the mere prospect of its realization or its physical instantiation in the form of an actual commune, “The Other Kingdom,” as the place comes to be known. In this sense, Cayley’s collection is a book is about belief and non-belief: What happens to idealism across time, across a lifetime, across generations? And how do we—or should we—respond to a failed utopia?

As a physical setting, the Other Kingdom figures most prominently into the novella chapters, where we travel with a mother-daughter pair across a generation. In the first of these, recent college grad Nancy heads out on a cross-country road trip and never returns. By the end of the story, she has abandoned her given name, cut ties with her family, and joined a fledgling religious sect. What motivates Nancy/Naomi to alter her life so radically—and embrace the doctrine of a dubious upstart guru—is her inability to fathom an authentic and meaningful place for herself in the world as she knows it. At the outset of the story, she worries that “the world continued on, frustratingly elsewhere,” while she and her friends are gradually becoming their parents: “They were hypocrites and the world was full of hypocrites and Nancy would not allow them to convince her that hypocrisy was a form of bravery.” Thus, she is drawn throughout the trip to “anything that promised drastic and essential wisdom”:

Fortune tellers, meetings on liberation theology, churches set up in abandoned storefronts. Everything was treated as a possible site of revelation, from revolutionary manifestos pressed into her hands at protests to messages chalked on walls in alleyways.

Nancy/Naomi’s desire for a grand awakening is contrasted in the story with the concerns of her practically-minded companion, Carol. For her part, Carol is less concerned about revelation and the “right life” than she is about money: having enough of it to buy food (as they survive on wormy apples and crackers), fill the gas tank, and eventually, make it home. But for Naomi, the need to live in a way that feels meaningful supersedes all else, and she soon finds herself “flinging everything that meant her life before” into a ritual bonfire, “dizzy with the liberty of all her losses.”

The next time we catch up with this pair, in the collection’s title story, this movement is repeated in reverse: A disillusioned Naomi has fled the increasingly miserable conditions of life off the grid and returned to her hometown. There she struggles to account for her experience, laughing and then crying at her own failed quest. “I followed an old man into the woods,” she reflects, no longer convinced of what she found there.

The third and fourth stories of this suite consider Naomi’s experience on the commune from yet a further remove, tracking forward in time to follow Naomi’s now-adult daughter, Trout. In “Travellers,” Trout contends with a confused nostalgia for the place she grew up. On the one hand, she resents her mother’s choice to leave this sacred place that, despite its austerity, granted their life a sense of coherence and belonging, a “happiness that nothing afterwards had matched.” Trout recognizes that she doesn’t quite belong on the outside, amid the “compromised and the commonplace . . . traffic lights and dental plans and the illusion of safety”—her mother even less so. On the other hand, Trout’s distance from the commune permits a more cynical take. The leader appears to her now as a “mixture of conman and madman,” and his followers, including her mother, less as visionaries than as people who were merely “sufficiently adrift” as to be exploitable. Here, the commune appears less innocent—more like a cult.

In other stories, the Other Kingdom is present only in the form of an imagined and romanticized no-place, a character’s flickering belief in the possibility of another world. For Martha, an unhappy young mother in the opening story, this no-place is a kind of soothing fantasy, “a mythical kingdom somewhere in her head,” that offers a psychic reprieve from the rule-bound, sanitized suburban environment in which she raises her children and is always and more and more alone in her struggle. In Martha’s utopia:

her children and the children she saw every day ran loose in open fields, built structures out of discarded wood and rusted nails, like the clips she sometimes watched on YouTube of rural communes in the seventies, in which grubby, jubilant children toiled beside their hoeing parents.

Martha is aware that this place does not exist: It is quite literally a virtual place, cribbed from the internet. And she also acknowledges how little it resembles the description offered by a distant relative, her “[husband’s] brother’s tight-lipped ex-wife,” who grew up on a commune and speaks of it now (if at all) only in terms of privation. But Martha’s vision is more than a romantic embellishment of reality; it is also a time capsule. The videos she watches are archival, not live feeds, and we can assume that many of the people who figure into these clips have—like Naomi, Trout, and many of the other characters in Cayley’s book—more or less reluctantly abandoned the fringe. 

