THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS -GENE WOLFE

Gene Wolfe’s ”The fifth head of cerberus” , has three interconnected novellas through which issues of racism, memory, identity, cloning, being and self intersect . Critically acclaimed though not read as profusely Gene Wolfe’s novels , and especially ”The fifth head of Cerberus” is suffused with dense writing that compresses a rich prose with an ability to convey subtleties of thought and philosophical conundrums powerfully. In the mythology of Cerberus, Cerberus guards the entrance to  hell and is a three headed dog in his mythological embodiment. And this is conflated in the first novella, itself eponymously titled ”The fifth head of Cerberus”.

The first novella begins almost proustianly though its subject matter is both memory and self. The narrator in this story undergoes a painful self discovery as he finds out that the self, which he assumed incontrovertibly his, is a clone replicate of his father and grandfather dispersed among the family members which include him, his sibling David, his father , a teacher Mr.Million and an aunt. Cloistered as this childhood is for the narrator the slavery underpinning the social order is taken for granted by him. Subjected to interludes of dimensionless unconsciousness engendered by the drugs administered by his father the narrator free associates his unconscious, disgorging its constituents while resuming wakeful conscious life threaded by moments of  lost time. Vast stretches of time in the present pass him by and are enveloped in a nothingness from which re emergence into the quotidian is abrupt and bewildering. Cloning and memory form the tapestry for an interrogation of memory and identity. The narrator, alongside his brother and a young woman become part of a theatrical group that does plays and it is the exigency  of getting funds  for this that leads them to vandalize a safe guarded by a four armed slave, with two arms that are synthetic . Mythology and reality commingle here .  The narrator’s father is visited by John .V. Marsch whose ”A story”, a fictional recreation of the life of the abos, the aboriginals refracts aspects of the first novella. Marsch is an anthropologist in Sainte Anne, trying to plumb the recesses of the uncommemorated lives of the abos who were supplanted, exterminated in large numbers and overtaken by the people inhabiting the place now.

”A story” , the second novella amalgamates real time and dream time. The story is about another doubling and reduplicating in the abos landscape with its arcane customs and wavelengths to the collective unconscious . John Sandwalker , a denizen of this world , lives in harmony with nature, extricated from his twin Eastwind in an accident though they rejoin later with Eastwind colluding in a primitive ritual to obliterate Sandwalker and his family. In his peregrination through a landscape half mythical and half real Sandwalker meets the shadow children and their spiritual ancestor, the old wise one, presumably a race who were themselves superseded by Sandwalker. The idea of a nebulous wholeness cleft and only hazily intimated by subsequent more evolved species is visible in Sandwalker who alternates between immersion in dream time and real time and their fortuitous blurring. Dreams become intimations of reconnecting from a larger source of wholeness whose messages are encoded. After being entrapped by a group led by a powerful bully Lastvoice  who has conscripted Sandwalker’s lost sibling and symbiotic doppelganger Eastwind , there is  a tussle between the two siblings counteracted by Sandwalker’s awareness that however expedient his annihilation of his sibling may be irresistible and irrepressible it  would relinquish an irretrievable part of his humanity by acting on this base impulse. Yet this moment of violence and the willingness to inflict it creates an uncanny bond between the two siblings , much like the narrator in the first novella who seeks to expunge an aspect of himself coalesced to his father as a genetically engineered imprinting by wishing to murder the father  . Through this novella ”A story”, a way of life of the Abos people , of native groups is established that is consonant with and respectful to nature and the ineffable mystery of consciousness and ultimate reality.  It is a fictional narrative composed by John Marsch , the anthropologist but it is a beautiful exploration of self knowledge that encompasses the darkness within the self.  The nomenclature of the abos people allegorizes their synchronicity with the natural elements and with their pasts .

