Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reasons She Goes to the Woods, by Deborah Kay Davies

What are little girls made of? 
Sugar and spice 
And everything nice, 
That's what little girls are made of. 

Deborah Kay Davies would like to debunk that little bit of doggerel, thank you very much. Little girls, like little boys, are often horrible creatures, and we forget that and idealise them at our peril.

Pearl is not rotten through and through, of course -- that would also be too simplistic. She refers to her newly-arrived baby brother as 'The Blob', but she later protects him from their mother, who is certifiably mad. Pearl turns to her father, who doesn't cope effectively with either his wife's mental illness or his daughter's obvious Electra complex. When she's out in the woods or the hedgerow with her little friends, Pearl thinks and does things that adults don't want to attribute to nice little beings of sugar and spice.

As the novel opens, I wondered if it was going to be a tribute to a pastoral idyll. This passage alone is more than enough reason to go to the woods!
The weeping willow Pearl is riding dips its neck into a clear, brown stream. Sssshhhh, she whispers, as she pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs. Above her, the willow tosses its shaggy arms. Slim, fish-shaped leaves fall past Pearl and plop into the stream. She dangles over to watch and inhales as the slivers of green swim away; the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles. The water is a dazzling drink. Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface. Underneath, worm-thin plants all reach forwards, like hair in the wind. Pearl would love to be a stickleback, or a newt, and have the stream as her home. She climbs out of the tree and joins the tall fern-crowds running down to see the water. As she slips through they slap her with gentle, lemony hands, streaking her with juice. Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle. Insects are ticking in the undergrowth. Kingcups glow amongst the fleshy plants along the water's margin. Pearl lies down in a smooth, shallow pool. Her hair entwines with the waving plants, her skin turns to liquid, her open eyes are just-born jewels. She can feel her brown limbs dissolving. Sunlight falls in bars and spots through the trees. As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs, Pearl grins, thinking she hears laughter, and raises her arms to the just-glimpsed sky. These are some of the reasons she comes to the woods.
Pearl befriends Fee when the feckless little girl agrees to eat Pearl's offering of a mud-pie stuffed with dead insects. Her friendship with the not-so-sweet Honey also involves a lot of mud and mischief, not all of which is harmless fun.
Honey tells Pearl about the baby she used to take out. I love babies, she says, making a thumb-sized mud child and giving it to Pearl. You can do stuff with them, and they can't tell anyone. Pearl crushes the friable brown baby between her palms. Apart from with The Blob, she hadn't thought of that before. Honey puts lumps of mud on each of Pearl's toes, then flattens them out to cover her nails. Pearl shapes a huge, hanging mud nose and fits it on Honey. They stare at each other in the hedge gloom. Honey's wide smile looks odd curving out behind her rough, earth nose. We have a baby in our street, Pearl says, so they clean up and knock on the baby's door. The baby's mother is a friend of Pearl's family. Keep to the paths, she says, tucking a blanket in. We promise, they say. Inside the buggy the pink baby is propped up on a frilly pillow. Pearl and Honey take turns to push. Soon they come to a stile in the hedge. I know, says Pearl, we could easily get this thing over. They manage to lift the buggy up to the top bar of the stile. I'm puffed, Honey says, and sits down. Pearl thinks she can do it alone, but suddenly everything upends. The baby flies out and lands in some nettles like a knot of washing. The trees lean in and a bird trills while they stand, transfixed. Then Pearl vaults the stile, pulls the baby up by her talcy shawls and plonks her back in the righted pushchair. The baby is quivering; about to yell, covered in scarlet nettle stings and dead leaves. Its soiled bonnet is askew. Pearl and Honey hold hands; worst of all, there is a greeny-grey lump growing above the baby's right eye.
The novel follows Pearl from her early childhood through her adolescent and teen years, when her mother's mental health becomes ever more precarious. Like many children who live with a deranged family member, Pearl's intuition grows very sharp. It seems the house itself gives her signals as to what waits within.
Pearl only has to look at her front door to know how it will be inside. The oval window above the letterbox changes colour. Like an eye that's sometimes vacant, sometimes terrified, sometimes blind with rage, the bluey-green glass subtly alters. It's a language Pearl can understand. Once or twice even the brass door handle has told her things.
At once whimsical and deeply disturbing, gorgeously written and provocative, Reasons She Goes to the Woods reminds us of the wonders and the pain of childhood, giving us a new recipe for what little girls are made of.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Who are you? What defines your identity? What does your identity mean to you, or to those who suppose they know you?