In “A Beautiful Bare Room,” the twenty-two-year-old protagonist, Liza, cleaves in a similar way to an earthy idyll that she can only access secondhand. In this brilliantly weird near-future (zombie) apocalypse story, a young barista weathers the chaos outside her safehouse by cultivating a secret virtual self. Other-Liza appears “barefoot in long grass. A little bit dirty, filching money from a succession of undifferentiated lovers. Dancing alone to earnest ethereal music.” Just as Martha feeds her pastoral vision with YouTube footage, Liza too has sourced this “fortifying” persona from elsewhere: in this case, from her mother’s stories of growing up on a commune in the 1970s (perhaps, one supposes, the very same). 

In both stories, it seems relevant to consider what it means for these characters that their utopia is not an actually existing one—why and how it might matter that this place where Liza and Martha can actualize their vision of a good life no longer exists, or perhaps never existed as they imagine it, or never can or will exist for them. In one sense, the immaterial kingdom serves its function in getting these women through their unlivable present. And yet, hope seems here a trivial benefit: It does nothing to save Liza from the horrific exploitation she faces later in the story, nor does it enable Martha to overcome her profound sense of self-doubt and un-belonging, even when an opportunity to do so arrives directly at her doorstep. Neither of these women ends up with dirt under her fingernails.

Clearly, an alternative to capitalism in the abstract cannot help these characters transcend their material conditions. But in practice, the alternative seems to fare little better. Cayley’s stories are replete with tragic figures shaken by their encounter with the magnetic “elsewhere” of the Other Kingdom. For those like Naomi who plunge headlong into ideology, disillusionment is a catastrophe. One narrator seems to speak to the collection’s attentions more broadly when she explains her fascination with people like Naomi, “people who could not navigate the world.” In centering on individuals who are scarred in this way by failure, Cayley’s stories impel a re-examination of failure as a construct. Rather than question (or pity) the individual who cannot “navigate” an unjust and broken society, we might question the conditions that make their dreams and flourishing impossible. “I didn’t want to fail,” the same narrator goes on, “but I liked the idea of failures. They seemed to come the closest to poetry.” Just as a poem can jar us out of complacency, so too can such characters unsettle our conventional notions of what is good and right and worth fighting (and failing) for.

Arguably, the category of failures in this collection includes both wanderers and those confined in false belonging. The characters in Householders can be sorted into two such groups with respect to the place or places they live and leave. On the one hand, there are those we might call “house-held.” For these characters, their situatedness itself restricts opportunity, horizons, and thought: “Martha’s memory went [back] as far as the first half of a degree in history. After: diapers, splatters of yogurt, little jars of fruit mush, tears, mysterious stains.” Martha’s locus of action and imagining is constrained by her numerous and difficult progeny and by the socially-sanctioned ineptitude of her “rakish, forgivable,” “unburdened” husband. Meanwhile, Liza from “A Beautiful Bare Room” trades one kind of prison (her boarded-up apartment in Palo Alto) for another more permanent, technologically-enabled, and equally terrifying one. “Doc” and “Pilgrims” also feature houses that become prisons. In the first, a young man finds himself on the outskirts of Houston nursing an alcoholic musician in a morbid tailspin. In the latter, the narrator becomes the sole caretaker for a paraplegic teenager after the teen’s father abandons them both. The bed-bound boy and his proxy mom get by on welfare checks, and with neither social support nor the resources to hire help, the woman cannot leave the house to find work or relief. Written before and during the pandemic and released amid its third/fourth wave, these stories rhyme with the questions which have presented themselves with new urgency in recent years about essential and often invisibilized genres of care and house-holding work.

Many of the collection’s networked cast of characters, however, have an opposite and equally distressing reality: Rather than “cast in,” they are cast out—placeless, nomadic, and perpetually seeking. The over-burdened woman in “Pilgrims” characterizes her lover’s abandonment in this way: Rather than a conscious choice, his departure appears to her a symptom of his rootless childhood. She explains: “He’d lived on a commune up to age six, watched over by an old man whose death had left his parents so orphaned and aimless they’d carted him and his three brothers around the continent, always looking for a place like the one they’d lost.” 