The diary entries of Marsch , colloquies with an officer and accounts of anthropological research into the Abos group in Sainte Anne constitute the third novella ”V.R.T” and details his journeyings into the depths of Sainte Anne to reconstruct and memorialize the abos group. The journal entries of Marsch detail his painstaking quest to find these roots . As an inhabitant of earth  but researching in Sainte Anne Marsch becomes a tool and a victim for political shenanigans between Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix where an oscillation between torture and magnanimity in solitary confinement becomes the means for his oppressors and the rival political/national  faction to wrest the truth from Marsch about his actual motivations. Marsch’s research leads him into a hinterland and wilderness , both symbolic and literal , with a young putatively Abos boy as a helper and discussions with this boy’s father , who claims, whether fraudulently or authentically, his abos origins to mint money and curry favour from the new oppressors. Marsch does tunnel into a heart of darkness which is his own darkness as well . Juxtaposed with his eventful forays in his journey are accounts of jail life that are Kafkaesque in that an unformulated crime and a faultless conscience cannot obviate the rota of discipline and punish Marsch has to undergo. . Marsch’s own half successful inroads into an aboriginal past he wishes to comprehend and elucidate is left incomplete as the boy he enlisted for his aid dies .

 

What prevents ”The fifth head of Cerberus” from becoming a stereotypical postmodern narrative or just a disaggregated series of loosely interlinked novellas is the dense layering within each novella and the dialectical relationship each novella has with the others in this novel. If the archetypal story within the story in the second section hearkens to Plato and Jung it doesn’t do so thoughtlessly or affectively. The primal and the social, the counterfeit and an uncategorizable, possibly unfathomable real, the mythical and the indefinably individual, the anterior and the contemporaneous , dream and reality, life and death, self and other, being and becoming   are ostensible dichotomies reshuffled and superimposed on each other so that they become indistinct yet retain their specificity. Nothing in the novel is formulated in a tell all fashion but there is an underlying destabilization of all prefabricated false compartments. The narrator in the first section ruminates on the indeterminacy of memory and the overlapped, concomitant  uncertainty about his own self because he is as a clone, an extension of his father . The wise old mythical figure in the second novel is both inescapably himself and the composite of all the consciousness of his group of people outlawed and extirpated. Sandwalker is , in his identity, vacillating between the tug of an unprocessed past he emerged from whose visitations in dream time are glimmeringly haphazard and a desire to assert his own singularity problematized by his attempt to near extinguish his sibling with whose self he blends . Marsch is a prisoner whose identity is an irrelevance to those who  imprisoned him and he is reduced to being a receptacle for the machinations of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Racism, slavery hover in the background as does the brutality of colonialism. If civilization , with its technocratic acumen and material appurtenances signifies evolution then it is an evolution that is simultaneously a devolution or a misplacement and loss of something whole , including what constitutes an identity, self and being, amorphous though they are.  There is an array of women characters on varied spectrums. But if  women characters as servants are appendages to be exploited sexually then in the second novella there is a deep friendship between Sandwalker and a young mother he meets on his journey which again recomposes the narrator in the first section enjoying a deep friendship with the young woman he does theatre with though she is reduced to the state of a helpmeet  by the novella’s end

 

Cerberus was a three headed dog so what do the five heads in the title represent ? I read it as the concentric elongation of the multifariousness of what both staves off yet is irresistibly entangled in the infernal. The narrator in the first novella recalls a statue of Cerberus outside his home though given the framework of his family the fifth head would attest to himself after his sibling, aunt, father and tutor/grandparental clone relic Mr. Million . Or to the different strata of humanity that exists – be it Sainte Anne, Sainte Croix, the aboriginal people, the marsh dwellers and the shadow children in the second novella, ebbing and flowing between the symbolic and the unrepresentable.  ”The fifth head of Cerberus ” is an elliptical, mysterious novel, overlain with layers and depths that can be prised open and reconstituted from manifold perspectives. It is a book that deals with colonialism at one level and the dehumanization and near effacement of the Abos people who are seen by their ”super civilized” counterparts in sub human or bestial terms, it is about the elusiveness of identities in flux where the erosion of wholeness makes of the  individuality the characters seek both an enigma and a continuum of what surrounds them as unavoidable social reality and genetic/ancestral  engravings they can neither disavow nor acknowledge for their  totality ( the shapeshifting shadow children are an accompaniment to that unknowability ) , it is also about unreliable first person accounts where clarity of self is befuddled and besmirched by the incursion of phantasmagoric lapses , be it the unsought collective unconscious through dreams and myths or the luridness of reality negating the awfulness of that very reality through a supercharged inhabitation of the spectral , or ultimately the simultaneity of schizoid fragmentations within and the bleeding into the ineffaceable reality of the other, be it primitivism, the obverse of civilization or lawlessness . The mixing up and upside down complexifying is representative of the novel which is itself uncapturable, beautifully written and imbued with a plurality of readings that are inexhaustible but rewarding .

