Our Commutual Mea Culpa

Our Commutual Mea CulpaI have a thing for forgeries. Well, not forgeries at large, but wolves in sheepskins. The kind of writing that makes you complicit in its lie, that comes off the page and has to sell itself to you as more than the object presented. The Coen Brothers film Fargo does this beautifully with its “based on a true story” assertion, or Arthur Phillips’ novel The Tragedy of Arthur, which gives you the story of how the author came into possession of the final work of Shakespeare, followed by the forged play.

Clad in such sheepskins is Chanelle Benz’s Our Commutual Mea Culpa. I’d like to call it a novella, a short novella, but it’s its own thing. Released by The Cupboard Pamphlet, it fits into the frequently hybrid structures that they publish, both intra- and extra-textually. They publish short works of narrative writing in beautifully designed, pocket-sized editions. This book, it asserts, is primarily known outside the U.S. as “Adela” and was originally published in 1829, and was later released as “Red Casket of the Heart.” While it formally has an anonymous author, it appears to have been co-written by a small group of children, years after the incident they describe. The children are, collectively, the protagonist, telling the story of their commutual mea culpa, of their relationship with Adela, an aging local woman, entering “spinsterhood,” with moderately hermetic tendencies who isn’t quite despised or shunned by the community, though the neighbors are wary. They aren’t sure what to make of her, and the children’s parents don’t love that they want to hang around her so much. The children love Adela, and upon learning of what they perceive to be her great lost love, they take it upon themselves to right this cosmic wrong. Much in the manner of the contemporaries of the anonymous author it poses as a story of romance, a comedy of errors. But where Benz — our true author — takes us is some place far darker.

Clad with footnotes to aid the author’s ruse and to lend the text historical accuracy, we see the children take steps to bring Adela’s “lost love” Percy back to her through a series of well-meaning deceptions. After overhearing Adela talk of Percy they commence to launch what they call “a bad plan. A wicked plan.” They continue, “We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.” Percy plays her Peter to Adela’s Clarissa Dalloway. And while there are similarities in such a comparison — in the past lover’s disappearance, the chronological structure of lives — Benz takes us to darker territory, showing that not all love lost is love missed. And as things turn darker and darker, we see things atypical of this era, a sense of doom so heavy it feels almost shocking, for I was so immersed in the story I momentarily forgot that this was not completed in 1829. It turns, in a moment, from Jane Austen to Turn of the Screw as the children hit that fork in the road during a plan where you can turn back, and instead they decide to double down as the oldest among them stands above the rest and declares, “We must needs rally! Each of us must take a blood vow to help Adela no matter what the twist!”

And that’s it, Our Commutual Mea Culpa is a twisting tale that plays off Brontë, but becomes something far more. It’s a great addition to The Cupboard Pamphlet catalogue, which is itself a hidden gem of the small press world. It’s a haven for short writing that gives the proper space and flexibility to stories that may not otherwise have that stage.

(Also, check out their last release Lorraine Nelson: A Biography in Post-It Notes by David Hawkins.)

Read an excerpt from Our Commutual Mea Culpa.


Dustin Nelson Dustin Luke Nelson

Dustin Luke Nelson is the author of the forthcoming collection "in the office hours of the polar vortex" (Robocup, 2015) and the chapbook "Abraham Lincoln" (Mondo Bummer, 2013). His 90-minute performance film "STRIKE TWO" debuted with Gauss PDF in April and his performance piece "Applause" debuted at the Walker Art Center's Open Field in June. His poems have or will appear in the Greying Ghost Pamphlet Series, Fence Magazine, Paper Darts, Opium, 3:AM, the Nervous Breakdown, and elsewhere. His digital self is housed at dustinlukenelson.com.

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