Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Lacuna: A review

Barbara Kingsolver. Image found here.

The summer is here, grades are more or less done (a few loose ends remain), and I can turn to writing up a couple of promised reviews. The Mrs., herself a voracious reader, pointed me in the direction of these books simply by saying, "Read these. See what you think."

The first is Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel, The Lacuna. I've known about Kingsolver since the beginning of her career, but this was the first novel of hers that I've read; it's good enough that it won't be the last one I read.

The novel's main character and central narrator is Harrison Shepherd, born of an American diplomat and a Mexican woman and raised in both countries during the first half of the 20th century. Along the way, Shepherd becomes, first, Diego Rivera's plaster-mixer while he's painting the murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and, later, Rivera's and Frida Kahlo's cook and, when he arrives, Leon Trotsky's secretary; after Trotsky's assassination, Shepherd escorts some of Kahlo's paintings to the U.S. for an exhibition, avoids the draft due to mental deviancy (Shepherd is gay), settles in Asheville, North Carolina, and becomes a novelist, writing re-imaginings of the Aztecs and the Maya. After the war, Shepherd's connections with Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky catch the attention of Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the space of a few weeks, thanks to prejudicial articles in the newspapers (in which sentences from his novels are taken out of context and read as expressions of anti-American sentiments) and his testimony before the Committee, Shepherd's career as a novelist is gone. He and his still-loyal secretary, Violet Brown, return to Shepherd's childhood home on the Mexican Gulf coast, where he disappears while out for a swim in the ocean.

As you can perhaps sense from this synopsis, such a plot--I refer specifically of its mixing actual and fictional characters and events--is fraught with aesthetic peril, but it's to Kingsolver's immense credit that she makes all this believable. Shepherd, she says, isn't based on any actual person from history, but Shepherd feels plausible and, more important, comfortable as he rubs shoulders with other, actual people. Kingsolver is wise in keeping the real people fairly peripheral relative to Shepherd's narrative, so that helps. When Kahlo and Rivera do appear, though, they don't feel like they're Kingsolver's re-imagining of them to her liking. She is also an excellent mimic; if she did not announce via an acknowledgements page which actual articles from the '40s she had quoted from, you'd be hard pressed to tell her own, invented, news stories from those actual ones. Kingsolver even creates a transcript of Shepherd's testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee, bravely taking on the re-creation of various committee-members' voices in addition to Shepherd's own. Best of all, she avoids foreshadowing the historical turn(s) the narrative takes. It unfolds naturally; when Shepherd is caught up by History, it feels, alternately, ordinary (if ordinary could ever have described life in a house lived in by Rivera and Kahlo) and bewildering (when all the Un-American Activities events intervene; by that point, Kingsolver is hoping that you've come to know and like Shepherd [aside: I found him a bit, well, self-satisfied, but he doesn't deserve to be tried in the papers as he is and then hauled in front of McCarthy's committee]).

It's important that Kingsolver's narrative doesn't anticipate future events, given that its central conceit is that its source is a combination of Shepherd's diaries and letters. But as the novel progresses, another question arises: How is it that we're reading this thing to begin with, especially when we have that scene where Shepherd orders Brown to burn all his diaries and letters--and then witnesses her doing it? That all gets explained later, and it's a fairly easy mystery to solve anyway. But THAT solved mystery raises, for me, still further questions, the asking of which here would give away certain things about the novel.

A couple of further observations. Shepherd (and, I get the feeling, his creator) is clearly smitten with Mexico. His lush descriptions of flora and fauna, the colors and sounds and smells of not just jungles and oceans and markets but even the streets of south central Mexico City, fill and permeate the narrative. The Mrs. and I both agreed that reading those passages made us want to go back. Asheville (near where Kingsolver now lives) isn't slighted, either; the Piedmont is just more subdued by comparison, in lots of ways. The final observation is that The Lacuna isn't overtly political; by that I mean that the novel doesn't re-litigate the McCarthy hearings. That said, though, those sections dealing with World War II and the hearings have recurring meditations--some from actual news articles of the time--on fear (and persecution) of the Other, and the media's role in aiding and abetting that fear and persecution. It doesn't take much imagination to mentally substitute a few other Others, these from our own times, to come to the conclusion that these same forces are still at work in our politics and culture. There are also some sustained discussions of the place of the artist in such a world.

It's a richly-imagined, satisfying novel. Look for it.

Tomorrow: a review of Chris Cleave's Little Bee.


R. Sherman said...

I'm always a bit put off by quasi-biographical/historical novels for the reasons you mention: Plausibility of the fictional characters. I keep asking myself the question, why the need to invent a figure within an historical event or life? If the event or person is worthwhile knowing, then study his/her history.

Nonetheless, your review may have tempered my reluctance somewhat. I shall approach this one with reluctance, but at least I'll give it a look.


John B. said...

I hear you, Randall. I truly approached this one with trepidation, and after about 50 pages or so, I almost bailed out on it. But I kept on, and it rewarded me.

In answer to your wondering "why the need to invent a figure within an historical event or life," I think Kingsolver would say that she's interested in something more ephemeral than what the historical record can reveal: the complicated nexus of Art and Politics, how each can be used and abused by the other. That's rather tangential to the usual way the McCarthy hearings get talked about, even those parts involving Hollywood blacklisting.

Well, that's what she would say. Your mileage may vary, of course.