Reading "The Woman in Charge of Sensation" by Dawn Raffel
Shya Scanlon

Dawn Raffel, author of the novel Carrying the Body and the short story collection In The Year of Long Division, would seem to be a master of concealment. Her fiction is the site of conflicting urges -- on the one hand to tell a story, and on the other to bind and bury the very tools with which the story can most easily be told. Sentences without an obvious object are frequent, and ambiguous subjects come and go, daring the reader to make an assumption about them, only then to upset expectations, shift perspective, and disappear behind other elements of the text. Put simply, the reader often does not know what is actually happening. This conflict, however, while obscuring those elements of the "story" which the reader often expects to be directly provided, reveals in their stead a much larger picture about the world in which the action takes place. The reader, despite gaps in clear understanding, has an emotional, even ethical response to the text. The world it describes -- often violent, grotesque, and confusing -- evokes, despite its apparent strangeness, something quite familiar and real.
In her flash fiction piece published in the 2004 edition of NOON, "The Woman In Charge Of Sensation," Raffel uses a small set of delicate elements to weave her narrative, and she seems almost reluctant to use even those. It is as though her text longs to be freed from any referent whatsoever, to portray mood and complexity in an abstract, musical manner. Yet this is only one side of the struggle. Her particulars are pointed, and surreptitiously add a dimension of humanity to the story that could not be achieved through mere abstraction. "The Woman in Charge of Sensation" reveals a rich and complicated landscape where issues of power, body, pain, and identity are shown to be intricately connected, albeit unharmonious. There are no proper names; there is no explicit location given; there is no citation of historical timeframe; there is, finally, no "key" to easily decoding the events and utterances within the text. But there is pain, anxiety, and intimacy. And from the first sentence on, the reader is compelled to piece together the context giving rise to this emotion.
"She asked me just to use the cloth in places in between again," the story begins. Without introducing the narrator, or the person asking something of the narrator, this sentence is cryptic: what cloth? In between what? But we are not told then, nor are we ever told explicitly. Here, as throughout most of this story, there is only the almost child-like rhythm of the language to draw us in: it is simple and awkward, like someone who doesn't use it for much, or hasn't used it for long. Nonetheless, over the course of the story, the reader learns some things from this voice: that there is a woman in a hospital who is severely physically damaged (broken); that her condition is reviewed by experts; that she is attended to in some capacity by the narrator; that she interacts with the titular "woman in charge of sensation;" and that, finally, she dies. But the action unfolds in short bursts, not as a continual stream. Raffel allows her characters to speak in either incomplete sentences -- "The phone off the hook," "Look at" -- or else in reference to things not described -- "Can't you turn it down?"; "Easy does it with that." -- both requiring the reader to meet Raffel halfway, to imagine for himself an environment in which such action could take place, and look at it as though already familiar with the room's constituent items, obviating the need therefore to discuss details outside of the narrator's immediate attention, yet unconsciously in tune with same.
In fact, the only "props" -- outside of the patient's body -- used by the author to convey the space in which the story takes place are as follows: a cloth, an atomizer, pillows, balls of wool, a throw, draped sheets, a drip, and a button. As the narrative unfolds, these props become stones the reader must use to leap across the story, from the worried diagnosis of the unnamed doctors to the fateful statement advising moderate use of the "button," soon after which the woman dies. The reader encounters these objects and rests a moment on them as the rest of the story flows by underfoot, changing with each read as only unexpected, awkward things can. The reader wonders what sort of person, for instance, would taste the fluid leaking out of a person, and what, furthermore, the narrator's relationship is with the woman, if "not next of kin." The reader is dared to judge. Just as injustice seems to be just under the surface of the expert review of the patient's condition early in the narrative, the narrator's possible pathos (almost) prevents a sympathetic response in the end. What are his/her motives, we seem almost to demand, as though we may in fact be the sole representative voice of moral authority in the equation. And so? And what if we are? What can we do? We feel, finally, a helplessness much like the narrator's, and are forced therefore to consider what motivations led us to read to the end of even this brief account of something so dark and unsettling. Perhaps our moral compass has led us off course. Perhaps we are not so different.
The anxious world Dawn Raffel invites us to visit can be unsettling, but there is nonetheless a sense of familiarity evoked by story. How little one knows, truly, about the various forces at work toward the end of a life, whether that end be natural or unnatural. How little one knows, likewise, of the internal emotional mechanics at work while playing audience to these forces. The reader, much like the story's narrator, must close the gaps on his own. In "The Woman In Charge Of Sensation," Dawn Raffel gives us a narrator coming into contact with the mysteries of the body, and the dark art of attending to it. During the moments leading up to death, as the implied violence behind its final arrival seeps from the failing body, the fact that unknown people will be doing unknowable things is simply to be accepted. So too that emotion and mood obscure details while the mind, in its effort to make sense of this experience, grabs hold of what it can and refuses to let go. Even after the reader understands that a death has occurred, he is not told what the death means, nor why it has happened. It is exactly the ambiguous quality of this story, and Dawn Raffel's work in general, that despite its strangeness makes it so powerfully real.