So it’s hair, but it’s shaped like a hat. I saw Carrie Snyder read at The Starlite in Waterloo a few years back, at the only UW alumni event I’ve ever attended. She shared the stage with George Elliott Clarke, Erik McCormack and a few other distinguished bookish folks from UW’s past (perhaps even Evan Munday, though I honestly don’t remember). She read “Tumbleweed,” and I’m pretty sure part of one other story, and I have to be honest and say that I didn’t think much of it. As I’ve written here before, I’m not very good at following fiction when it’s read aloud. And really, the hair hat seemed kind of gimmicky. Every time I saw her book in the store (and I’ve actually seen it quite a bit; for a not-very-well-known first-time author, Penguin sure as hell got that book into stores) I walked past it thinking, maybe next time. I mean, it has French flaps and deckle edges both; it’s practically begging for me to hate it.
I don’t hate it. It was a pain in the ass to turn only one page at a time, and the weight of the flaps kept smacking it shut if I didn’t hold the book just so, but I didn’t hate it. I think I read all but the last two stories on the train back from Waterloo last night. For some reason, I tore through Hair Hat. It wasn’t that I was so enthralled that I couldn’t put it down, it was more a kind of puzzled curiosity. Carrie Snyder writes like she knows. Every sentence is confident, hardened, tempered, fully-formed and whole. There is no hesitation in these stories, and the weaknesses, where they exist, are all in the conception, the plan rather than the execution. Except of course for the hair hat itself, which was fucking ridiculous. If you’ve been reading my reviews of Robertson Davies’ books over the last few months you’ll know that I’m perfectly willing to accept outlandish literary conceits, but with Davies the whole world of the novel is in step with the conceit, with the satire, the bombast of it. I get the impression that Snyder’s man with the hair hat is meant to be vaguely magical, like the blue
mittens socks or the Vietnamese takeout in Rebecca Rosenblum’s Once, but it was all wrong. Far too light for the tone of the stories, far too arbitrary seeming. Like Nikolski, it was interesting to see the connections, how the pieces fit together without the characters themselves being able to see it, but for quite a few of the stories (“Tumbleweed” and “Harassment,” and “Third Dog” especially) the man and his hair felt tacked on. I can imagine Snyder thinking that she didn’t have enough stories that included him to make Hair Hat a true story cycle, but that she also thought it would be too uneven if it wasn’t a cycle. I personally think this book would have gotten a lot more attention if she had toned down her conceit a bit and let those other stories stand on their own. They could have been brilliant, and now they are merely good.
Snyder’s greatest strength is in revealing family dynamics obliquely, usually through completely unrelated speech. Children argue about hot dogs, an aunt refuses to serve a snack between meals, and beneath it all we learn about abuse, fear, loneliness, self-hate, almost without seeing it happen. And then there’s the goddamn hair hat, intruding, breaking apart the delicate emotional structures Snyder builds with her smooth, confident prose. The hair hat man even has his own story, which could have been quite poignant were it not completely undermined by the conceit Snyder has—quite literally—attached to him. Even the explanation makes no real sense. That one telling detail that could have been, should have been, magical takes all of Snyder’s excellent craftsmanship and makes it farcical. Reading this book was like looking at a lovely Renaissance painting with a large gash running down the side of the canvas. It’s still beautiful, but all your attention is taken up by the thing that spoils it.