Lily Blackburn on Earthquakes in Candyland

jennifer robin

Earthquakes in Candyland by Jennifer Robin. Fungasm Press (2019). $14.99, paperback.

Jennifer Robin’s feminist gonzo nonfiction collection, Earthquakes in Candyland, is a series of disruptions; from essay to micro-flash, Robin takes the position of an intimate journalist, combining observation and interviews with poetic vignettes and philosophical inquiry that push us to question ourselves and our role as humans.

Many of the longer pieces in the book follow in the style of Robin’s statement in the story “Oxy’s Midnight Runners”: “I’m here to hear stories,” she says to her interview subjects on a trip to New Orleans, “I’m sick of telling mine.”

Anaïs Nin, an influence of Robin’s once said, “We write to taste life twice.” It could be said that Robin’s book is a result of tasting life twice to illuminate meaning and experience in her work, and the result is deeply personal, blunt and empathetic.

What Robin calls “fissures in the illusion,” these essays, flashes, and tweet-riffs are what seep up through the cracks of the candy-coated veneer, critiquing everything from our self-obsessed technology addictions, to the criminal justice system; they are meant to provoke and also to connect.

Told from bus stops, train stations, MAX rides and sidewalk encounters, the book weaves a narrative of lives lived in transition, as if Robin took a literal road trip through a Candyland apocalypse and recorded the whole thing in her notebooks.

The 125 stories (in 315 pages) tackle both deep critique and celebration of American experience from multiple perspectives. The story “Breathe Deeply,” narrates unflinching descriptions of violence in a series of vignettes revealing a history of racism at the hands of white slave owners.  “The Tarot Reader of Troy, New York” details Robin’s hitchhiking journey across the country to visit her biological daughter in an open adoption. “Oxy’s Midnight Runners” follows a pair of New Orleans teens selling pills to make ends meet, while discussing everything from ghosts to ancestry and what it means to “have no truck.”

Later, the interviewer turns the camera on herself.

“I am trying to remember everything…as if I can retreat at a later date and like an ancient scribe add up this information on sheets of pressed goatskin and it will spell out the meaning of life. And why shouldn’t it? How much do I need to know? How much does anyone need to know?”

This is how Robin gets personal on the page, with larger questions which unexpected, intimate connections naturally stir within us, if we’re paying attention.

Her fascination with the lives of others is contagious; the army-brat turned model on the overnight Greyhound. The cam girl exchanging emojis with her clients on the night bus. Lonnie, a tattoo of a star on her cheek, touting her God-love to a man at a Portland bus stop. They are the people who challenge the norm by being unabashedly themselves.

Like literal Queen Frostines or Princess Lollys, it’s the experiences of those Robin meets on her journeys who ground the stories— symbols of hope guiding us through our own sense of American aimlessness, our search for a lost King, something to believe in.

The story “The Best Flavor” is one sentence: “If we must have mind control— what is the best flavor of mind control?”

The micro stories that break up these essays prod and expose, and feel like distilled versions of what Robin cannot let us not hear; we’re fucked, but people are beautifully complex, and our stories matter.

Lily Blackburn is a Portland based writer, an editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine and a full-time bean pharmacist (barista.) She graduated from Portland State in 2017 with her BA in English. You can find her work at Little Fictions | Big Truths, Coffee People, and Angel City Review.

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