Tag Archives: summer 2001


M/E/A/N/I/N/GM/E/A/N/I/N/G edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Theory, and Criticism
Edited by Susan Bee and Mira Schor
Duke University Press ($22.95)

by Charles Alexander

M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal published from 1986-1996, was an oddly effective burst of energy located somewhere in New York between the quiet smugness of an overblown art market and an undeniable outsider-artist cultural drive for articulation. Mira Schor and Susan Bee, not quite ten years after the influential journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (in which Bee was instrumentally involved) first appeared, needed a forum to discuss their work and lives and those of others who "felt left out by the hype of the 1980s art market boom and bewildered by the obduracy and obscurity of some theory language." The journal they made emerged as a discussion about the work they were creating and thinking about, about the pressures on that work, and about the wider context in which the work occurred. It was a world of talking about art. Just to make sure it was really talking, it included no images (until the final issue, which was all image). A studio and work-based journal of art with no pictures. Definitely something new, clearly something vital to the as-yet-unperceived spirit of the time.

Energy was its watchword. Beginning with controversy, it took on David Salle's appropriations of sexuality, conceptions of feminism and post-feminism, racism and sexism in the arts and beyond, and even that quality highly suspect among the oh-so-serious art critics, pleasure. As Johanna Drucker wrote,

We know, as women artists, the pleasure of production and production of pleasure—intimately, complicitly, complexly, in all the vicissitudes of subject/object relations and their interchangeable configurations of our psychic positioning.

Quite often, issues of M/E/A/N/I/N/G presented forums where several artists and critics contributed short, insightful, and personal comments on key issues. In "On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie" the inclusions indicate the range of elocution and experience made articulate in M/E/A/N/I/N/G.

Suzanne Anker:

Within the cultural body lies another corpus, the unwritten textual authority determining the value of flesh . . . However, when singular definitions are reexamined and opened to include identity beyond biology, identity is revealed as constructed rather than determined. Only then is the meaning of women extended to include functions of motherhood as well as characteristics not connected with it.

Susan Bee:

It is assumed that if your womb is active your brain has suddenly shut off.

Bailey Doogan:

While the images of both Artist and Mother are overly romanticized and revered in our culture, the Artist is constructed as complex, sexually potent, and creative, the Mother as selfless, nonsexual, and nourishing . . . Maybe what I, as an artist, have given my daughter is a life revealed not hidden. [My daughter] is now a drummer in an all-female band in Portland, Oregon called TRAILER QUEEN. Their slogan is "Heavy as a Chevy." I continue to do my work.

One has a sense of artists living-life-thinking-theory-making-art, knowing that the world wants to divide all these activities, the artists not letting such division succeed.

Any forum for M/E/A/N/I/N/G other than the original issues seems absurd. The magazines were attractive though not slick, fancy, or expensively produced. They were blatantly plain, belying the glitzy extravagance of art that some media wanted (and still wants) to project. M/E/A/N/I/N/G was meaningful, not glamorous. It was of the studio world, not the gallery world, not the academy. But now it's 2001—what was 15 years ago avant-garde and outside is now debated and celebrated at Columbia, Yale, and the University of Virginia (all places where Johanna Drucker, who contributes the first introduction to this book that presents essays culled from the original journal, has held faculty positions). Something is gained, in production quality, promotional capability, and, I'm certain, in terms of how many readers the work finds. Yet something is irretrievably lost—a sense of urgency and of a living community of fellow travelers.

To recover something of this sense of urgency and closeness, I suggest starting with the forums in the book: "On Authenticity and Meaning," "Contemporary Views on Racism in the Arts," "Over Time: A Forum on the Art of Making," "On Motherhood, Art, and Apple Pie," "Working Conditions: A Forum on Art and Everyday Life by Younger Artists," and "On Creativity and Community." Move from there to the "Artists' Musings" section, including Susan Bee's splendid arrangement of unedited quotations others have hurled at her.

"You painted this?"

"I like the way everything is painted but the area under the chair."

"The images are great."

"It's humanist and psychological."

"It's not narrative enough."

"Put $50 more paint on the canvas."

"Use bigger brushes."

"I like everything but the hair."

From the musings, browse as you will, and read the two introductions last since they only function to contextualize the journal. There may be some of you or even one person, upon reading, who might go out and begin a journal yourself, something smart and outrageous and straightforward and willing to challenge all of the art world's precious concepts about itself and about art and life. If you do, this book will have proved more than an invigorating read; it will have become essential. As co-editor Mira Schor writes,

Writing has created a community for me of unknown and sometimes known readers. M/E/A/N/I/N/G was born of a community of two, Susan Bee and myself. This intimacy suited me well because I find working with larger groups personally difficult and operationally tortuous. Yet now a group of friends, strangers, and institutions are collected in a card catalogue of subscribers in a red box in my studio. It holds an abstract network of people, as insubstantial as a spider's web, yet providing connection to the outside world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Electra by Sophocles translated by Anne CarsonSophocles
Translated by Anne Carson
Oxford University Press ($10.95)

by Justin Maxwell

When looking at a canonical play that's been translated again, both the translator and the reasons for the translation warrant more attention than usual. Oxford University Press's Greek Tragedy in New Translations series operates from the standpoint that with contemporary poets as translators, the plays will have a more aesthetically charged life for modern readers. The series seems custom made to have Anne Carson translate an installment of it. An accomplished poet and classicist, she has brought Greek texts into English as part of her own writing, giving them a rebirth in the contemporary world.

Carson's interpretation of Electra conveys the uniqueness, the vibrancy, and the tradition that must have been there for the original audience. The characters speak in a style which simultaneously juxtaposes the metrical and the colloquial: "But I wonder. You know / I wonder— / suppose he had some part / in sending her these cold unlucky dreams." With such frequently shifting metrics, the play can feel a bit awkward when scanned, but this awkwardness would instantly disappear in the mouth of any decent actor. More importantly, the changing meter is a wonderful and successful way of revealing the psychic tumult that keeps Electra on the edges of madness and violence. She doggedly maintains a climate of vengeance even though she is completely aware that it results in her perpetual suffering: "they plan / unless you cease from this mourning / to send you where you will not see the sun again. / You'll be singing your songs / alive / in a room / in the ground. / Think about that." Carson calls Sophocles' play a musical "anti-dialogue" that succeeds in showing an internal, emotional struggle from within the heart of theatrical-poetic language.

Electra is necessarily a play dominated by language, the natural result of a theater with almost no set, props, or stage directions. On such an aural stage Electra's screams become a language-event for those who witness them, and they are strongly manifested in this translation. Carson keeps the screams in Greek, perceiving them as being something primal; as she says in her foreword, they are "a language of lament that is like listening to an X-ray. Electra's cries are just bones of sound." Carson rightly argues that these manifestations of emotive noise are an essential part of the character and the play. In previous translations these cries have been rendered weakly (e.g., "alas" or "woe is me") or simply cut, silencing a human pain that can, as Carson demonstrates, easily reach across more than a dozen centuries.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

A Heart of Stone

A Heart of Stone by Renate DorresteinRenate Dorrestein
translation by Hester Velmans
Viking ($23.95)

by Deborah J. Safran

According to the back jacket copy, Renate Dorrestein is one of Holland's best-loved novelists. If her writing reads as smoothly in its native Dutch as it does in this English translation, it's easy to see why—her words are liquid and flowing, and they make A Heart of Stone horrifically entrancing.

Twenty-five years have passed and Ellen van Bemis is still haunted by a tragedy that befell her family and left her and her brother Carlos orphans. Now pregnant with her first child, her thoughts turn to her mother; she desperately wishes to understand what really happened and put those ghosts to rest. When she notices while flipping through the paper one day that her childhood home is up for sale, temptation proves too great: she decides that this is the perfect place to sort out her past.

It all started just before her twelfth birthday, when her parents announced the impending arrival of their fifth child. Ellen sensed there wasn't enough room for another child in the over-flowing house. Given the opportunity to name the unborn baby, she settled upon Ida "because it was the ugliest name I could think of, Ida rhymed with spider, and if you twisted the letters around and added a few more, you got diarrhea. How she'd be tormented, later, at school!"

And tormented she was, beyond what Ellen could have imagined. What follows is the slow, delicate process of unraveling how her parents and three of her siblings met their end before the unfortunate Ida even reached her first birthday.

