Scribe by Alyson Hagy
Alyson Hagy’s Scribe is a strange creature, a mutant hybrid of dystopian fiction and fireside lore. In a land ravaged by disease and strife, one woman survives by trading her ability to write for local wares. Townspeople and travelers would hire her to listen to their tales of desperation and she would give them a letter in return. Her scripture would be the record of a story shared, and to some it would absolve the sins of their confession. It’s “about laying out the language of all you’ve done or failed to do,” she explains, “all you’ve said or failed to say, in front of another person.”
At only 150 pages, Scribe is a tightly-wrought, harrowing vision. It’s a future that could just as easily be a distant, alternate past, where men and women’s stories are all that keep them alive. Hagy’s prose is perfectly cruel, her palette tinted with hues borrowed from William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy at their most dismal. In one scene towards the end of the novella, the protagonist is plagued with visions and sickness: “when she tried to vomit, all that came forth was a wind that tasted of bats and their crowded caves.” Scribe is full of beautiful bleakness like this: Hagy is a remarkably sharp conjurer, capable of gloriously dark sentences that land like black magic.
When Scribe opens, the eponymous writer is visited by a man named Hendricks. “What he wanted was the hardest thing,” Hagy writes. “He wanted a letter in the declarative style, and he wanted to be with her… while she wrote it. Then he wanted…her to memorize the letter before the pair of them destroyed it forever…. He wanted her to speak its words aloud in the presence of the person who needed to hear them most.” Outside her house, a camp of travelers called The Uninvited have erected a tent city. Nearby, a local family roils with aggression towards the writer and her suspicious craft. Threading between these neighboring troubles, the writer commits to working with Hendricks and freeing him of the darkness at the root of his story.
As the novella unfolds, Hagy develops the writer’s past and recounts the loss of her sister, whose presence may be haunting her as she works through Hendricks’ assignment. While already a hazy work of fiction, Scribe tumbles further into the realm of the unreal: Hagy’s prose grows increasingly disjointed and nonlinear, effectively mirroring the madness that permeates the land. Whether the story makes a logical sort of sense is ultimately beside the point; Hagy’s fevered prose is a transportive awakening, more thematically effective than it is in turning plot.
Scraping away Scribe’s topsoil reveals a powerful allegory. Hagy’s story may have all the hallmarks of an edgy literary gothic, but underneath its desolation is a work about the power of storytelling and how one’s stories are essentially representative of their entire existence. The confessions that the scribe absorbs are proof that a person has survived — lived to tell the tale, so to speak. Pairing this existential power with the quietly political subtext of The Uninvited and the conflicts across the border transforms Scribe into an unexpectedly timely folktale. Not only does Hagy preach the power of storytelling, she simultaneously places that power into the minds of the listener. Listeners, Hagy posits, have a obligation to reflect and better themselves in response to what they read or hear. “It was all a writer could do,” Hagy explains, “lay out the consequences of a person’s choices.”