Online Edition: Summer 2003

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The Perpetual Ending

Kristen den Hartog

MacAdam/Cage Publishing ($24)

by Kris Lawson

The Perpetual Ending is a powerful book about small things, the things that resonate when one looks back at the past. As the novel opens, Jane, the narrator, finds herself stuck in a motel room. She is halfway between her childhood home and the apartment she shared with her lover. Appropriately, the first half of her narrative addresses Eugenie, her missing twin; the second half addresses her lover Simon, to whom she has lied about her past.

Drifting from flashback to stream of consciousness to story-within-the-story telling, not until the end does Jane make it clear whether Eugenie was real or another facet of herself. Jane prefers to think of the two of them as characters from her mother's stories: One and Tother, Chang and Eng, the Platonic whole divided. Jane even hates her name because it reminds her of her sister. "I would not have chosen a name that began with J, which was not even formally accepted into the alphabet until the nineteenth century. For hundreds of years it was simply the consonant form of I, a ghostly twin struggling for its own place."

Den Hartog has a spare narrative style, which includes humorous touches that lighten the grim story of why Jane has rejected her past. Without elaborate prose, she conveys the bright memories of Jane's childhood, shiny and glowing like the horns with which the characters of Jane's stories are burdened. In these works, Jane's loneliness, guilt, and rage are transformed into disturbing fairy tales for children. Each story she tells contains fragments of her past and images from her own and her mother's stories, recombined so as to convey triumph mixed with regret, as if to say nothing in life is free from contamination. But Jane attempts to keep the contamination of her painful past in her fiction; she rarely even admits to herself that her parents are still alive.

Jane's characters are usually girls with horns in their foreheads or sticking out of their spines, who have dry skin like sandpaper that no one wants to touch or who concoct enormous lies to keep people at a distance. They make fairy-tale choices and are unhappy with the results; luckily for them, in fairy-tale fashion they can go back to the way they were. In one way these fairy tale characters are all the same girl, but in another way they are all trying to change the past for Jane, rewriting the end of the story again and again, until she can put it behind her and move on: "time can move so slowly you don't even notice it going by, but it tricks you. Other than dying, there's nothing you can ever do to stop it."

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents