PRINT December 1994


IT’S THE BACKGROUND of Hayhook that has always fascinated me, or rather the contrast of that background—so humdrum, so silent—against the startling sacrifice at center. The photograph achieves its power through a series of contradictions, impossible companions that somehow, in this summer house, on this humid day, have become reconciled to their cohabitation. First there are the adults, torpid, hairy, and fat, lounging about in the gloom, as oblivious to the nearby martyrdom as a band of Roman centurions playing dice at the foot of the Cross. The children inhabit another world altogether, an inspired world. The smaller, standing girl looks like a cherub playing a flute. She also recalls certain plump children in Dutch painting, the broken eggs at their feet (symbolizing the loss of virginity) replaced by a snorkel. The photograph is full of oppositions; the composition has the casual quality of a snapshot, yet it’s quite stagy. The trees bracket the central action like proscenium arches. The Z framework in the door is as dramatic a flourish as the mark of Zorro. Look in the window, into what might be the kitchen, at the little hanging object that repeats, like a shadow, the figure of the hanging girl.

What people always miss are her hands. She isn’t impaled on that hook; she has it in her grip. Her ankle bracelet, her tensed arm muscles, suggest not so much a victim—or not only a victim—as a performer, a gymnast. She herself is a double figure, as is the world of the photograph—a reflection back and forth between myth and reality, adulthood and childhood, pleasure and pain. That girl isn’t only dying; or, to reverse Stevie Smith’s famous phrase, she’s not only drowning, but waving. She’s the sharpest image in the photograph, therefore the most real. But she’s also artificially lit. Nobody glows like that. Mann has dodged the negative, or let the background burn in, or set up a spotlight that illuminates not only the girl but the floor beneath her. The result is a ghost more vivid than the living. The sexuality of the girl’s pose disturbs those people who take from the photograph nothing of its muggy atmosphere, its river smell, but only the affront of her highlighted vulva.

When I first saw the photograph I’d been at work for roughly three years on my first novel. The book, I should tell you (not to get in a plug but to explain why the photograph hit me with so much force), concerns a group of boys who are mesmerized by a group of beautiful, suicidal sisters in an affluent suburb in the Midwest. For roughly a thousand days I’d been dredging up memories of adolescence and describing the obsessional, delusional yearning that boys have for girls at a time when the sexes remain most mysterious to each other. The story I came up with contained both real and mythic elements, though “mythic” was the word the reviewers used. I never thought in those terms, and the “mythic” nature of my book, its dreaminess, was simply the way things had felt to me. And that was why, when I came across Hayhook, I had such a flash of recognition. For here, in this photograph, I received confirmation, from a source entirely alien to me, from a woman and mother whose hands were plunged more deeply in life than were my own empty bachelor’s hands, of the kind of world I’d been striving to create in prose: a cloistered feminine world, poised between omnipotence and frustration, mercilessly spied on by an unseen viewer.

I’m not the only novelist who responds to Sally Mann’s work: Ann Beattie wrote the introduction to Mann’s second book, At Twelve. It’s not surprising. The enchanted time Mann creates is like the writer’s mind made visible, the childish mind that, according to Nikos Kazantzakis, the adult writer must consult in order to feel anything. What’s great about Mann’s work is her ability to present, pictorially, an interior state, a little flame of the memory of childhood. In Hayhook she presents a young girl at that charmed time before she’s become aware of her sexuality. The million eyes in the bushes are just beginning to open. The Hydra will deform the girl but hasn’t done so yet. She is caught in the last stage of an innocence that is tremendously powerful. Her life hangs in the balance. Her math scores are still high. It’s the sort of moment you look for as a writer, a single scene that contains everything.