The New Yorker

Hiking Literary Hinterlands with Rennie Sparks

Review by Samantha Anne Carrillo

 

Wilderness

Rennie Sparks
Handsome Family Music
paperback
essays
$13

Don't get me wrong: I dig the Handsome Family, but my true fandom rests with author Rennie Sparks. Her lyrics and essays walk the fine line between extemporaneous storytelling and preternatural, elegant deconstruction. Wilderness, her latest book, explores the human condition by employing Aesopian schematics; call them existential fables or zoological philosophy. Each of these 17 essays is themed on an animal or insect, and every featured creature is accompanied by one of Sparks' tablet illustrations.

In my imagination, Sparks sits at a bloodwood spinning wheel, weaving personal animus and entomological, historical and cultural facts with folk tales, myth and eldritch events. Her dark forest is populated by ghosts: Blind Willie Johnson in “The Salamander,” George Armstrong Custer in “The Caterpillar,” Albrecht Dürer in “The Turtle” and Stephen Foster in “The Wildebeest.” Extant but hauntological specters also dwell there—Charles Manson and Tex Watson in “The Cockroach,” the Mexican gray in “The Wolf,” the Sibyl in “The Caterpillar” and Shiva in “The Jellyfish”—and she seamlessly incorporates surrealist inspiration and waking-life research into an outstanding collection of short essays. Her writing inhabits the soul of the crocodile, prairie dog and ant as much as it does its curious human creator.

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Wilderness' precise, epigrammatic charm is undeniable. Being clever or cerebral is one thing—and Sparks clearly is—but there's outstanding perception in her empathic storytelling, capacity for epiphany and metaphorical dexterity. Rennie Sparks appears along with Handsome Family partner and husband Brett Sparks at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Wednesday, Aug. 21. One hopes the tie-in between the book and album will bring these essays to a new audience; ever after, their minds will house the clickety-clacking divinations of this important Southwestern writer.