In a collection that features mainly cis women—many of them, like the author, queer—it is no surprise that self-comparison becomes such an important mechanism for self-definition—as well as yet another route to (perceived) failure. Cayley frequently employs doubles to show how easily desire for the other can be entangled with desire to be the other. Many of her protagonists are presented alongside a peer, near-sibling, or otherworld avatar, whom they perceive as a better version of themselves. For the housewife Martha, the impulse toward comparison is most triggered by her encounters with the “competent and discerning” women of the neighborhood organizing committee, and specifically its de facto leader, Bronwyn, whose growing role in the community counters Martha’s waning one. With the committee’s planning of a block party as the story’s dramatic fulcrum, Martha’s compulsive self-doubt kicks into overdrive, and with it, her fixation on the other. Every quality that she admires in Bronwyn is one she finds lacking in herself, from Bronwyn’s initiative and confidence to her “tasteful tattoos.”

This envy- and anguish-inducing contrast is most apparent in the way the two women, both artists, relate to their craft. While Martha is consumed by parental duties and abandons her craft entirely; Bronwyn, a professional dancer, has the means and wherewithal to exercise her creative training and talents in the public sphere. At the height of the story, Martha emerges from her private struggle of managing an unmanageable son and is awed to tears by Bronwyn’s contribution to the big event: an involved performance piece that converts the town into a stage, the community into a dance troupe, and Martha into its speechless audience. In the end, while Bronwyn can transcend the drudgery of childcare and “house-holding” to have a public identity, Martha, who so badly seeks a purpose beyond the threshold of her house, is denied precisely this. One could even read Bronwyn’s performance piece as a sort of spectacle of that denial. Its choreographed movement, involving “forty or fifty people. Companionably close to each other but not touching, men and women and children . . . surprising people: the man who owned the convenience store, an older woman who lived alone on Martha’s street . . . walking in time . . . ” corresponds to Martha’s desire for intergenerational, collective toiling. And yet, while she is moved by the dance, observing that “Bronwyn had made this dance so that Martha and everyone else would believe, if only for the duration of it, that they were not alone,” her position in the community is cruelly unchanged. Ultimately, the way she relates to her dancing neighbors is little different from the way she relates to the rural communes on YouTube. In both cases, the desired alternative is a screen: a thing of beauty that can only be witnessed and consumed; not a world, but a manufactured and temporary sense of belonging, an aesthetic utopia.

Many of these stories confront the question of belonging with respect to religious faith, specifically, as a form of collective meaning-making. “Handful of Dust,” for example, closes in a similar fashion to Martha’s story, with a character close enough to see what it is that she wants, but not close enough to take hold of it. The narrator, who is agnostic, enters a church and ruefully watches as another woman speaks to God: “Penance, I supposed, though I didn’t know anything about it. Down went her forehead, pressing the stone over and over, matter-of-fact, as if this was an ordinary action, available to anyone, to me.” What we understand from this passage is that prayer, for this narrator, is no “ordinary action” at all: Much as it pains her, there is no direct correspondence between the reality suggested by this other woman’s gestures and the one in which she herself operates. The sacred, for her, is beyond grasping. Spirituality is always already commoditized: “I suspect I think of God acquisitively,” she observes. “As something I want and feel I deserve, not so different from the promise offered by new shoes or a new book to read or a new show to watch.” 

Just as we are better able to grasp these characters in relation, we are also better able to appreciate these stories in the way they confront and interpret one another. A character must choose—disown her parents or become them, reject God or embrace him, stay or leave—and she understands her choice most fully, or painfully, in view of one who chose differently. In a similar sense, a story must go one way or another—toward closure or toward ambiguity, fulfillment or loss—each possibility also a foreclosure, and each alternative most striking in opposition. 