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THE DISTRICT COMMISSIONER’S DREAMS- GREGORY WOODS

The first impression in reading the poetry of Gregory Woods is delight. The poetic idiom is observant, worldly, penetrating and the poems themselves, as in ”The district commissioner’s dreams” , punctuated by a delectable mordancy and irony, often ending with a sort of anti climax which , in the more literary and allusive poems, simultaneously undermines and affirms the complexity of the past, be it in the form of mythology, poetic traditions and history. ”The district commissioner’s dreams” begins with a telling quote from Carl Jung’s ” Psychology and religion” , which in a way is interspersed throughout this marvellous collection. In the Jungian quote dreaming  , the prerogative of dreaming is supplanted by the district commissioner (which I read as a  supercession through the paradigms of imperialism as well as modernity)  and in a way I read the poems as a thoughtful post war, postmodern voice reflecting on the ambiguity of Empire, memory, desire and sexuality and masculinity.

 

To me there is a self awareness striating the entire collection as a loop , beginning with a dazzling imaginative feat of transposing on the greek legends the confluence of sexuality and war in conjunction with contemporaneity and ending with the final poem ”Being humans” , culminating with a wry acknowledgement of the fastness and circumambulation of fantasy  as attested in the lines- ”But fantasy, though as expansive as a moor / a wilderness to lose yourself in, is a room / Confined to fixed dimensions .” Thus the sleight of hand with imagination and fantasy converging tragicomically and precipitously in the first section of this collection ends with the same landscape transmuted , albeit underscored with the absurdity of desire and its amusing absences in the last section. The middle section recapitulates in the form of mnemonics , Gregory woods’ childhood memories of the Gold coast , where there was  a movement from Cairo, Egypt  which his family left in the aftermath of the suez crisis and the subsequent move to the Gold coast ( later Ghana)  . Eugene Marais’ ”The soul of the white ant” , becomes a narrative that  transports the landscape of memory by prompting, with a belatedly wistful recognition of the incompleteness of remembering , the lushness of the African   landscape, captured in images of ant heaps , the bush and a photograph by the beach taken by the narrator/speaker’s father . At the same time the brutality of imperialism hovers in the background . The engraved memories of objects such as the air conditioner emitting its spurts of coolness is counterpointed by the wistful retrospective hearkening for an  English winter . The narrator recalls fabricating and disguising his intensely self conscious childhood experience in the form of archetypal descriptions of Africa with sheepish candour where gentle self mocking heightens the gap between perception and reality, preconception and actuality. Ghana /Africa  remains a chimera, an enigma, re experienced through recapitulating in poetic idiom the sensoriform acuity of remembrance of the sights , smells and kinaesthetic fragments of formative experience. The narrator of the poem can remember Ghana emerging as an incontrovertibly self defining entity at school and the supervening incommensurability between this throbbing vital capacious experience and its retelling l in prefigured narrative tropes as a raconteur to English schoolmates .

 

This compendious collection, playing with a variety of styles , tones and poetic forms upends the valour, heroism of warfare by infusing the harshness of masculine rigour exacted by men in warfare by cleverly inveigling intimations of homosexual desire .The speaker in ”The attempt on Alexander” can rue the very brutality he is a co-conspirator in by allowing tender reminiscence and the corporeal ineluctability of physical desire Hermolaus induces . Socratian dialectic is rendered tenuous through the inundation of lust for Charmides in ”Dialogue”, where  eyes, senses interpenetrate  in their own concupiscent dialectic while language freezes . In the poem ”The district commissioner” the white oppressive district commissioner with his swagger and adamantine insistence on rigour and vigour becomes a receptacle for a polyvalence of unconscious projections wherein he is alternately an object of desire, fear, pliancy , intimidation and paternal subjugation and oedipal lubricity. He becomes a ridiculous figure whose braggadocio cannot conceal the variegated primal responses he impels yet he is equally menacing and malevolent.  ”The conquistador’s dildo” is a fluid exploration of the asymmetry between machismo and the dildo exemplifying the fantasy of penetration and the phantasmal nature of social mores of manliness beneath which simmer unbridled and voracious desires and unassuaged longings.

