The story of Beth Follett's lyrical, passionate novel is largely that of Nora Flood, named after a character in Djuna Barnes' famous lesbian love story of 1937, Nightwood. In his introduction to Barnes' novel, T.S. Eliot wrote that poets would appreciate the novel most, and he meant that as the highest praise. The same can be said for Tell it Slant. The novel consists of five sections written in the present tense. That, and Follett's use of second person narrative provides for an engaging immediacy.
The novel has an obvious literary context. Djuna Barnes herself appears in the narrative as a kind of ghostly muse figure, dispensing advice to Nora on art and life. Nora is in search of role models and looks to literature for what her family cannot give her. She feels she needs to set goals for herself before understanding the world around her. Her father, Jefferson, tells her no Flood is a homosexual, so she cannot find mentors easily within her own family circle¨ones who have come out of the closet, anyway. At the age of sixteen, she meets Donny, a homosexual poet who is already thirty. He serves as her first living guide, telling her she must break from her family and acknowledge her homosexuality. He also shows her that love can transcend sexual barriers. He sleeps with her, and she asks him if that was sex. "'That is love,' he answers after a while."
While Nora reads and re-reads Nightwood, she is also afraid that she will end up like Djuna Barnes¨lonely and drunk in a small apartment. Djuna herself, according to this novel, lived in a small flat in Greenwich Village¨with none other than e.e. cummings and his wife in the rooms below hers. Literary references, which appear on many pages of Follett's slim, readable work, provide a source of ongoing delight. Donny reads to her from Oscar Wilde and gives her a copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations when she leaves Montreal for Toronto. Her pal, Rae, has a dog named H.D. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore appear as literary mentors on another page. Nora has an older sister named Jeanette, who died young while reading Walt Whitman. One cannot help but think of Jeanette Winterson, as one reads of this older sister. While this novel is not satirical like Winterson's own first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, it shares its lyricism and subject matter. The Jeanette in the novel continues to appear to Nora in her dreams and musings as she tries to figure out her identity. Like Djuna Barnes, this dead older sister is another mentor.
Nora's lover Robin also takes her name from Barnes' novel. In the account of this love affair, Tell it Slant offers us its most poetic passages. We revel in the pleasures of these lovers who "picnicked between sheets, between thighs" and we feel Nora's pain at Robin's frequent betrayals. "You drink from each other every day. And then one day she wants to stop you from pouring all your self into her one glass". Robin explains herself saying that she loves Nora but is simply "like this"¨not monogamous, in need of other lovers. So often, love is "like this"¨perfect and sustained in moments yet limited in some seemingly insurmountable way.
Nora's relationship with her mother, Myra, is a key to her sexuality. Myra, described as beautiful, "like a picture," lies with Nora among the magnolias when she is young. Later, when Nora meets Robin, she associates her lover's flesh with magnolia buds and her breasts with apples in images that echo the earlier experience of her mother in her much-loved garden. The mother is also a source of repression. "I am wearing the secrets Myra gave me," says Nora. Later, her aunt Muriel tells her: "(E)veryone needs their little secretsÓThere isn't a soul who hasn't had to learn how to undress little white lies." One thinks of Adrienne Rich's influential book On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (Norton 1979) as one probes the truths in Follett's novel. In an essay called "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (1975)", Rich writes: "Lying is done with words, and also with silence."
The title of Follet's novel comes from Emily Dickinson who believed that the truth often emerges through "circuitous means". The literary context of this novel makes its truths more telling. Nora, a young woman in search of the truth, unravels the secrets and hypocrisies of her own family, and then wisely decides to conceal these from family members. Beth Follett's novel sets those truths out for us, the fortunate readers. ˛