I wanted to break through all of that. I wanted to tell and hear and you wanted to tell me too and so you did. I was the only one who heard, the only one you told and though you tried to forget I didn’t. I can’t. I won’t for both. A secret is a thing that we hold dear. This secret is the thing that holds us, dearie, still.

So says the narrator in “Aspects of the Novel,” one of the internal monologues cum short stories in Rebecca Brown’s new collection, The Last Time I Saw You, published by City Lights. Brown’s narrative voices hold on to the secrets of their pasts, holding onto their memories long after relationships have disintegrated, even when the accuracy or even truthfullness of those memories is questionable at best. The Last Time I Saw You is an innovative and captivating read. I highly recommend it.

Last Time I Saw You

I bought the book in Philadelphia earlier this month. I’ve been looking for a recent lesbian-authored text to teach in my next Lesbian and Gay Lit course. I have to admit that, although I had seen Rebecca Brown’s name before, I hadn’t read any of her works. The Last Time I Saw You is Brown’s 11th book. From what I’ve read online, The Gifts of the Body, a 1995 novels about a home-care worker who assists people with AIDS, is her most famous work to date. Reading The Last Time definitely makes me want to check out her previous work.

In each of the 12 stories, we observe the narrative voice’s viewpoint, often involving lost love. All of the stories are great, but a few stand out to me. The first one, “The Trenches,” is an engaging monologue about the innocence, if that’s even the right word, of childhood and its loss as one grows up. Indeed, the question of whether “innocence” is even the right way to describe the narrator’s childhood is the kind of questioning that Brown revels in throughout this collection. For her, identity, memory, and even love are unstable qualities, intangibles that can only be grasped at and never fully held or possessed.

“The Movie” is another amazing piece of writing. In this story, the narrator recalls her former lover in a nightmarishly haunting cinematic vision. What first seems like a relatively typical date at the movies turns into a heart-breaking account of traumatic loss.

I especially like “Aspects of the Novel,” a suturing of commentary on E. M. Forster’s critical work Aspects of the Novel with the narrator’s comments about her lovers. This essayistic short story contrasts Forster’s closeted homosexuality with the narrator’s openness about her sexual partners and ends up meditating on what fiction should accomplish and do as a genre, a meditation summed up in the passage I quote above. According to the narrative voices in this book, all we have are fictions, our efforts to make sense of our lives, memories, and losses. Although that effort can never be complete, these voices insist on laying bare their secrets as the thing that “holds” them to their former selves, lovers, and traumas.

Brown’s writing throughout this collection is perhaps best described as subjectively realistic. I felt as if I was dropping in on the narrator’s streams of consciousness, which flow like series of powerful rapids. Like Forster’s own stories, many of these works propel the reader toward a little twist or final piece of information that then recalibrates our interpretation of what the narrator has revealed to us.

I am troubled by one question about the collection, however: are the stories told by a single narrator or by multiple ones? Brown’s diction remains the same through many, if not all, of the stories. She especially has a penchant for stringing together series of words or phrases without punctuating them. This grammatical violation serves her narrators well, reflecting the rapidity or emotional quality of the secrets they are revealing. But the multiple uses of this stylistic innovation might suggest that we are reading only one narrator’s secrets, that this is a collection of monologues all coming from a single (if not entirely unified) source. This post-modern reading of the collection appeals to me; I like its take on the instability of identity and the resulting tectonic shifts in relationships and memories.

Whatever the answer to this particular question, this is a wonderful book, and I’m seriously considering adding it to my syllabus in the spring.