------------------------------------------- "Dra - " by Stacey Levine Sun & Moon Press, $11.95 -------------------------------------------
I finished "Dra -," Seattle writer Stacey Levine's horrifying yet beautifully written first novel, feeling breathless and chilled to the bone. I also was filled with admiration for a writer whose flawless prose, subtle detail, and hints at further nightmares could take me to a world I so strongly resisted.
Levine's restrained depiction of the brutality of an imagined dystopia begins with her title character. Dra - (short for drab? draconian?) is a meek, paranoid woman in need of a job, though finding work in her world is an all-consuming and miserable task. While it's true that everyone around her is employed, all jobs are mechanistic, meaningless and - literally - malignant.
Like a character from Kafka, Dra - wanders the desolate corridors of an unnamed building, stopping periodically to make fruitless phone calls in search of the elusive Employment Office and the much-anticipated job assignment she'll get from the Employment Manager, a woman of almost divine status. Dra -'s inability to choose between two pointless jobs eventually offered by the manager propels her on a pitiful journey toward the Administrator, who will determine her true career.
The Byzantine search for the Administrator highlights the timely theme of the novel: in this colorless, unforgiving country, citizens engage in an endless cycle of looking for employment, securing it, then grinding away at a variety of jobs, the whole process being tied to their identities. Without a job, an official says to Dra -, "You feel as if you've been, perhaps, blown off the face of the earth."
Everywhere she turns, Dra - encounters job seekers and workers and no one else. Phone operators ("available in so many ways") and memories of an elusive Nurse (the only person who seems to have shown her any kindness) provide Dra - scarce comfort. Hysterical confrontations between workers illustrate the paucity of other emotional outlets. As the malicious Slim, a sort of job therapist, explains: "I know my way around. . .even in the saddest of cases!"
No one in "Dra -" seems to benefit from such a frantically working public; there are no fat cats, only drones and administrators, all equally unhappy. This lack of an evil hand behind the scenes makes the novel a powerful cautionary tale as well: Dra - is caught up in capitalism run amok; there's no need to strong-arm people to produce because they have no place to go besides their jobs and no one to see besides other workers.
The novel ends with the promise of employment for Dra -. However, the Administrator first leads her to a grotesquely oblique kind of torture chamber where she meets her future. Dra-'s final vision is ours as well: It's the end of the line for these workers, and Levine has wisely obscured her last, most gruesome image until readers are ready for it. In preparation, she has given us a smart and terrifying book which we cannot ignore.
Judy Doenges teaches literature at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.