One example of this heterogeneity is the way different characters grapple with existential angst. As discussed above, the Naomi arc tracks Naomi’s initial embrace and later rejection of the commune, seeming to cast a sympathetic but skeptical eye on her attempt resolve the anxiety of subjectivity through radical devotion (to cause, community, doctrine, etc). By contrast, in “A Beautiful Bare Room,” at least one character seems to regard this level of selfless devotion not as a desirable goal but as a thing of deep horror. Ironically, in fact, it seems to be the most salient threat facing Liza and her roommate amid the ongoing zombie apocalypse, as the defining characteristic of these particular zombies is not cannibalistic urges, but rather something which Liza and her roommate (or partner) Erin find even more disturbing: total philosophical clarity. At the start of the story, these two young women take stock of their situation, and Erin professes that she would rather fling herself from a high ledge than to resolve into such a gruesome state of “beatific strangeness.” She describes the zombies’ state as “Too much like church . . . Look at them. Look at their faces. They all look so sure. I’d rather just be dead.” So, while Martha in her atomic suburbia craves resolve, and Naomi in her post-college fervor strives to lose herself in a higher purpose, this couple of jaded wage-working Zoomers hopes to serve no higher gods than those of hedonism and irony. They guard their ambiguity, their lack of definition (are they roommates? lovers?), and their empty, pointless hours as if it were life itself: “[They] would have sat around all day if they weren’t working, drinking tea and eating candy until they were both sick.”

Eventually, the collection offers such a contrast within Naomi’s story arc as well, as the character’s eventual affliction with dementia—an unwilled, literal loss of self—seems to violently re-figure her earlier, revolutionary desire. The oblivion which younger Naomi once sought with abandon, older Naomi has now realized in its most absolute and tragic form. It would be difficult to call this Nirvana.

As many of the stories in this collection suggest, the desire to exist in a place where one’s actions have purpose is entangled with the desire to exist in a place where one’s actions are seen. While Naomi eventually leaves the increasingly miserable commune behind, she cannot escape the desire for coherence in the eyes of. This is most poignantly illustrated in the title story, in which Naomi and her long-ago road trip companion, Carol, are reunited several decades after Naomi’s retreat from society. A perception of the other’s judgement pervades the narrative, and this simmer rises to a boil in the story’s climactic scene, a dinner party at Carol’s house which devolves into an ideological power struggle. In this scene, it is clear that Carol views Naomi’s revolutionary project as a failure, and it would be hard to deny that reading of it: After all, Carol’s old friend-crush has just re-emerged from the fringe, ragged, “smell[ing] of ruin,” “brow-beaten” and “bewildered,” dependent on her equally bewildered parents, and towing a daughter who has been permanently hobbled by their once-leader’s attempt at faith healing. Naomi, too, seems beset with doubt: In Carol’s home, surrounded by Carol’s friends and Carol’s wife and their combined “air of detached self-importance,” Naomi’s choice is vulnerable as never before to Carol’s judgement.

At the same time, and crucially, Carol is also threatened by her guest: “[Naomi] was untethered to anything Carol could recognize as a life: her life must be a judgement on Carol herself. She knew it was.” Carol at this point is a comfortably settled academic—an embodiment of the bourgeois boogeyman that haunts so many of these self-conscious progressive intellectuals as they chart their course in life. As such, she is threatened by the mere idea of Naomi’s refusal. In the face of the other woman’s embodied, radical protest, her own form of resistance must appear flimsy, complicit even. In spite of their intentions for an amicable reunion, this reciprocal judgement sits between the old friends like an uninvited dinner guest, goading them past superficial niceties. If Naomi is a picture of failure, she is a failure so poetic that Carol can’t stand it. 

Eventually, Carol’s defensiveness turns cruel. She tells her guests, “I wasn’t religious, so it didn’t attract me. I mean my parents were, so I’d already worked through that shit.” “That shit,” Naomi’s decades-long experiment in principled self-abnegation, is recast here as woefully passé, “irresponsible,” “separatist,” juvenile, and even, most ironically, as selfish. Personal liberation, Carol further insists, is empty of political value. “My work was here,” she concludes, as though it were her choice, not Naomi’s, on trial.

In securing the last word, Carol not only punctures Naomi’s sense of identity and purpose, she takes all the air out of the Other Kingdom as well. Naomi’s haven is no longer a place she can return to, even in her mind, but a place that never existed. The sting of this loss stays with Naomi not only to the end of the evening, to the final paragraphs of this story, but even beyond them, throughout the remainder of the Naomi-Trout story arc, and to the end of Naomi’s life. It’s no exaggeration to say it destroys her. The rapid acceleration in Naomi’s storyline from this point forward reinforces the depth of this epistemic shock. In the two final chapters of the novella, set years later, Trout occupies center stage, while Naomi herself fades to the wing, a nursing home resident with advanced dementia. 

