Title: Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Roundfire Books (Winchester, UK and Washington, USA)
Year of Publication: 2016
Number of Pages: 272
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters
Gilda Trillim is a novel of ideas with a terrific protagonist, an astonishing set of events and incidents, and a delightfully innovative structural premise. The frame story: Kattrim G. Mender, tending sheep for a month on the family’s ranch in the La Sal Mountains of southeastern Utah, has written a master’s thesis on the writer (and badminton player, world traveler, teacher of writing, mystic, and so much more) Gilda Trillim for the School of Esoteric Literature, a program in the Mervin Peake Online University of the Arts and Science[s?]. This is in 2019. Mender (note the symbolism of the name—note the potential symbolism of all the names in this novel) was introduced to the subject of his thesis by his mother, he tells us in the preface, but helped along in his interest by his mentor Mary Locken, who knew that, like Gilda, Kattrim is/was Mormon and, like Gilda, lived in, or came from, the LaSals.
We get our first taste of this “esoteric” writer after eight pages of descriptive generalization: “Current trends have viewed her work as possibility generating literature….she was writing a kind of redemption in which the ‘saving’ comes from embracing both the strange format and the words offered” (8). Anyone familiar with the language of literary criticism will find this familiar, mildly irritating, and also enticing: so when do we get to see what she wrote? When do we get to see what Kattrim G. Mender has discovered about this writer?
That’s the rest of the book.
Twenty-three “vignettes” offer pieces of the multi-layered, multi-dimensional human being that was Gilda Trillim. (She’s dead now; one of the vignettes is the story of her tragic [???] death.) Some vignettes are longer than others. All have footnotes—some of these are also longer than others, and many of them refer to real-world texts, while many of them do not. It’s part of the fun to decide which is which—not that it matters, really, in the unfolding of the fragmented, incompletable plot.
Mender’s dilemma is that there are documents (Gilda’s own spotty letters and journal entries) that seem to reveal Gilda’s formidable and paradoxical mind, and documents by others (friends, especially Babs Lake; critics; skeptics) that contradict or question. Who was she? Was she mad? How are her books to be taken? What is to be made of her? This is Mender’s quest. He can’t come to any definitive answers—don’t look for those. (Spoiler—sorry!) All he can do—all any of us can do, ever, right?—is assemble the vignettes he’s found and lay them out in an order that might have some meaning.
Which is where the ideas come in. Because Gilda is inveterately curious, and she wants to know the why and wherefore of everything. A world champion badminton player; a literary artist seeking after metaphors she cannot find (“everything is like nothing,” p. 16); a world traveler; a child of more-or-less orthodox Mormons who can’t help questioning the universe (“what if the eternities are open? What if there is no set eternity to which we are heading?” p. 22); a prisoner of war, a hiker in Hawaii, perhaps a resident of a psychiatric hospital, but even that’s “shrouded in mystery” (p. 185); perhaps, most of all, a mystic—Gilda is many selves, always interrogating and interacting with the forces that buoy or threaten to engulf her.
Maybe she’s manic. But that’s just me—Kattrim G. Mender does not speculate about this. I wonder it, because often her letters or journal notes are full of light, even or especially when she’s contacting those forces, through experimental substances or through prayer or through extreme experience. (She loses a hand during one of these, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how. Even then, the experience is more full of light than otherwise.) Other times, though, she suffers, both mentally and physically, especially perhaps during her stay in a POW camp in VietNam. This section is painful to read, but it’s here that she becomes the “shepherdess of rats,” the goddess of a choir of rodents; it’s here she comes in contact with the Shepherdess of All.
That’s me again. Kattrim G. Mender doesn’t call her that. But Gilda’s experience is very high, very expansive; the Shepherdess comforts her in extremis and guides some of her later endeavors in inevitable ways. Gilda is in touch with the heights and the depths. She holds nothing back.
Perhaps you can see that one of the great virtues of this book is that Gilda becomes real to the reader. Strange and varied as her experiences are, the reader follows eagerly, wanting more, wanting answers. It feels as though Peck (Kattrim? Gilda?) is falling over himself (her?) to get down all that comes through in the documents. The language is sometimes uneven, academic and formal and analytical in moments, in others colloquial, intimate, vulnerable. Gilda is a poet, a lover of words, but she’s also a fact-collector, and in any one vignette Kattrim G. Mender foregrounds the trajectory from jungle hellhole to unexpected choir of transformative melodic invention, from a child’s visit to her mother’s pantry to an awareness of the souls of inanimate beings…and beyond.
Is she mad, then? manic depressive? Genius? Alone in her own world, or connected far, far beyond this small one?
Even if you read the book you won’t know. But remember this: all the best writing invites readers into great minds, and so it is with Gilda Trillim. In a blurb inside the front cover, Michael Austin observes astutely that “Gilda Trillim (but really Steven Peck) starts to answer some of the biggest questions of all…” The voluminous mind we get to follow here is Trillim’s and Peck’s, Kattrim’s and the Shepherdess’s, the speculator’s and the reader’s. Jana Reiss says in another blurb that this is “one of the best stories ever to emerge from the Mormon imagination,” and Peck himself wrote on his Facebook page, before Gilda was published, that “you’ve never read anything like it!” True statements all. We are lucky to be around for this book. Get it fast, and read it many times. You won’t get tired of it. It’s amazing.