Habilis by Alyssa Quinn
Review by Millie Tullis
Dzanc Books, 2022
Reading Alyssa Quinn’s debut novel, Habilis, is a simultaneously lyric and psychedelic experience. The novel’s first line reflects Habilis’ dueling impulses: “The museum is a discotheque.” The setting of the museum reflects the novel’s interest in naming the past, pointing to it and organizing its contents, while the alcohol-soaked discotheque reflects the play and the plasticity of language’s relationship to experience and knowledge.
The first half of Habilis follows a young woman named Lucy as she weaves through the party and the exhibits. Habilis has no chapters but is composed of short sections that splice Lucy’s experiences at the discotheque with the language of the anthropology exhibits. Before long the stuff in the exhibits—the bones themselves—begin to enter the party, and Lucy’s narrative, in troubling and disruptive ways. What at first seems to be a braided form—smoothly moving between the exhibits and Lucy’s narrative—rapidly begins to bleed and blend.
As Lucy struggles to make her way through the anthropology museum, moving toward the mysterious center exhibit, the novel becomes increasingly focused on the idea of language. The exhibits begin to examine and question the origin and nature of language, while Lucy’s grasp on her own language begins to fail. Simultaneously, the novel questions what it means to search for an origin story. Found on a train as a small child, Lucy does not know where she came from, or even who gave her that name: “No one has given her any mythology to go along with this name, so in her head, she keeps a list of other Lucys…. What happens when two things share the same name? What is a name that does not point? These are not questions that concern her. Her name is porous; she clings to it anyway.” While Lucy wonders about her own origins, she moves deeper into the museum whose exhibits try to tell the collective origin story of her species.
The title takes its name from Homo habilis, a species of early human whose name means “handy man.” When British anthropologist Mary Leaky and her husband Louis discovered Homo habilis, a new branch in the evolutionary chart was made. Quinn makes this historical and scientific moment, new information being added to the tree of evolution (and the story humans tell about our past), into a powerful image: “This fierce marginalia, the tree with its slashes and scars, its battered fruit—all inquire, What makes a species? The answer is neither evolution nor God. The answer is: middle-aged men in crumpled white shirts and loosened ties.” The answer is the endless language they employ: “habilis, rudolfensis, gautengensis…”
One of the first exhibits introduced in the novel, “Olduvai Hominid 7,” or OH 7 for short, is part of this early Habilis species. In the museum exhibit, OH 7 is reduced to “a fragmented lower mandible with thirteen teeth, isolated maxillary molar, two parietal bones, and twenty-one finger, hand, and wrist bones.” But he is also imagined as he was— “a boy. Twelve. Maybe thirteen. Look closely…. He chases an egret, wings sheer against a pink shock of sky.” Later, a female Homo habilis Lucy sees in the bathroom at the party is revealed to be the mother of young OH 7. When she is reunited with OH 7, a small, clicking pile of floating bones, she mourns over her young dead son. Her cry is “a shrieking…. Wordless. Look. There, in the middle of the dance floor, the female Homo habilis on her knees. Knees—moans—bellows. On the floor the emptiness is shaped like the body of a child. She reaches for what isn’t there.” Later Quinn reminds us that “what is lost always forms the boundary of what is.”
The second half of the novel cuts through time to follow the lives of anthropologist Mary Leakey, a mysterious “I” working and losing herself in the dark basement of a British archive, and Sukhjinder, an indentured worker on the Uganda Railway. Unlike the first half of the novel, these narratives are separated with very little white space on the page. By closely weaving these narratives together, Quinn shows history as layers of stories, impacting each other as they unfold simultaneously. As the novel progresses, Quinn gradually excavates the tight knot that connects these narrative threads, illustrating the interconnectedness of history and power, science and colonialism, language and its limitations.
Anti-colonial in its critique of human’s search for origins, Alyssa Quinn’s novel is startlingly strange, fresh, and unforgettable. Writers interested in our everyday material—language—will be fascinated by Quinn’s exploration of what it means to be human, what it means to tell stories about our origins, and what it means to use language to do so. For instance, the “EXHIBIT: ANTELOPE MATEPODIAL BONE,” considers what it means “To point. To point is not to grasp. It is to say: This. This. This. To substitute gesture for meat, for marrow, for blood. To posit a mind not your own, a gaze not your own. It is to become, suddenly, human.”
In a short Q&A with the good folks at Gingerbread House Literary Magazine a few years ago, Quinn described her fascination with the Tower of Babel story (you can read her short piece “Babel” in our archives). Quinn explains: “Babel is the archetypal story about misunderstanding and the failure of language, which are core concerns in my work. The thing against which I’m writing is almost always loneliness and solipsism—the fear that we are trapped irrevocably inside our skulls, and that true intimacy, true communication, is impossible.” While language frequently fails, “Sometimes, miraculously, it succeeds…. Babel may be the place where language falls short. But perhaps it is also the place language learns to play.” In Habilis, Quinn treats the failures and successes of language as a space of creative possibility. In Quinn’s expertly woven novel, the limitations of language serve as a productive starting point, never a dead end.
Millie Tullis is a poet and folklorist from Northern Utah. She received an MFA from George Mason University in 2021 and is currently studying folklore at Utah State University. Her poetry has been published in Sugar House Review, Rock & Sling, Cimarron Review, Juked, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Psaltery & Lyre.
Image description: Habilis by Alyssa Quinn. The cover shows an evolutionary chart with branching species.