The writing weaves seamlessly between the past and present, with a word or phrase from one story leading us into another and back again. The novel is almost doughy in its progression; it teases the reader with brief revelations, only to pull back on itself. The chapters are titled with photo captions, as if Ellen were sitting with the family album resting on her swollen belly, mentally traveling from vignette to vignette. A "Daddy's little girl," his words continue to echo inside her head: "The third child is the cement" and "Loyalty . . . [is] not always easy. You have to learn to choose." Through these repeated phrases, she finally understands what happened and why she survives it.

The ending, though slightly predictable, doesn't tie things up in a neat little bow. It's good to leave some issues unresolved, of course, but it seems strange that Ellen never ponders the whereabouts of her surviving brother. Adopted at age four, Carlos van Bemis is no more alive to Ellen than Kes, Billie, or Ida. And why are we introduced to Ellen's ex-husband, Thijis, at all? Their divorce offers no insight to her mental anguish; his existence only provides the opportunity for Ellen to tell why she became a pathologist (a profession which seems only too appropriate). These issues are minor, however, and do not detract from the beauty of the story. And beautiful it is—it's amazing how such an ugly tale can be so well told.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

A Good House

A Good House by Bonnie BurnardBonnie Burnard
Henry Holt ($25)

by Kiersten Marek

Bonnie Burnard's first novel is a good book, just as the characters are good people, who live in good houses. The Chambers clan seems better than most, able to handle the death of their mother by cancer without undue havoc, able to accept their father's remarriage and the birth of a new sibling. But as the novel progresses, its very goodness can begin to be a hindrance; it keeps the reader at a safe distance from these good people.

With heavy exposition, the narrative of A Good House often feels more like a well-versed family history than a novel. I say this with sincere respect, since it is a feat to chronicle over 50 years of family life. But telling a family's history is complicated. Whoever is doing the telling is bound to have his or her own blind spots, moments of the story they prefer not to delve into. Burnard's novel seems to do a similar dance of avoidance. The narrative steps back from its characters at critical moments, leaving them like unfinished sketches—unrealized and easily misunderstood. Consequently, the book left me with lots of questions similar to questions I have about people in my own extended family, questions which are not to be asked or answered, lest they threaten to destabilize or debunk. Why, for example, does Daphne refuse to marry Murray? She sleeps with him, bears his children, but in two of the few fully played-out scenes of the novel, she refuses his proposals. The only reason offered by the novel is Daphne's observation that Murray prefers love from a distance. This may be so, but it doesn't show how Daphne prefers love, and why, for the sake of her daughters if not herself, she does not seek a little institutional security.

Where the book lacks in its willingness to depict its often compelling characters more fully, it makes up for in some well-rendered scenes. Daphne falling and breaking her jaw in a neighborhood circus is riveting. Similarly, Burnard gives a connoisseur's attention to the lovemaking between many of the book's couples. She also spares nothing in portraying Daphne in confrontation with her ailing father, Bill. In the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease, Bill serves as a figure of tragicomic relief toward the end of the book, speaking, like a Court Jester, his most vile and base opinions. Of the father of Daphne's affairs resulting in her two daughters, Bill tells his daughter ruthlessly: "He took what he wanted, and you too stupid and ugly to deny him," to which Daphne replies in true Masterpiece Theater form, "You bastard. You God damned bastard."

As with any good house, this novel is filled with little charms, too. Burnard has a gift for carefully nuanced summations, with lines like "She turned on the tap and laid some Colgate along the bristles of her toothbrush." She also demonstrates an impressive understanding of life experience, and can summarize a person's 20-year-emotional career in one swift dash of the pen: "He'd had the words ready for a while, from the time his guilt had finally, and almost without his notice, transmogrified into the lesser sin of profound regret." And her metaphors, while not showy, are wonderfully rich, as in, "She watched him like you might watch an animal grooming himself in the dark of night."

Despite the mystery of Daphne's choice not to marry, in the end the story returns to her. Curiously, Burnard closes the novel with the marriage of Daphne's oldest daughter to an up-and-coming academic (like all good neo-Victorians, she knows that happy stories end with a wedding). Some of the final details about Daphne in this marriage chapter will keep readers pondering. Burnard tells of how Daphne raised her daughters on stories that only contained "the best words, the weird, strange, yummy words," but these stories always had the same revealing moral: "Be careful, children. You are all alone. Be very good or else."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Ex-Libris by Ross KingRoss King
Walker & Company ($26)

by Kris Lawson

Fans of The Name of the Rose will enjoy Ex-Libris, an unconventional bookish mystery. Books inform and consume the characters, who struggle to survive in the bleak England of post-Cromwell and the ravaged Europe of the Thirty Years War. From collections of dangerous books, the possession of which is enough to send the unlucky reader to prison or death, to covert book auctions in seedy wharfside London, Ex-Libris moves quickly as it weaves together two plots, linked by the search for a mysterious manuscript.

The first plot concerns the hero, a mild-mannered and nearly blind bookseller who discovers untapped reserves of persistence and bravery whilst aiding a mysterious noblewoman who lives in the midst of a decaying mansion filled with more books than furniture. The second follows three refugees fleeing the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire, smuggling crates of forbidden books from the Lutheran armies. Guarding the books are the obsessive librarian whose vocation is for cataloging; his lover who enjoys flouting convention by reading forbidden books; and the secret agent who doubles as secret book buyer for Emperor Rudolf, whose passion for magical and alchemical knowledge exceeds his military acumen.

Both stories converge with the search for the mysterious manuscript, The Labyrinth of the World, so rare that it has become legendary. Alchemy and secret societies, ciphers and invisible inks, mazes and secret passageways: Ex-Libris becomes conventional only in its plethora of plot devices—there's even a chase scene with boats racing down the Thames. Where King excels is in his historic scope: he demonstrates with heartbreaking regularity how censors as well as natural forces—here figured as waterways that facilitate murders, drown books and the sailors who smuggle them, and destroy the libraries they are meant to protect—can wipe out books in a matter of seconds, leaving only hints from other books to prove they ever existed.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Hell Screens

The Hell Screens by Alvin LuAlvin Lu
Four Walls Eight Windows ($22)

by Peter Ritter

As a typhoon closes around the island of Taipei, hungry ghosts intermingle with the living, causing mischief and stealing souls with impunity. Meanwhile, a shape-shifting killer called K grips the island's already-fevered imagination. Is K real, or, like the comic-book stories of suicide and haunting that seem to be coming to life, a figment of mass delusion caused by the storm? Such is the mystery of Alvin Lu's luscious but perplexing debut novel, The Hell Screens, a noirish ghost story with too many ghosts and too little story.

Lu is a film critic and teacher, and his interest in cinematic technique and the subjectivity of the senses is much in evidence here. The novel's narrator, an amateur Chinese-American scholar of the supernatural, sees the spirit world through a contact lens, which, when soaked in tea, blurs and distorts his vision. His associate, a rotund amateur videographer who may or may not be the reincarnated spirit of a dissident film director, roams the halls of a haunted apartment building trying to capture the image of a female ghost. Throughout, glimpses of Taipei's glistening, crowded streets flash on the page like whispers on celluloid. "I saw myself no longer in contemporary Taipei, but in the ghost city on which it based itself, in its imagination, if cities dream down to the naming of streets. In some dark lit colonial gotham, the bodies of poets and spies floated, shot and dumped, through gutters and down rivers, while young women, smitten and deceived by the notion of romantic love, waited in hovels for their idealistic young men to return." Filtered through the novel's distorted lens, the city's subconscious landscape, formed by myth and populated by nightmares, becomes manifest.

Like its setting, the plot of The Hell Screens flows according to the discordant logic of a dream. Characters, both living and otherwise, flit through the narrative, guided by voices from beyond through the labyrinthine metropolis. Adding to the confusion, they metamorphose at random, becoming apparitions from manga one moment and flesh-and-blood people the next. A girl with a flower tattoo, for instance, appears variably as one of K's victims, an enigmatic medium, and the ghost of a suicide. Even the narrator becomes suspect; he may, in fact, be a figment of K's imagination. Lu drops clues throughout, including snippets of Buddhist philosophy about the illusory nature of the material world, which suggest that the novel's puzzles are, at heart, unsolvable. As in Kafka's stories—which, as the killer's name implies, seem to have inspired Lu—paranoia is the narrative catalyst. When nothing is as it appears, anything is possible.

Yet for all the richness of Lu's atmospherics, there is an absence at the center of The Hell Screens, as though the novel itself were nothing more than the feverish projections of an unquiet mind. Kafka's parables were, at least, grounded by their stylistic parody and subversive spirit; Lu's fantasia, bound by nothing, eventually drifts into a cul-de-sac of portentous signs, metaphysical musing, and overripe prose. Trying to follow the author on this head-trip, we're left feeling like Theseus lost in the labyrinth, with nary a narrative bread crumb to guide the way.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

The Unknown Errors of Our Lives by Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniChitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Doubleday ($23.95)

by Michelle Reale

Propelled by the conventional wisdom that what is unknown in our lives hurts and corrodes more than what we know, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest book of short stories subtly takes the possibility of good in our lives and gives it a little twist. Her human but flawed characters constantly err; they manage to find tiny pin pricks of redemption in situations that seem otherwise capable of laying the fragile human spirit to waste, but their "solutions" often become resignations.

In these nine short stories, Divakaruni focuses on the lives of women almost exclusively, no doubt traversing terrain both familiar and close to her heart. Males, when they do appear, are ancillary to the actual stories themselves, existing instead as shadowy or fragmented characters lending masculine scenery and staying close to the frayed edges.

In the opening story, "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," Divakaruni shows an aging Indian mother who has left India to live with her son and his family treading the rocky terrain of American culture. Culture shock would be putting it mildly; poor Mrs. Dutta cannot sleep comfortably on her "Perma Rest" American mattress, bought for her, with good intentions, by her aloof son and his increasingly inscrutable wife. Feeling like little more than a stranger in the house, Mrs. Dutta pens letters to her steadfast friend Roma in India. While her letters contain glowing accounts of American life, nothing could really be further from the truth. Her existence is painful and alienating. Here, Divakaruni explicates beautifully the preoccupation many immigrants have with living exemplary so-called "American" lives. Her son and his wife worrying over what the neighbor's think when Mrs. Dutta drapes her saris over the fence to dry is both poignant and amusing. Divakaruni's writing is both precise and contrived in this opening story, perhaps most realistically highlighting, at least to some sensibilities, the divide between East and West. While Mrs. Dutta brims with "smother love," tasty meals, and true involvement in the lives of the only family she has left, her efforts are spurned at every turn. Divakaruni is exceptional at slowly building a story line and quietly tearing it down in the end—an effect present in nearly every story in this collection, though to varying degrees.

Interestingly, two stories in the collection focus on brother and sister relationships; both stories place their female narrators in the familiar roles of conciliator and interpreter of emotions, not to mention the ever-present (ever needful?) mother figure to their brothers, irregardless of whether younger or older than themselves. In "The Intelligence of Wild Things" a sister attempts to heal an ever-growing rift between her brother and their mother before death intervenes. Because she cannot do this directly, the sister decides to implore her brother with a story, a fable of sorts, conceding that whether or not he "listens" and whether or not he "hears" is now a roll of the dice. She thinks to herself: "We stand side by side, shoulders touching. The wind blows though us, a wild intelligent wind. The white bird flies directly into the sun." This is a placid and surrendering image in sharp and violent contrast to the young brother and sister in "The Forgotten Children" who are alternately brutalized and loved, yet still fiercely loving of parents who fail to protect them in any fundamental way. Again, the sister attempts to forge a perverse sort of normality and shelter her younger brother, causing her to feel that "perhaps to disappear is the next best thing to being forgotten." Divakaruni describes the abuse of the children in matter of fact ways and this unemotional tone is unnerving, but achieves what she probably set out to do: enrage the reader before they even realize what is happening.

