Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

I've had this book on my shelf for nearly a year, and just couldn't push past the first chapter. It was distanced, somehow, as though the characters were just not interesting to her. There was little of the exuberance of language I associate with her, and the people at the center of the story were so boring, unpleasant, aloof. It was hard to engage with this book.

I persevered, and finished it, but I'm not really willing to recommend it. Kingsolver is attempting some new things in this book, there are some formal innovations that are different from other works, and there are parts that zing with the obvious interest the topics have for her. However, too much of it feels like scaffolding designed to support those zingy sections, and it's a lot of work for not much pay-off. "Not much pay-off" being scaled entirely in relation to the other books of hers I have read.

The book follows the life of one (fictional) William Harrison Shepherd (1916-195?), the son of a (mostly absent) American father and a social climbing Mexican mother. Shepherd's mother has launched an affair with a wealthy Mexican landowner and has dragged her young son to the hacienda where she tries to divorce her American husband and entice her Mexican lover to marry her. Young Shepherd is left to his own devices mostly, so he learns to cook from the kitchen staff, he swims in the ocean, and he reads books in lieu of school. This is the dreary life of the first chapter, and it's really not promising. I had hopes for the titular "Lacuna" which Shepherd finds while swimming--there is a cave opening just below the surface of the water that goes through a small island and ends in a small natural well in the center of the island. It requires significant breath control and the assistance of the full moon to make the journey without drowning.

Of course, a "lacuna" is a gap, a space, a void, and Shepherd is himself the embodiment of a void, a character so devoid of character or action as to nearly be missing from his own life story. Because this book is his life story, told through the device of his life-long personal journals, most of which chronicle the world around him while failing to include his own thoughts and feelings. As such he moves through history, the cut-out of a human figure, conveniently turning up wherever Kingsolver wishes to record a historical event. After far too many pages chronicling Shepherd's lack of education and his dysfunctional mother, Kingsolver packs him off to a short stint in boarding school in DC in order to have him witness the Bonus Army riots. That accomplished, he's sent back to Mexico City, where he meets Diego Rivera and uses his baking techniques to mix plaster for Rivera's monumental murals. He ends up as a cook in the Rivera-Kahlo household and subsequently a typist as well during the residency of Leon Trotsky. He witnesses Trotsky's assassination, and again ends up in the US in time to be disqualified from active service in WWII due to (mostly theoretical) homosexuality.

Eventually he ends up a confirmed bachelor in a small house in Ashville, North Carolina, and he writes three novels drawn from the folklore of Mexico's past--Cortes versus the Aztecs, the Mayan migrations. These are presented as thrillers, but they are also barely veiled social commentary: soldiers bear the brunt of war, any improvement in weapons technology will foster an arms race, the kind of obvious "message" that the worst of third season Star Trek used to carry. During this period, he hires a secretary named Violet Brown who is a sassy Scottish hillswoman. It is this vaguely presented national background that (barely) saves her from being a cliche--she is neither a Sassy Gay Best Friend nor a Magic Negro/Sassy Black Woman only because she is an asexual white woman of a certain age. However, it is appallingly easy to imagine her being played by Octavia Spencer in Minnie Jackson mode (from The Help).

Predictably, Shepherd runs afoul of the HUAC during the Red Scare--he lived and worked with several of the most internationally well-known communists outside of the Soviet Union--and he gets hauled up before a Congressional Committee. He arranges his affairs, takes Violet on a trip to Mexico, and dies while swimming in the place he lived as a child.

Yes, of course there is no body. Kingsolver doesn't bother to be very subtle about making it plan that Shepherd fakes his own death and goes back to cook for Frida Kahlo. (He escapes by swimming into the lacuna he found as a child, and then presumably hides until the search for his body is called off, then works his way back to Mexico City and Frida.) Violet returns to North Carolina, where she prepares all the diaries into the book we are reading.

So, that's the plot--Everyman experiencing several major events of Historical Import. But there is surely more going on--this is Barbara Kingsolver we are talking about, and she doesn't just do pot-boiler, or survey of early 20th century Mexican-American relations. In the addenda at the back of the book, there is a brief interview with the author, in which she describes what she is doing as exploring the nexus of art and politics. How is it that Diego Rivera can be overtly political, while Shepherd is not? How do the shifting winds of political fashion affect the reception of art? The book is at its sharpest (and is most worth reading) in the passages where Shepherd muses on how the shared sacrifice of war efforts molded America into something closer to Trotsky's imagined utopia than the Soviet Union ever achieved. The end of the war is painted as an inevitable return to class strife, as manufacturers strive to grab the dollars that went unspent during the war. Shepherd realizes that as consumer goods become available again, they will go first to the wealthy who will pay premium prices for new refrigerators and cars, leaving behind the camaraderie of the war years where everybody shared in sacrifice for a better future.

The other section that is really worth reading are the years of the Red Scare. Kingsolver is very very good at capturing the ease with which public opinion is spun, how a quiet gentlemanly writer of light fiction can suddenly become a threat to the nation. A single line of dialogue in one of his books is pulled out of context and used to make Shepherd look like an incendiary revolutionary. How does this happen, Shepherd asks, bewildered by the sudden shift in the culture? Violet Brown describes it as the inevitable aftermath of winning a war, a need grown out of the fear of war to define what it means to be "American."