I don't normally gravitate toward novels in which characters, either by identity theft or some other form of legerdemain, simply become someone else on page 157.  I also have limited tolerance for unreliable narrators who reveal halfway through the novel that I shouldn't believe some or all of what they're telling me.

On that basis, I should have loathed Await Your Reply. With three story lines slowly converging, inherently untrustworthy characters (fraudulent, schizophrenic, stoned, Russian or overly gullible), this novel had all the ingredients for a jumbled mess. Dan Chaon, though, strikes me as a deft puppeteer who manages to keep the strings untangled and to move his characters through the story well enough to keep the reader engaged and not hopelessly confused.

In one of the story lines, Miles has been searching for years for his brilliant and schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, who has been teasing him with letters and emails that fuel a continual goose-chase across North America. When Miles arrives in a remote corner of Canada's northwest territories, he collides with Lydia, who is also trying to track Hayden down (although she knows him by a different name) -- Lydia's sister ran off with him years before, and no one has heard from her since.  As the two seekers sit in a bar, Lydia asks the question that's perhaps most central to the whole novel.
"But who just abandons their family in that way? What kind of person decides that they can throw everything away and -- reinvent themselves. As if you could just discard the parts of your life that you didn't want anymore. Sometimes I think, well, that's where we are now, as a society. That's just what people have become, these days. We don't value connection."
Ryan left college -- from which he was about to flunk out, anyway -- to meet his uncle, Jay, for the first time. Jay had just revealed a family secret:  He is Ryan's biological father. Ryan joins his new-found parent in the business of on-line identity fraud.  As he is travelling about the country and shifting money between misappropriated accounts, Ryan learns that the police have ruled his disappearance from the college a suicide, based upon someone thinking they saw him jumping into a frozen lake on campus. So, while taking steps to establish various aliases as part of their scam, Ryan tries to come to grips with the fact that his own identity has been declared dead, and not by his choice.
Sometimes Ryan imagined that he saw people from his past. Ever since his death, this had become a regular occurrence, these minor hallucinations, tricks of perception.
In the third story line, 17 year-old Lucy takes off from her mid-western home-town with school teacher George Orson, a charismatic, Ivy-league educated, Maserati-driving man who claims to find the teen-aged girl irresistably 'sui generis'.  Their relationship is odd -- while George Orson is clearly deceiving Lucy about his own background, he appears to genuinely care for her, and he treats her solicitously; Lucy seems alternately ordinary, savvy, gullible, and worldly. The two of them land in a house in Nebraska which George claims to have been his childhood home. They will stay there only a short while, he says, while he gets his "investments" in order before they move on to a stylish life in Europe. Italy, maybe. Their time in Nebraska, however, draws on longer than Lucy had expected, and George seems increasingly nervous. Finally, he announces that they will need to assume new identities and will be flying to Côte d'Ivoire so he can tie up a few loose ends of whatever dodgy business he's in.  As Lucy chafes uncomfortably in her new identity as the daughter of  "David Fremden", she begins to grasp that very little about her companion is as he'd claimed. She doesn't enjoy that sort of fluidity; he revels in it.
"That isn't really the house that you grew up in, is it?" she said, and her voice felt pressed flat as well. "The Lighthouse. All of the stuff you told me. That painting. That wasn't your grandmother."
"Hmm," he said, and he lifted his fingers from her thigh to gesture vaguely, an apologetic fluttering movement. "This is complicated," he said ruefully. "It always comes to this," he said. "Everyone gets so hung up on what's real and not real."
"Yeah," Lucy said. "People are funny that way."
 But George Orson only shook his head, as if she didn't get it. "This may sound unbelievable to you," he said, "but the truth is, a part of me truly did grow up there. There isn't just one version of the past, you know. Maybe that seems crazy, but eventually, after we've done this for a while, I think you'll see. We can be anybody we want. Do you realize that? And that's all it comes down to," he said. "I loved being George Orson. I put a lot of thought and energy into it, and it wasn't fake. I wasn't trying to fool you. I did it because I liked it. Because it made me happy."
In an almost believable display of earnest affection, George/David confesses his love for Lucy.
"And," he said, "I met you. I met you, and we fell in love, didn't we? Don't you understand, honey? You're the only person in the world I've ever been able to talk to. You're the only person in the world who loves me." 
Of course one wonders (and we can only assume that Lucy is doing likewise), with whom did she fall in love? With whom has she been talking?
And now she thought it again as she sat in her seat next to David Fremden on the airplane and tried to compose her thoughts. She missed George Orson. She would never talk to him again.
Lucy recalls a moment in George Orson's classroom in which he might have revealed something of himself in the guise of a logic lesson -- and her response to it.
'I never tell the truth', he told the class, was a version of the famous Epimenides paradox, and then he explained what a paradox was, and Lucy had written it down, thinking that it might be on a test, possibly she could get extra credit.
As she sits in a cafe in Côte d'Ivoire, however, her stylish new clothes and hairstyle chosen to match her latest assumed identity, Lucy considers that she may or may not stay with her former high school teacher and simultaneously realises that her own identity has become more mutable.
Perhaps he imagined she would remain the same person on the inside, no matter what name or persona she adopted. But that wasn't true, she thought. More and more, she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her -- a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother's drawer back in the old house, her high school transcript resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister, Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading. The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.
The three story lines converge completely only in the final chapter, which brings the book to a satisfying close, but the questions about identity -- our own, others' -- continue to linger and disturb. Really, who are you?  