One might rightfully ask what the errors in our lives actually are. The book's epigraph, from Jamaica Kincaid's The Autobiography of My Mother, states: "Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you." This collection does not illuminate, nor does it seek find humor in the crossing of cultures and the problem of situating oneself uncomfortably between East and West. Instead, it seems that the errors of our lives, whether known or unknown, are the great equalizers in these quiet and devastating stories. Divakaruni hits her emotional target every time, but rather than outright murder, she kills you softly—and you never see it coming.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Karlmarx.com by Susan CollSusan Coll
Simon & Schuster ($23)

by Julie Madsen

“I'm not a Marxist!" Coll's protagonist, Ella, exclaims repeatedly throughout the novel. It is the defining sentiment for the entire book, whose title could woo real champions of Marxist theory with its Marx-from-a-postmodern-perspective allusion. The book will probably not be such a disappointment for readers who are open to a quirky romantic tale with light overtones of political theory—an odd mix to be sure, but perhaps revolutionary in its own way.

Ella is a political theory student, nearly 30, who has chosen Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's daughter, as her thesis subject—specifically, Eleanor's involvement with a married man, which Ella believes led to her debilitating depression and, ultimately, suicide. Ella's fascination with Eleanor's fate escalates as she discovers uncanny similarities to her own romantic life, although Ella is much less prone to suicide than to shopping her worries away.

While enmeshed in her romantic woes, Ella finds herself employed by a slightly unbalanced Marx enthusiast called the Colonel, who is bent on bringing Marxist thought back in vogue to modern-day masses via mementos such as "smiling Marx" T-shirts, coffee mugs, and the like, to be sold on a website that Ella is to construct. His ultimate goal is to have "people in America walking around speaking in Marxisms. You know, ‘Workers of the world, unite,’ that sort of thing, only more relevant and less threatening." Coll is not subtle with irony; she hypes it as flashily as the Colonel does his beloved bearded icon.

Ella, caught between becoming a dispenser of cheap trifles that inadvertently ridicule more than they promote Marxist thought, and dealing with her personal issues, personifies perfectly her generation's ambivalence toward the radicalism and militancy of the previous generation: When she hears a poem from a college twenty-something about revolution, introduced by his comment that "the time is ripe, I think," she ponders, "Was the time ripe for revolution, or for a poem about revolution, or maybe for a mail-order catalog about revolution?"

Karlmarx.com begins with the perfect epigraph, a quote from Marx himself: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Coll’s book is a clear result of this phenomenon.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001


Indivisible by Fanny HoweFanny Howe
Semiotext(e) / Native Agents Series ($11.95)

by Christopher Martin

. . . the history of a head is unavoidable being everywhere

This is the history of the head of Henny: estranged wife, surrogate mother, and mothering friend. If you add to this list her intensely religious brand of atheism, it appears, clear as ether, Henny is very much on her own. She is an invisible energy that suffuses the life of (and lives in) the book. Paradoxically, what is invisible here is also indivisible—"unavoidable being everywhere." As a character, Henny lingers submissively behind a backdrop of silent concern. Her function as a narrator, however, is to hoist the entire structure of the novel onto her brittle, uneven shoulders and deliver all the embarrassing facts directly to us, her reader/God. In order to insure the honesty of this confession, Henny pledges to tell an inclusive story without the emotional duplicity of what she calls "sequence":

Sometimes I think that God witnesses events sideways and doesn't stop because it all goes by so fast, and God can't believe what God just saw. So it is important to tell you everything, God.

Where there is "everything" there is certain contradiction, and Howe delights in using it to her advantage. Henny is a poor, pale character of little personality in an alternatively rich, flamboyant, and colorful world. Although she describes her prose as employing a "forced lack of style," she often lapses into hauntingly lyrical stretches: "Sitting outside at night was like passing around a razor to shave a zebra down to its first shape. The black sky is really a weight, can hurt, so heavy a dump of stars, some falling all turning together bare naked between them. God planted the glass that grew language." Finally, after nearly 300 pages of fragment, quandary, and moral debate, the action returns right back to where it began: the story of a woman, her mostly unconsummated love, and the children (young and old) that she has protected and preserved. Only then do we realize the full breadth and beauty of the narrative Howe has surreptitiously constructed all along.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001

The Hesperides Tree

The Hesperides Tree by Nicholas MosleyNicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)

by Jason Picone

The difficulty of relating the disparate fields of literature and science, the invasiveness of technology in people's lives and the search for the mythical Garden of the Hesperides are all at the center of Nicholas Mosley's latest novel. Narrated by a nameless teenager, The Hesperides Tree is a brilliant fiction of ideas, supplying a multitude of theories and worldviews while ultimately deferring to the reader's judgment in how to best sort and decipher the book's plethora of information.

