This novel has been a long time coming. Carolyn Ferrell first emerged on radar screens in 1997 with “Don’t Erase Me,” a book of stories, many about the spiritual if not material resources of underachieving but buoyant and street-smart young people.
It was an auspicious debut. One of that collection’s galvanizing stories, “Proper Library,” appeared in the John Updike-edited “Best American Short Stories of the Century.”
In the nearly 25 years since, there’s been little but silence. Now, happily, comes this Brooklyn-born writer’s second book, “Dear Miss Metropolitan.”
It’s a difficult novel to read. The subject matter is about as grim as grim gets. Ferrell tells the story of three young girls, Black and biracial, who are kidnapped and thrown into the basement of a decaying house in Queens. Once there, they are tied down and tortured and raped for a decade, reminiscent of the kidnappings in Cleveland from 2002 to 2013.
The girls wonder: Is anyone bothering to look for us? They question the content of their own characters. Few novels more exactingly summon Nietzsche’s harrowing aphorism: “Terrible experiences give one cause to speculate whether the one who experiences them may not be something terrible.”
Meanwhile, their neighbors, friends and family ask themselves: How can we have let this happen, right in front of us? What kind of people are we?
“Dear Miss Metropolitan” is difficult to read, too, because of its structure. Ferrell mixes bits of narrative, collage-style, with snippets of news stories, with letters and lists and spells and incantations and social service assessments and the answers to tests and questionnaires. There are atmospheric photographs. The effect is to keep the book’s action slightly remote, at a distance.
The narratives of these girls’ lives were amputated and all but cauterized. No real narrative force is permitted to develop in Ferrell’s novel, either. It’s an endurance test. I admired it while longing for it to end.
Ferrell’s title, “Dear Miss Metropolitan,” summons to mind the dark comedy of Nathanael West’s 1933 advice-column novel, “Miss Lonelyhearts.” It’s a misleading title for this book.
An advice columnist does appear: an elderly woman who unknowingly lives near the house where the girls are kept. But she’s in the novel for only 25 or so pages; she’s a marginal character at best. This novel’s sparkly cover is a red herring, too.
The girls’ names are Fern, Gwin and Jesenia. “Dear Miss Metropolitan” is not entirely about their degradation. Ferrell charts the girls’ friendship, and the small ways they work to find bearable aspects to an unbearable experience. We get scenes from their lives before and after their imprisonment. Ferrell considers resilience and fortitude.
The author is a vivid maker of sentences with a flair for casual surrealisms: “The night air forms a halo of Cheetos around his little head”; “The moon is a huge sanitary pad”; “trout-mouthed boulevards”; “A whole-wheat sergeant with Crisco eyes.”
She smuggles in literary politics. One of the girls comments, about a lesson learned from reading Arthur Miller: “The girl is always the problem.” The spells and incantations are well-made. “Love Spell #36” contains this advice, to be performed “moments before you see your ex get it on with his ex, the bastard”:
Take three hairs from your beloved’s Afro pick;
Burn in a teaspoon of sugar in your mother’s kitchen;
Three times under a gibbous moon, recite:
Boy, take notice of me, and name me your one and only,
In the yearbook or other publications similar in nature.
Whenever there is a horror situation like the one this novel explores, in real life or in a work of art, the question arises: Do we require the worst details? Why or why not? About torture in films, I tend to agree with the critic Clive James, who said that “a scream from the other side of a closed door is usually enough to convince me.”
There are few scenes of applied, extended torment in “Dear Miss Metropolitan.” But the dry facts, unbearable in every detail, are more than enough. Over the course of the novel, they make something in your soul break down.
These girls are chained and hung upside down. Teeth are extracted with pliers. They are tortured with paper clips and thumb tacks and carpet nails. Jaws and legs and noses are broken. They are raped repeatedly and beaten to induce miscarriage. They are barely fed and often naked. There are mentions of Krazy Glue and barbed wire. Ears are “sewn open” and nails are pounded into them. These things are but a sampling of the kaleidoscopic horrors.
The girls’ captor is not some underworld overlord, drinking wine from a diamond-encrusted skull. He’s a schlub, a loner from down the block: totally banal, totally evil.
The girls emerge from their captivity as heroes. There are television appearances and talk of a movie. Tour buses drive past the spot of their hell.
Fascinatingly, the novel pushes into the future — to 2039, which no longer seems so far away. The bad news is that there’s something called the “Trump Spectacle Awards.” The good news is that Jesenia’s daughter is at Oberlin and is making her way in the world.
She is, she’s aware, the product of rape and arguably worse. Asked about her race and ethnicity on a form, she replies: “I am a product of a hand, a belt, a chain, a pit. What would you call that race?”
It becomes clear, and not for the first time, that Ferrell is navigating American trauma writ large, as well as her characters’ own. Some nightmares, and subsidiary nightmares, aren’t easily outrun.