A letter to the reader of NORMA, by Sarah Mintz

Dear Reader,

I’d like to contextualize my book NORMA a little bit.

NORMA came out of handwringers, a book of flash fiction published with Radiant Press in 2021. handwringers was, at least in part, a research project about my Ashkenazi ancestry, and the little I knew about it met with popular instantiations of that culture as seen on TV and in books. To fill out my gaps in knowledge, and out of a curiosity akin to uncovering buried family secrets, I read a lot of Jewish folklore, particularly that sourced by Nathan Ausubel and Dan Ben-Amos. Through essays, introductions, footnotes, and lectures, I followed the emergence of Ashkenazi secularism, and the subsequent entry by many Jews into European, American, and Canadian culture after the Haskalah in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Writers like Amy Levy, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Nathaneal West, Stanley Elkin, and Max Apple helped create a kind of literary lineage companion guide to a changing Ashkenazi culture.

Elkin is a particularly relevant influence for the purpose of contextualizing NORMA. Elkin didn’t think of himself as a Jewish writer. As William H. Gass recounts, “[Elkin] hated being called a Jewish novelist, although a lot of his themes were Jewish.” While author Maurice Charney identifies that Elkin’s “Jewish themes” were those of “Jewish black humor,” a style that is “grotesque, exhibitionistic, and obsessive.”

So for me, there’s something there. Jewish not-Jewish. A distinct propensity towards the grotesque, exhibitionistic, and obsessive. A thread of the wisemen of Chelm at best, an indulgence in a kind of Panizza-ian Operated Jew bubbling, loathing antisemitism at worst.

One of Elkin’s Jewish-not-Jewish novella’s most relevant to the NORMA question, is The Bailbonds- man. It’s a book about work, or a socioliterary look at what people do, and what they become. I thought the book was brilliant, if not awful, if not touched and utterly inaccessible. Moved, I was.

In the late ’70s, literary theorist Alan Wilde used the novella, as well as works by Max Apple and Donald Barthelme to define a new category of fiction as he saw it: midfiction. Not metafiction, not concerned primarily or exclusively with the act of writing, not entirely self-conscious, and not an attempt at “ordering coercions of the artist’s subjectivity.” Midfiction reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary and creates out of dailiness, parable—concerned not with the world (as in realism), but our connection to it. Imagine the trope of an alien encountering an earthling doing something ordinary that without the context of history and emergent interrelated processes, seems asinine. Like an unsympathetic Grey, midfiction uses a parable-like illustrative story structure to reveal underlying oddities and perversions.

When thinking about the absurdities of daily life in contemporary society, for concrete examples, one need only go online. The absurdity then, becomes so vast and nauseating that one needs, perhaps, a guide through the inferno.

How I hit upon Marshall McLuhan is a mystery. Something in the zeitgeist, an urge or impression that I ought to pick up a copy of Understanding Media led me to the man Playboy once called “the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media.” McLuhan’s framework of the technological- ly extended man in Understanding Media, is a metaphor or series of metaphorst hat are largely concerned with the extension of our physical processes and the dislocating effects that physical extension has on our psyche. Following McLuhan’s metaphorical extensions into an age in which he’s unable to assess, I wanted to consider online relationships, and thus, often, generally, or at least not uncommonly, parasocial relationships, in which our avatars or technologically extended psyches are no longer restricted by the single-sided technological models (television, film, radio, literature). I wanted to think about an age in which the self is manifestly divided not only by phys- ical and digital space but by the spaces within the digital space.

The McLuhian mythology of a sense-ratio disrupted by technology, in NORMA, becomes a probe into the psychic prosthesis proferred by the internet. Norma inhabits a world in which the self is manifestly divided: her psychic prosthesis is fragmented.

So there you have it, Reader, an old woman on the internet becomes a grotesque, exhibitionistic, and obsessive midfictional probe into the psychically fracturing effects of parasocial relationships.

— smintz

Sarah Mintz is a graduate of the English MA program at the University of Regina. Her work has been published with Book*Hug Press, JackPine Press, Apocalypse ConfidentialThe Sea & Cedar Literary Magazine, and Agnes and True. Her flash fiction collection handwringers was published with Radiant Press. Her debut novel, NORMA, is forthcoming with Invisible Publishing (2024). Find out more at www.smintz.carrd.co.