Like many of Mosley's novels, the characters in The Hesperides Tree are brainy and thoughtful aesthetes whose lives are engrossed in erudite debates and dilemmas. The male protagonist struggles to decide on a concentration in college, unable to discern whether natural science or literature is more likely to answer his soul-searching questions about his role in life. While the young Englishman decides to pursue literature, the choice fails to satisfy or solve anything, resulting in only more questions concerning why no academic discipline can seem to truly educate him. His friend scorns the impotence of the academy, arguing that "human beings can alter the world, but they don't do this by talking about it." The academy also fails to provide any advice to the protagonist on how to keep pervasive technologies from corrupting him, a constant worry that troubles him.

Though it has become commonplace for contemporary novelists to sound off on the increasing self-alienation that people suffer at the hands of technology, Mosley manages to infuse the subject with a fresh feel by including a number of nefarious new developments. In terms of the author's range, it's impressive that a man who is almost eighty can not only convincingly assume the first-person voice of a teenager, but can also write compellingly on how internet porn impacts his young protagonist's sexuality. The young man attempts to resist the seduction of pornography, but is fascinated as well as repulsed by it:

One could . . . embark on a laborious journey past advertisements and warnings and promotional lures until one reached a site where bums and breasts bloomed like exotic flowers and vegetables. . . Some of my schoolfellows had the use of credit-cards and by giving their numbers one could go deeper into the haunted forest with strange images of animals and ghouls and torture-chambers and children. But then it began to seem that the tendrils and roots of the forest were stretching down, round, up, to entrap one . . .

Beyond the lure of the internet, the narrator is disturbed by other technological advances; he reads reports of an experimental bio-weapon, the actual existence of which is unclear. The weapon kills only individuals with a certain genetic make-up, an ideal weapon for an aggressive party afraid of harming their own. Coupled with his fear of overt destruction is the looming millennium and its insidious bug, a techno-illness he likens to the bio-weapon. He believes both have the potential to silently infect and destroy, killing off choice peoples or systems while passing over others.

Unable to explain the world and its increasingly destructive tendencies through his studies, the narrator turns inward, searching first within himself, then reaching out to his family and friends for the enlightenment that has heretofore eluded him. On a trip with his family to western Ireland, he spies a young woman, Julie, with whom he immediately feels a deep connection. When chance eventually thrusts the two together, he wonders about the role coincidence plays in shaping lives and whether or not he has the power to control his destiny:

The idea that one lives in a world of potentialities amongst which one has the ability if not exactly to choose then at least to be aware of the possibility of choice . . . and by this to make available one thing rather than another . . . this was a fancy that it had seemed to me one might take note of like a beautiful stranger passed in the street: but what would it be to possess it, experience it, live with it as if it were normality?

Eventually, he and Julie journey to an island that may or may not be the Garden of the Hesperides, a mythical, Eden-like realm. There they discover what they suppose to be the Tree of Life, though they realize they might be mistaken. The young couple wonders whether it makes any difference whether they are actually in a mystical place or are simply forcing the myth's actualization. Such thoughts lead them to question the role myth-making plays in everyday life; ultimately, both deem it to be a useful practice that confers power back upon the individual, giving one the ability to choose his or her individual fate, while at the same time drawing upon the world's shared mythologies.

The back of The Hesperides Tree mentions, somewhat ominously, that it is "quite possibly the last" novel that Mosley will write. Appropriately, one of the characters observes that, "If it's become a business of not being able to put things into words, then what's the point of going on saying this? . . . Writers don't seem able to put what life's like into words." If it is to be his last novel, Mosley's latest is a worthy epilogue to a career that spans fifteen works of fiction and fifty years. The novel's closing words, "Stop talking," are a wonderful conclusion for a writer that has so frequently observed the difficulty in communicating one's thoughts via speech or writing. A fitting finale for such a humanistic artist, The Hesperides Tree investigates the individual's relationship to humankind, munificently lending a number of possible methods for living both with oneself and the world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001