The suburbs in the seventies are shown to be a dangerous place for an adolescent girl in Carrie Tiffany’s breathtaking third novel, Exploded View. Car parts are strewn around the back of the block and the workshop is not a safe space. Where can a girl on the cusp of adulthood claim her identity? How can she resist abuse and neglect?
There is the time before. Before adolescence, before girlhood starts its perilous transition into womanhood, before danger and harm. A time before that happens; before the time of now. All we have when we meet Tiffany’s dissociated protagonist, whose name we never learn and who remains mostly mute throughout the novel, is now. It might take a short while to get your bearings in this world of now. You are sure to sense the danger and menace in it before you understand it – it’s not so much described as powerfully evoked. But sense it you will and you won’t be able to look away.
Exploded View asks the reader to examine the schematics of female identity and family dynamics and how they can be filleted and put together. It offers each part, one piece at a time and, thanks to spare prose that drips with vivid visual flashes, time to examine it, consider it, before a new part is offered. It’s not only the physical parts that are important. The space between them holds significance. “The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves.” Negative space, like silence, holds weight in this novel and one is drawn to the gaps in the prose. What is not being told or said is at the heart of this family and its misdeeds.
The body of an engine is repeatedly compared with the body of an adolescent girl. The points of divergence are as significant as the likenesses. “There isn’t much that’s female in an engine. Oils and rubbers, acids and waters – these are the first places to look for faults.” Both have the potential to break free, both have the potential to come into harm’s way. ‘Father man’ works on cars though his work is shoddy and dishonest. So too are his dealings with the family. He can’t be trusted with either. “Any engine can be stripped down and reassembled if you know how. When a human body is taken apart there’s no way it can ever be put back together again.” Does a girl always have to be a part? How can she become a whole?
The young protagonist searches for a clean space in a soiled world. Her abuse continues and she uses the only forms of resistance available to her: silence and sabotage. She may be a victim but she has some agency and uses the freedoms within her reach. Her recalcitrance is physical. Father man hurts her and she hurts the cars. She buries parts of the cars in the yard. “The dirt and the stones make room for the part and fit back together again much like before. If you don’t look at what you are doing, if you do everything by feel, there are no witnesses. There’s the stain on you but that can be cleaned away, and then the only thing that’s left is what you felt.” As a child she believed that letterboxes contained miniature versions of the houses that stood behind them. Now she believes that the heart of the man hurting her, father man, lives in the engines of the cars he fixes. The Holden workshop manual is her guide. So when she strikes at the engines, she strikes at his very core.
But when she resorts to silence she risks losing her voice. Her silence may be a call for help but what Tiffany seems to be asking is what is being taken from this girl, what damage is being done. Her silence throughout most of the book speaks to this. What is a girl without her voice, her story? What parts are left when you take that away? The harshness of father man, the neglect of mother and the cruelty and menace of the world at large inhabit the narrative. “Father man has taken my chance to tell all the parts of my story. There will always be this part that can never be told.” What is the exploded view of all those untold stories, of all those girls muted by their trauma?
The short novel is divided into three parts and Tiffany breaks the claustrophobia of suburban life and the cycles of family life and abuse in part one with a nineteen-day road trip in part two. Suddenly the body of the car and the family are in motion. The smallest elements of life on the road are described in short vignettes: a cow on a hill, passing cars, food stops. Life is safer on the road for our unnamed protagonist and her own sexual desires are awakened. This motion and the safety it offers makes the homecoming in part three all the more brutal. But it sets in motion the propulsion for our protagonist to move past the now. Whether she’s trying to reach the time before or a time after is unclear but either way her release is spectacular.
Tiffany draws broadly to evoke the period using seventies TV shows as the cornerstone of familial suburban life: Hogan’s Heroes, MASH, Matlock Police. The height of sophistication is a hollowed out watermelon used to serve fruit salad. Suburban life in the seventies as conjured by Tiffany drips with equal parts boredom and danger. A family dinner can quickly descend into violence. Ponytails can end up in rubbish bins. Cars can be taken apart and put back together. Families can unravel.
This book marks a major stylistic departure for Tiffany, an incredibly accomplished writer. Exploded View is reminiscent of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Peach, both short, stylistically experimental novels exploring girlhood, abuse and trauma. Here, Tiffany abandons the rich prose of Mateship with Birds in favour of spare and controlled poetic language. She offers sharp glimpses into a life of an adolescent girl that includes abuse and neglect and taken together the parts form a complete whole. This tense novel, held tightly with elegant restraint, is hard to read for the best possible reasons. It asks a lot of its reader, but it offers the most satisfying rewards. It might be hard to look at but you will feel the physical experience of life at a guttural level and what more can we ask of fiction than that.
Jaclyn Crupi has worked in publishing and bookselling since 2002. She is a bookseller at Hill of Content Bookshop and a freelance book editor and project manager. She has written several books for children ranging from board books for babies to series fiction for middle graders to craft kits for tweens and teens. You can find her on Instagram here.