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

Not long after Peter Mathiessen's death on 5 April of this year, I heard a re-broadcast of a radio interview
with him.  He spoke of his early experimentation with LSD, which led him to realise that it was not going to deliver any long-term enlightenment. He gave up psychodelics for Zen Buddhism and began a lifelong practice of meditation. During that interview, he made a passing mention of  In Paradise, his novel about a meditation and prayer retreat at Auschwitz in the mid-1990s. (Mathiessen had in fact attended three Zen retreats there.) He died three days before the novel's official publication.

After labouring through the Mr. Watson trilogy, which I felt was about two books longer than was really necessary, I had some qualms about picking up this novel, but they were misguided. Mathiessen did not grow successively more prolix with each of his books; In Paradise is as lean and spare as its author, yet far from insubstantial.

In the NY Times Review of Books, Donna Rifkind writes that the novel is "so suffused with qualms about its legitimacy that it stifles its own anguish" and complains that the narrator's unresolved bafflement will frustrate readers. My response to that? Rubbish! Who expects Peter Mathiessen to write a novel about a mixed-faith gathering at Auschwitz in a tidy, plastic James Patterson package?  I don't think for a minute that Matthiessen had qualms about the novel's legitimacy, nor do I feel that the book stifled anything at all:  like any skilled meditator, Mathiessen watched what arose at the retreat, observed the jumble of emotions, noted them, and let them pass. He neither stifled nor amplified them. Yes, reading this novel is discomfiting. As it should be.

