The creation of an entirely new form of performance art—drawing from modern dance, spoken word, and architecture—provides a provocative debut novel by Kirsten Kaschock. Sleight attempts to address the ever-pervasive issue of how art should function in and respond to the tragedies of the modern world. With an array of characters depicted in lyrical, short language, the novel unfolds in traditional from, small plays, word sequences, and boxes filled with words that experiment with the novel form in a self-reflective manner, allowing further introspection.
Kaschock creates a new performance art named sleight, an art created by Antonia Bugliesi, a ballet dancer who found drawings from a 17th century Frenchman Jesuit and brought them to life with glass and wire structures, designed by architects and manipulated by dancers. Nearly a century later, a modern sleight troupe director, West, decides to revolutionize sleight, deciding that he must imply meaning into the performance in response to a couple’s murder of various nameless children. He recruits two sisters Lark and Clef, one a former and one a current sleightest, to implement this new sleight performance. The sisters must navigate their relationship to each other and their relationship to sleight, highlighting dilemmas of how art functions in today’s society.
While the beginning of the novel may be difficult to navigate, Kaschock provides ways for the reader to adjust to the novel’s abstractions and dense language with its short, direct sentences that attempt to tackle complex ideas. Footnotes provide background information for the sleight, including defining unfamiliar terms, explaining histories, and giving other necessary background information. The novel’s language reads much like a poem (Kaschock authored two poetry collections) in its musicality and rhythm. For example, during a sleight performance, the writer of the troupe describes it “As if they were all just masks with nothing behind, or else wreckage. …He was dumb, although the words came and hung from him like a noose. He tried to offer the audience this same terrible stillness.” This tension in art permeates these artists as they try to grasp the art they continue to perform.
Sleight questions underlying notions of meaning and meaninglessness in art through its complicated nature, but it does not become the most challenging aspect of the novel. Lark, the former sleighest who is married with a child, speaks about ridding herself of her “Needs” by crushing them into powder. In a conversation with a writer for the troupe, she attempts to explain a Need, saying “‘Desire is what I do. A Need does desire to me.’” Lark then paints wood knots with a paint derived from the powder and calls them “Souls.” A few moments in the novel imply that these souls belong to some of the artists yet are owned by others. By transforming the unseen into the real, concepts become an unsettling reality. Always disorienting yet fascinating to watch unfold, Sleight provides a deep examination of art and those who engage with its ever-shifting presence.