About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

#2 - The Lacuna

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: Harper, 2009)

Jacket Summary: "Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico -- from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City -- Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Leo Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

"Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach -- the lacuna -- between truth and public presumption."

Opening Lines: "In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten."

My Take: Kingsolver's definitely near the top of my favorite authors list. I read the first few chapters last night and don't yet know what I think. On one hand, I'm not yet chomping at the bit to find out what happens next (and truth be told, I'm more than a little confused about some of what's going on) ... but on the other, I initially had the same reaction to The Poisonwood Bible and ended up being very glad I stuck it out. Stay tuned.

Well, as with Poisonwood Bible, it took some time to get into the swing of this one, but when I did -- wow. This is not a book you can read while multitasking, one eye on its pages while watching TV or offering minimal responses to a young child's enthusiastic if somewhat incomprehensible patter. The Lacuna demands most of your attention, and offers handsome rewards in return.

Most of the story is told through Shepherd's diaries and letters, with pertinent news articles scattered through the text here and there. Born to a Mexican mother and U.S. father who split up long before the novel begins, he receives little formal schooling, yet aches to write almost from birth. He grows to young adulthood in quarters maintained by one, then another of his mother's boyfriends. His earliest memories are of the remote Isla Pixol, where Shepherd and his mother first encounter the howlers mentioned on the first page. It is here that his overly dramatic mother, Salome, tells him, "You had better write all this in your notebook ... the story of what happened to us in Mexico. So when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know where we went." Shepherd takes her advice to heart, and thus is laid the foundation for the novel's principal themes: the role of art and the howlers, in their many guises, in shaping history -- what and how they record as events unfold, and which pieces are lost.

Shepherd's pivotal first brush with history comes about by accident. Having learned years earlier to prepare the European breads his mother's paramour preferred, he proves a natural at mixing plaster for the Much-Discussed Painter, Diego Rivera. This first job ends not long after, when Salome packs Shepherd off on a train to Washington, D.C. to live with his father and Rivera departs on a separate, unrelated trip to the States ... but eventually, both return to Mexico City and Shepherd returns to work for Rivera. He is quickly promoted from plaster-mixer to cook, and thus finds himself in the midst of the interesting-times whirlwind that is the Riveras' home. The already considerable excitement that comes from living with Diego's flamboyant jewel of a wife, painter Frida Kahlo, and cooking in the tiny kitchen of the boxy, Functional, divided, his-and-hers house is magnified a thousand-fold when two VIP guests come to stay for the duration: Lev Davidovich, nee Leon Trotsky, and his wife Natalya, who've exiled themselves to Mexico in a desperate hope of escaping Stalin's murderous purges.

It is here that he first observes the uncanny likeness of the news media to the howler monkeys that once plagued him and his mother. As Shepherd later muses in his diary, long after Lev has been assassinated and he's made a new home for himself in Asheville, North Carolina, "anyone who rises, any greatness, attracts those who would cut it down at the root. Any fool knows that also." Several years later, Harry Truman's surprising, newspaper-defying re-election offers a brief flicker of hope that the howlers' power is not absolute (says Shepherd's stenographer, Violet Brown, "it's a day to remember. Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It's only living makes life.") The howlers regroup, of course, with their terrifying noise reaching its apogee during the red scares of the late 1940s and early '50s. Ultimately, after being repeatedly punished and humiliated over his years-earlier association with Rivera and Trotsky, Shepherd offers his journal a biting "Universal declaration of rights of the howlers:
"Article 1. All human beings are endowed with the god-given right to make firewood from the fallen tree. Article 2. Any tree will do. If it is tall, it should be cut down. The quality of wood is no matter, the tree asked for it by growing tall. A decent public will cheer to see it toppled. Article 3. Rules of normal kindness do not extend to the celebrated person. Article 4. All persons may hope to become celebrated. Article 5. It is more important to speak than to think. The only danger is silence. Article 6. A howler must choose one course or the other: lie routinely, or do so only on important occasions, to be more convincing."
For a man like Shepherd, who's always held that "Dios habla por el que se calle" (God speaks for those who keep quiet), this corruption and pillorying of the words he's so conflicted about sharing with the world is devastating. As he'd mused years earlier, in a letter to Frida on the eve of his first novel's publication,
"A terrifying miracle. These words were all written in dark, quiet rooms. How can they face the bright, noisy world? You must know. You open your skin and pour yourself on a canvas. And then let the curators drape your intestines all around the halls, for the ruckus of society gossips. Can it be survived?"
He has persisted in his writing, despite the excruciating vulnerability it brings, because he is driven to it, perhaps not realizing until he must stop how painful it is not to write. As he tells the Committee on Un-American Activities in a climactic, almost cinematic speech,
"The purpose of art is to elevate the spirit, or pay a surgeon's bill. Or both, really. It can help a person remember, or forget. If your house doesn't have many windows in it, you can hang up a painting and have a view. Of a whole different country, if you want. If your spouse is homely, you can gaze at a lovely face and not get in trouble for it. ... It can be painted on a public wall or locked in a mansion. ... Art is one thing I do know about. A book has all the same uses I mentioned, especially for the house without enough windows. Art by itself is nothing, until it comes into that house. People here wanted Mrs. Kahlo's art, and I carried it.

"You asked me why I've stayed here so long. I can try to say. People have a lot of color and songs in Mexico, more art than they have hopes, it often seemed to me. Here, I found people bursting with hope but not many songs. They didn't sing, they turned on the radio. They wanted stories, like anything. So I decided to try my hand at making art for the hopeful. Because I wasn't any good at the other thing, manufacturing hopes for the artful. America was the most hopeful place I'd ever imagined. My neighbors were giving over their hairpins and door hinges to melt down for building the good ship America. I wanted to give her things too. So I stayed here."
This speech notwithstanding, neither the Committee members nor the howlers who make him larger than life in their papers nor his fickle readers ever fully understand Shepherd. Frida and Violet Brown come closest, with lawyer Artie Gold not far behind, perhaps, but as he himself has acknowledged for years,
"[Y]ou can't really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece: the birthday like an invisible pinata hanging great and silent over his head, as he stands in slippers boiling the water for coffee. The scarred, shrunken leg hidden under a green silk dress. A wife and son back in France. Something you never knew. That is the heart of the story."
I could write much more about this complex and lovely book, but to do so would almost spoil the joy of reading a novel whose title means "blank space or missing part." Please read it, without delay, and fill in the missing parts for yourself.

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