The testimony Shepherd is called to give before the HUAC captures beautifully the way hearings are staged to look like fact-finding inquiries, but are political theater designed to allow Congressmen to score rhetorical points in front of a national audience. Poor Shepherd is peppered with multi-part questions dripping with innuendo, and then commanded to answer only "yes" or "no." For example, this colloquy on Shepherd's role in accompanying several of Frida Kahlo's paintings to New York to assure their safe arrival.

Mr. Ravenner. Did you know precisly what you were transporting? Did you pack these crates yourself?

Mr. Shepherd: No. I had a roster with the names of the paintings.

Mr. Ravenner: You smuggled large crates of unknown content into this country? From the headquarters of some of the most dangerous Communists in any country touching our borders. Is that correct?

Of course the questioning goes on to cast Kahlo's paintings (which were not "smuggled" but legally transported, but these are theatrical times) as "Communist propaganda" and "concealed objects." Obviously, the purpose of these hearings is to make Congress look like it is successfully protecting the nation against dangerous criminals. And you have to find these criminals in order to look effective, even if you have to manufacture their misdeeds. Of course it is frightening to see how easy it is to use innuendo and charged words to change the meaning of whatever actions are being examined. With the assassination of Trotsky, Kingsolver points out how easily the newspapers could accept a story that Trotsky planned his own death in order to gain publicity for his cause. This twisting of "fact" to fit political fashion of the time not new, and Kingsolver tries to mine the abuses of yellow journalism for outrage, but doesn't quite manage it (for me) until the FBI starts "finding" enemies of the state.

There are clues that Kingsolver wants to connect the Red Scare to more current events--probably to the build-up to the Iraq War after 9/11 and the false case of WMDs. Certainly, Shepherd's books about the ancient Aztecs include commentary on the then-current issues like the use of nuclear weapons, and so one looks for ways in which this book uses the events of 1920-1950 to comment on 21st century politics. However, the parallel doesn't quite gel. The vivid way she writes about the perversion of mid-century witch-hunting and the twisting of fact to fit a political agenda should make us wary of what in the book is "true" and what is "interpretation"--yet I never got the sense that she intended Shepherd's impressions to be anything but honest reportage. He is too boring to be an unreliable narrator, at least in a literary sense. His view of world events might be limited, but they are never less than unbiased and clearly reported.

Which is a bit too bad--the themes of politics and art might have been more fun to sort through if her characters were slightly more twisty themselves.  On the whole, the book rather suffers from being just too earnest--Trotsky was such a nice man, surely his political theory would have been a nicer way to live--and straightforward.

There are hints that the book was perhaps a little bit rushed as well. Specifically, I sensed a missed opportunity for the kind of lush writing I go to Kingsolver to find. In the last quarter of the book, Shepherd travels to Chichen Itza to research Mayan culture for his third novel. There is a brief travelogue, with some rushed descriptions, but none of the lovingly detailed prose that she gave us in Prodigal Summer for example.

Then, sometime later, Violet Brown summons up a moment in flashback. Remember, she says, how we sat at the top of El Castillo at Chichen Itza, and suddenly the light changed. Everything was still the same, all the buildings, all the trees, but it suddenly all looked different. (Obviously, this is paraphrased.)  Imagine how this scene might have been rendered if Kingsolver had shown it to us as it happened, not a rushed memory used to make a point about McCarthyism, but if she had really described how the view from the top looked, and then what the shifting light did--how the shadows changed color or direction, how things that had been foregrounded seemed to efface themselves and revealed new mysteries, new perspectives. The woman who wrote about the lush flora of Appalachia in Prodigal Summer really could have brought this scene to life and made it a deeply memorable experience. Instead, she evoked it and discarded it only a few words.

I wish she had given us that scene. That would have merited her talents.

It's a fine book, it has some ideas to present, but it just doesn't shimmer like I expect a Kingsolver book to do. I enjoyed it as I read it, but it's definitely a lesser achievement from a writer who can do much more wonderful things.

I see that she has a new book coming out this fall, called Flight Behavior. It is set back in Appalachia, and has been described as taking on matters of faith and climate change. I'll probably read that one too, eventually, but I'm not going to put it on pre-order, not after the middling experience of The Lacuna.


roGER said...

I must admit I got as far as when our hero (improbably) becomes a successful author and then the boredom finally made me give up in despair.

The biggest disappointment for me was how she utterly failed to make colourful historical figures like Trotsky come to life at all.

Julie Van Noppen said...

The Lacuna was an excellent choice to bring on my vacation to Central America. Barbara Kingsolver's combination of sensitive storyteller and thorough researcher created an absorbing and informative tale of a half American/half Mexican young man's life on an island, Mexico City, Washington DC, and Ashville,NC. The way she interweaves his life with Diego Riveira, Frieda Kahlo and Trotsky sets the stage for his subsequent encounters with McCarthy 50's brutality. I did not love Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible. But Lacuna was brilliant and I will be forever grateful for reading it.