If Carol is able to seize the last word here, this is in part a consequence of privilege: The old friends’ positions have shifted since their road trip days, and it is Carol, now, who holds the upper hand. This interaction between privilege and the ability for an individual’s experience to be seen, heard, and valued, is notably portrayed in the story “Pilgrims” as well. There, Cayley’s narrator embarks on a fantasy life as a blogger-nun. Writing as Sister Bernadette, she finds some relief in transposing her daily strife (24/7 care for a paraplegic boy) into a familiar religious formulation: “I’m needed now, very much, but it’s hard to remember that this new life is also full of purpose. That what I do is still seen by God.” This is an act of subterfuge more than it is a genuine expression of faith. But the performance finds its audience: “Like magic, the witnesses arrived, posting comments. Guileless, faceless, mysteriously full of love.” While in other stories, the cathartic fantasy remains just that, here the fiction takes root in reality: Sister Bernadette’s travelogue troubles the boundary between actual and virtual, and as one might expect, eventually merges the two. One of the “witnesses” believes so strongly in the faux-sister’s journey that he wants to offer more than adulation; he wants to bankroll it. And from there, escapism becomes escape plan.

While this character’s ability to fiction herself out of an unlivable present lends a lighthearted tone to the piece, there is also a sad irony here. This charitable stranger is moved by the “uncontaminated and noble” sister’s fictional predicament, yet we can be certain that the blogger’s IRL story would scarcely have the same effect. The reality of joblessness, poverty, and living with a disability is not a story with affective currency in the eyes of this deep-pocketed benefactor. A religious pilgrimage, on the other hand, has the right shape. It flatters his faith and his ego. In writing a check, he can see in his own actions a grand, symbolic purpose. Moreover, it allows him to feel that this gesture is seen.

What Cayley’s stories show, again and again, is that the capacity to create utopian community within our current capitalist system depends on unevenly distributed economic security. We can look once again to the zombie story, “A Beautiful Bare Room,” to see this commentary at its most acute. In this case, the plot derives its horror from the cruelty of a worsening wealth gap. In this apocalyptic future, only the ultra-rich have the possibility of living their story to a meaningful conclusion, while everyone else has little means to survive at all. When her roommate/lover Erin fails to return from a foraging mission, Liza is persuaded to give up her stronghold in the collapsing city—along with any possibility of a reunion—to follow a rich cafe patron to his underground bunker. There she resigns herself to the idea that she will be exploited, perhaps in some kind of Handmaid way, because she cannot imagine any other “use” for herself in this place. Liza’s assumptions are correct, but only to a point: She will be used as a sexual commodity, but the nightmare runs deeper and weirder than that. While Liza waits to discover her function, she meets another woman, whose dead lover has been preserved as a digital consciousness. As we discover, Liza has been brought here in service of this rich woman’s technologically-assisted reunion. As the story proceeds, Liza’s subjectivity is drained from her—first figuratively and then literally—so that this other woman’s love story can arrive at its happy conclusion. By contrast, Liza’s own love story never ends at all. At one point, she remembers to think about her former companion, but gets no further than “Erin was probably dead now.” Liza has no way of knowing, and neither do we; the matter resolves into obscurity. Not only does this question never get answered, but there is now no one around to care. While the reader’s sympathies naturally lie with the protagonist, it is clear that within the world of this story, within the bounds of this particular capitalist hell-scape future, Liza’s fate and Erin’s fate, representing that of the working class, are a matter of irrelevance. Their love story will never be the main act.

It would be something of a shame to read any of these stories individually, or to read them just once through, as moving outside and around them is one of the pleasures of this text. Householders is not a collection about the singular self, but about the individual uneasily negotiating subjectivity in a manner that is intrinsically relational; and appropriately, the narratives seem to continue into and across one another, propelled by differences that underscore their symmetries. The work’s most disruptive insights emerge from these interactions. In a sense, the success of this collection lies in its failure as a novel. One could even say that Householders resembles its characters in this way: if a failure, a provocative one. A poetic failure.

Emily Alex is a writer and freelance editor living in Philadelphia. She currently serves as managing editor and features editor for Full Stop.

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