Saterstrom, Selah (2004). The Pink Institution. St. Paul, MN: Coffee House Press.
This experimental novel features four generations of Mississippi females from 1940 to the early 2000’s. They are shown in a set of impressions, poems, quotations and old photographs that imply stories of ignorance, filth, decay, brutality, alcohol, sickness and death. The girls are born into poverty, live in rot, are uneducated, abused, and confused, but somehow survive (most of them) into adult lives of poverty, alcohol, ignorance and abuse. Few rise above the subhuman level of a community that makes Yoknapatawpha county look aristocratic.
Much of the description focuses on body products and body functions, from sexuality (all kinds: marital, extramarital, childhood, rape, prostitution, masturbation, homosexual) to vomit, spit, piss, blood and poop. The mood is so unrelentingly bleak that a reader must wonder what the point is. Are we supposed to be shocked? It is not possible to shock a modern reader: everything’s already been said. Is it a sociological display about the unbreakable transgenerational cycle of poverty and ignorance? Well, that’s kind of old hat too.
On the plus side, the material is presented in an interesting way, with non-traditional typography, suggesting, for example, that the large spaces between words represent even more horrific experiences that cannot be articulated. Included are poems, pictures, and quotations, all of which contribute to the impressionistic mood. The genre, if it can be called that, of such storytelling is the category of prose poetry, I would say. The book itself is very handsomely constructed.
Overall, as an exemplar of prose poetry cum novel, the work is successful. As a traditional story, it isn’t. But as with much poetry, it is memorable.