Clements Olin is a Polish-American academician come for the retreat although he has not registered as a participant. He has come, he says, to do research. A couple of teen-agers in Oswiecim find him waiting for transportation and graciously offer to show him their town and then drive him out to his destination. Although their warmth, good cheer and hospitality touch him, Olin cannot stop himself when he realises they are oblivious to the dark history of the place. He knows he's being rude and abusive, but their ignorance is more than he can bear.
Leaning forward to be heard over the auto's clatter, he asks Mirek and Wanda if they knew that prewar Oswiecim had been a mostly Jewish community renowned for its hospitality: its name, he has read, may derive from a Yiddish word meaning 'guests.' ...
After Oswiecim's Jews were transported to the Cracow ghetto, their houses were occupied by Christians, that snoop's forebears doubtless among them. And the girl's family, too, perhaps, in their old "Yittish" house. Were you young people never told, he says, that after the war, when those few returning refugees made their way back home to Poland to reclaim their lives, they were reviled and driven off and sometimes bludgeoned and occasionally, when too persistent, killed? "Nearly two thousand Jews were murdered in this country after the war," he says. "Didn't you know that?"
"Murtered?" They have stopped their fooling. They look shocked -- less by the statistic, he suspects, than by their passenger's intensity. "No, sir! Sorry! We were never learned such things!" ...
In a voice gone hoarse, the passenger inquires, "How do you feel? Being here, I mean? How does it feel to come to such a place? In your own country?" The young Poles exchange looks of alarm. Why would their guest ask them such a thing so many years after those shrouded times that even the old people claim they can scarcely remember? He presses them. Hadn't they noticed that old railway embedded in the road? Surely they knew that before those first transports of Jews arrived from western Europe, thousands of Polish prisoners had already been exterminated in this place -- your own damned people, boys and girls, he wants to yell, right here behind these walls! Wake up! When they answer at last, they speak in whispers. They say, It was too long ago. They say, We cannot even imagine it. They say, We don't know how to think about something so incredible -- not, he notes, "so terrible" but "so incredible," so far beyond belief, as if no sane intelligence could comprehend, far less accept, that such enormous horror could take place in this quiet neighborhood of the girl's hometown. She is sniffling.
The teen-aged Poles unceremoniously drop Olin at the gates and speed away, leaving him to walk into the camp and meet the retreat leader, Ben Lama, and the very mixed group assembled there. Why are they there? That's not easily answered.
Auschwitz I, with its upstairs museum, is all most visitors, descending for a quick half day from their round-trip charter bus from Cracow, might feel inclined to see; he imagines them reeling back aboard, undone by so much evidence of huge cold crimes. But Ben Lama's would-be witness bearers are no tourists, and neither are they Holocaust voyeurs come to indulge a morbid curiosity; most seem to be here on painful missions incompletely understood, by themselves perhaps least of all.
I've never visited Auschwitz. I live in southeast Asia, however, and I've visited the memorial sites dedicated to the slaughter of millions of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge years. Like nearly every other visitor to these sites, I've spent a few hours there and come away feeling horrified. An alternative, Mathiessen suggests, is to stay longer, to "sit with it".
One shocked woman has collapsed and must be helped back to her room, but she soon sends word that she intends to see this through: she will not retreat to Cracow and fly home. "That's the choice," Ben Lama comments publicly at the noon meal. "We pass through quickly, sickened and depressed, or we stay for days and sit with it in meditation; we immerse ourselves and are transformed."
Some of the retreatants are German Christians; others are Israeli Jews. Unsurprisingly, hostilities between them flare quickly. Someone suggests that many "ordinary Germans" participated in the persecutions under duress. Assessing guilt is a tricky business, unless the accused revels in his deeds.
Like perpetrators of atrocities worldwide, Rudolf Hoess would lay all blame on his superiors, describing himself as "a normal person overcome by a ruthless concept of obedience." This appraisal of his own character seems almost rational when compared to the vainglory of Adolf Eichmann, for whom the knowledge that he helped consign five million Jewish human beings to their deaths was a source of "extraordinary satisfaction."
"I shall leap into my grave laughing," Eichmann said. ...
Then again, the 'normal person overcome by the ruthless concept of obedience' doesn't appear to have suffered many misgivings.
"My family, to be sure, were well-provided for here in Auschwitz," Hoess would write. "Every wish expressed by my wife or children was granted them. The children could live a free and untrammeled life. My wife's garden was a paradise of flowers." The Hoesses and their four offspring, waited on by emaciated slaves, inhabited a brute heaven of gourmet delicacies, silks, furs, jewelry, and assorted loot stripped from doomed prisoners. His wife would sigh, "I want to live here till I die..."
Professor Clements Olin is a scholar, an historian. He's not a particularly spiritual man, nor is he especially receptive to supernatural phenomena. He is not, however, immune to the power of the concentration camp's history on his subconscious mind. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he seems drawn to certain spots on the Auschwitz grounds, and he grows increasingly aware that he is searching for something.
During meditation, breathing mindfully moment after moment, his awareness opens and dissolves into snow light. But out of nowhere, just as he had feared, the platform's emptiness is filled by a multitude of faceless shapes milling close around him. He feels the vibration of their footfalls.
One night after dinner, there is music, and most of the retreatants join in a spontaneous, inexplicable, almost delirious dance. Those who participated in it describe it as a sublime, transcendent experience; those who sat and observed are appalled at its inappropriateness. Olin marvels at the sense of unity, as if the dance had been a testament to the resilience of joy, and then he remarks on its transience.
... the tension dispelled by the Dancing has been seeping back. In this toxic atmosphere, good intentions are eroding like the noses of stone gargoyles on cathedral peaks.
During the course of the retreat, Olin grows close to a young, novice nun who defiantly speaks up to apologise for the complicity of the Catholic Church. His feelings for Sister Catherine are confused, veering between admiration and attraction; her own feelings for the Church aren't much clearer. She is adamant that her vocation is solid -- she is destined to serve the Lord -- but her insistence that women should be ordained as priests has already earned her a probationary status. The priest sent to oversee her at the retreat is not unsympathetic, but he too is confined by "a ruthless concept of obedience", albeit to a different authority than Rudolph Hoess.
Catherine is over-educated for a novice, he tells Olin, and a little willful -- a bit deficient in Christian humility, some would say. And when she discovers that advocacy of women's ordination may be reclassified as delicta graviora, 'a grave sin against the Church,' in the same category as the rape of children ...
"My God," says Olin. "That's grotesque! Insane!"
"Yes, it is," says the priest. "The Vatican has gone insane."
Olin does leave the retreat a transformed man, probably much more so than he would have predicted, and he is far from understanding the nature and implications of the changes. And I can say the same for myself as this book's reader. I set it down with a certain sense of bafflement, to use Donna Rifkind's word, and I'm at peace with that. I'm willing to sit with it and see where it goes.