 

And these unfulfilled longings  unsuccessfully counteracted by the instantaneous gratification of random sex and unrequited yearning compose the third section . ”Then” foregrounds a scene of seduction in the quadrangles of academia capsized by the fleetingness of expended ardour wherein being forewarned  about the nature of this encounter cannot obviate the suddenness of sexual release with a conglomeration not of souls but of physiognomies with their accompanying engorgements, tumescence , spunk and unanticipated tenderness . ”Flatshare” recalls a propinquity mediated by random shards of touch and gentleness but unconsummated. ”Public Entertainment” looks at a narrator watching a live onanism of a fellow denizen in a porno cinema in Paris where the depthlessness of longing and a sexual ardour roiling in the circumscription of bottomlessness is alleviated by a conspiratorial witnessing of the mutuality of unmet desire where the masturbation, which would signal the irresolution of solitary longing becomes its own desire, creating its own moment of collusion. In many poems in this section the speaker/narrator recounts the irreconcilability between a conceptualization of desire, both as abstraction and dimensionless yearning and the sordid, piquant, heartrending connection through disconnection of same sex desire finding its moments of communion through reciprocity of shared lonesomeness . ”The ballad of  Johnny Bones” tales a tale of AIDS and familial rejection with such beguiling yet guileless limpidity and with such sure footed ness of touch that the contrast between the irrefragability of death by AIDS and the laconic  tone of the telling complement luminously.

 

”The district commissioner’s dreams ” is a fine collection of poems by Gregory woods and the idiom of intimacy in these poems, withheld , half hinted , indirectional, parenthetical  collusive , detached , valedictory, acerbic and rooted in myth, history and contemporaneity is a testament to both the unexceptionableness and ephemerality of human formulations of valour and heroism in the shadow of mortality and the destruction wreaked by war. It is about the arbitrariness of desire and longing where the concatenation of pursuit and satiation is imperilled by chance, oppression, social mores which yet cannot expunge the unbidden fitful polysemous visitations of polymorphous sexuality . Homosexual love or desire is in a sense an ironic leveller where men commingle and refract their erotic arabesques of death and longing, lust and courage , loss and companionship, youth and ageing in the topography of ancient Greece and contemporary Europe . It is a relish to ensconce oneself in the poetic diction of Gregory woods, his interfusing of the sacred and profane, the sacramental and the scatological, the soulful and the anal. These poems are kaleidoscopic windows into parallel histories unfolding alongside real life ones , historical or contemporaneous , of the subterranean tumults of an indefinable, uncontainable and uncategorizable sexual desire emerging in spaces where the reality of physicality is juxtaposed with the spectral and circuitous trope of fantasy , and where they bleed into each other to reveal the unrevealed and inadmissible matrix of sex and gender that are prismatic and indeterminate in their convolutions ,and where intimacy and only connect is, given the suppression of homosexuality from the annals of history , worked through nonetheless as  nameless and unnameable desires find expression and embodiment through the very history that sought to stopper and negate them. What remains is the rumbustious vitality of the poems. A fine collection .

THE SONG OF SYNTH – SEB DOUBINSKY

Synth – evokes synthesis, synthetic, absinthe or perhaps all associations blur and overlap precipitously in Seb Doubinsky’s  novel ”The song of synth”. Synth in the novel is a drug,  a creator of reality by moulding it in accordance to the visitations from the unconscious , that of Markus Olsen a.k.a Thomas ( his real name ) and Mathias, his assumed identity in Samarqand. Synth is in itself both incontrovertibly itself and many things- it is a drug, it is unmediated access to the unconscious, in many ways it is the unconscious itself manifesting in its unnerving incursions . Hooked up on Synth a new drug, Markus , an alias, working for the authorities who had imprisoned him for treason through hacking , has spent the ten years of his life after the arrest in desultory progression from one hallucinatory state of mind to another , interspersed with professional interludes for his very captors who obtained his release for their own purposes.  Thus both his literal and inner life are phantasmal, shaken up by disjointed mnemonics of the past resurfacing at unbidden moments but never holding together . Karen , his then lover , who was arrested alongside him is another irremovable imprint of memory , hearkening to an authenticity he had somehow held in himself which was subsequently relinquished .

