It happened again when I picked up Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Knopf 2011), a book I’d seen on the shelf in my apartment since last fall, but resisted reading because the back cover blurbs were hyperbolic and the author is roughly my daughter’s age. Reading published authors – especially celebrated published authors –who are half my age, is something I really, really abhor doing. A tightness spreads from deep inside my gut and moves up to my lungs and then rams into my heart, and I’m having a panic attack . My brain puts on a slide show of the passing years in reverse, focusing on the wreckage of projects begun and abandoned by the side of my life’s road. My eyes turn inward and I see myself shrinking to the scale of an amoeba, which is about how I rank my “significant accomplishments.” I despair of ever having the kind of flashes of brilliance that somebody like Karen Russell shows so early in life. Where do these young writers pick up their insights into the soul and into the secret chambers of life? Where, in fact, do writers mine their knowledge? The longer I live, the more I marvel at the miracle of human creativity: in music, painting, architecture, fashion, cooking, writing, engineering. Where do these bursts of inspiration come from? How do these people tap into the strength of character and will to snatch those fugitive sparks of brilliance, and use them to turn the dead wood of words and paint and bricks into a flame of life?
Karen Russell: your book bowled me over, perspectival tricks and narrative ruses and scaffolding myths, and most of all: your characters! EXTRA: not since Nabokov (fall 1976 to summer 1977) have I met more unfamiliar words and more syntactical twists that eject me from the ruts of repetitive structures into entirely new combinatorial possibilities that let me see the pieces of the world making sense in new ways. Your metaphors are zany and proliferate like the Melaleuca quinquenervia the Army Corps of Engineers introduced into the Everglades that you use as your setting.
I don’t get half of them as I race through the chapters, and I’ve dog-eared most of the pages for the next time I read your book more slowly, with a dictionary and Google on hand. You trust me ( your reader) to be up to the challenge of keeping up with you. You withhold information that any creative writing teacher will tell you needs to go up front. Still, you get me to trust you, so that I “let” you tell me in your own way and in your own good time everything that I need to know (plus more). You tease me into speculating about what you might be driving at, and you give me the fabulous treat of letting me fill in the blanks. The brain, as the “man in my life” always says, loves to solve problems. You, Karen Russell, give my brain what it loves.
For four days Swamplandia! lived with me. I read it over breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and at bedtime I jumped under the sheets with it like a horny teenager. . I slept with it right next to me. I dreamed the book, the characters growing into my dream life and when I opened the book again in the morning, I had to backtrack to the point where my dreams had taken off to touch base with the world Karen Russell was creating and keep it distinct from the one in my subconscious.
Books with the power to do that to a reader are rare. The writer who can use words to such great effect is a magician. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve fallen under the spell of a book. This one put me under. I’m sorry there’s not more to it. Karen Russell: what happens next? I want more!!!!!
So I go to you-tube for a recording of your first book so I can listen to it while working on my next painting. But the woman reading St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has that high-pitched, little-girl-silly voice that all American women are adopting (for God knows what reason!?!!) that I can’t bear.
What I’m actually avoiding writing about is the bizarre conversation I had last night on the phone with “the man in my life”, whom I called on impulse as I hovered over the giant sheet of watercolor paper waiting for the ink to dry. I had the impression of a person actively resisting me, saying all the right things that on paper would signal that yes, I am deeply loved, respected, cherished even. But all that was said through clenched teeth, without a smile, without joy, through a lead shield of resentment. Maybe he’s afraid of me? Maybe he thinks of me as toxic? Maybe I should just stick with my resolution to keep away from him and stop intruding in his life?
The fellow tells me about all the women he’s dating, “quality women,” successful professionals in responsible positions making good money, living in big houses, wishing he’d not move so slow. He tells me he’s having a good time, that he’s happy. He says he’s happy for me as a “human being” because I am doing what I have longed to do and I am at peace, but the tone of his voice says something else entirely. He tells his clients that he trusts human beings to do the right thing, but he constantly tells me he doesn’t trust me. He wraps up the conversation by telling me what deep pain he feels when he talks to me. I struggle to make sense of all the contradictions and finally have to admit that it’s all about perpetuating the contradictions of his childhood, the discrepancy between the words and the deeds, and the paralyzing power of double-binding. In reaching out to him, I am replaying the same dogged reaching out of the child-me to my father, who handed out disapproval and denial like preventative medicine.
Why, he wants to know, do I choose to be so far away from him? The number of miles indexes the force of the fear he inspires in me. In his case, what I fear is the toxic drip of his distrust and disapproval. I hate that sting of his disapproval and distrust. And I also need to experience it, over and over again, like St. Francis of Assisi experiencing his love for the Christ through the pain of his stigmata. Roman Catholicism taught me to love pain — my own pain — by promoting it as beauty in every mural, painting, sculpture, and icon in every church, chapel, basilica, and cathedral I’ve ever visited in my life.
Maybe, and this one I have to think about, there’s something useful about this Catholic fixation with the pragmatics of pain. As a chronic Pollyanna who tries to see the sunny side of every dark hole, I sure hope so. I was thinking about this at Palm Sunday Mass while I was studying the frescoes in the San G Duomo that are all about suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, penance, expiation… starting with God having his own — and only — Son murdered. What’s with the filiocide? And how does this “logic” of pressuring people into being “good” by guilting them about Christ’s martyrdom actually work?
Paraskeva, aka “Suocera” (mother-in-law), has been doing a bang-up job scraping calcare from the bathroom walls and fixtures. Tomorrow will the third day of this work. I pick her up at 11, stop at the Cooperativa for supplies, and install her in the main house. Years and years of grime are coming off the walls of this old house. Spring air is moving through the rooms, the armoires, drawers, under the beds, behind the frames, slipping into the new cracks spidering across the plaster.
As I’m falling asleep, I’d best wrap this up before I wander off into some penumbral state …