 

The novel traces the journey of Markus from Viborg city to Samarqand, a symbolic traversing as well as an actual one, to rediscover the self from illusion to reality to an unguessable, unknowable beyond. Viborg city in /with the European alliance has all the technological appurtenances that make life materially comfortable. Dr. Sojo is the drug dealer who supplies synth to Markus who spends his free time trawling the web to assuage his loneliness with a nascent  friendship with Gloria online, who is Badia, presumably an immigrant whose downward spiral into economic collapse and painstaking rebuilding are obviated with moments of connection to Markus, including physiological. Sorensen is the person Markus works for and the project he is now given involves tracking an unregistered cash card with a copious amount of money. In the process Markus finds Karen again , who as he surprisingly discovers, engineered her own counter betrayal to ensure her own survival . Markus’s co conspirators in the hacking that gets him arrested and manipulated by his captors are Olgey tazar , who goes to Samarqand and becomes a celebrated poet and national treasure and Nick who dies of diabetes.

The second half of the novel concerns Samarqand where the poet Olgey Tazar has been brutally murdered. Samarqand becomes a site for Markus’s healing or a healing of sorts where , now dissociated from the direct effects of Synth but impacted by its protracted residuum. These sections of the second half in the novel are punctuated by short chapters that are kaleidoscopic. Part of what guarantees redemption for Markus is finding Saran , through whose caring ministrations he rediscovers love and through her medical expertise the novel ends with the shadow of synth laid to rest .

 

Synth permeates the novel as both a phantasmagoric spectre and a too palpable reality. Viborg city and Samarqand work as mnemonics for first and third world. These temporal focal points also work as metaphors for the current crisis of immigration, terrorism and political shenanigans that underwrites the seemly façade of civilization in Viborg where a disoriented Markus ambles around aimlessly and disembodiedly , visited fitfully by intimations of an unprocessed past,  with a disaggregated self, overlain by the narcotic , anesthetizing effects of synth. Yet it is ironically Synth, as it departs his body at the end of the novel, that gives him a vision or  a wavelength into a treasure buried underneath a historical site he had visited and joined a group of white seekers who look for the grave of Alexander. Healing from the hallucinogens under the treatment regime brought into possibility through Saran’s intervention Markus, whose actual name is Thomas , feels a rushing in of the disparate shards of his being, coalescing, dispersing, refracting and reconstituting to the beat, syncopation of the music , his favourite songs being played to him as part of the healing process. Synth is both everywhere and nowhere,  an apparition and all too real. Markus/Thomas’s healing is also through turning his self inside out psychologically and reweaving a composite, fluid and open ended being.

 

The political intrigues that are imperilled after Olgey’s death emblematize the precariousness of the international geo politics between Viborg and Samarqand. The investigation of the murders is done by Inspector General Ali Shakr Bassam and his cousin Sekmet, placed in a superior hierarchical space in the force. The investigation is snatched away from Ali Shakr Bassam who mounts his own investigation of the murder as an admirer of the dead post Olgey. The healing power of poetry and its consolatory potentiality is explored through the inundation of Ali Shakr Bassam with compunction and visions of an indwelling purity /nobility outside of the sordid machinations of the police and political world he inhabits. There is a simplicity to poetry and at the same time a macrocosmic view of human haplessness in the midst of cosmic capaciousness. Yet there is also a contrast between the gentle wisdom of poetry which seeks beauty in human ephemerality and the gritty political reality, tenuously equipoised and about to reach its tipping point after the murder of Olgey. The journey for Thomas/Markus involves a reckoning and coming to terms as well as a  coming of age as depersonalized pixels of insight and a reaching beyond the confines of the conscious dumbed down workaday mind , ironically made possible by Synth in the first place is surmounted. Synth the drug can induce momentary oblivion, can inveigle erotic fantasies and an untrammelled belief in the ability of an overcharged consciousness to make surreptitious alterations to reality by superimposing what in the unconscious corroborates its skewed trappings. But Synth, though suffusing the mind with free floating fantasies and unconnected succession of images and fragmented mind/body experiences cannot contain the very unconscious it seeks to expand in the realm of the fanciful. The unconscious resists reigning in, the immanence of conscience and probity in Thomas/Markus, even if  embedded in the alternation between unremitting despair at the undeniability of reality and the facetious charm of fantasy and images Synth produces , cannot be negated . Synth, from another perspective could be reality itself or a metaphor for the reality that exists in contemporaneity, in our world of fake news, conspiracy theories , pornography and atomized human subjectivity. The whirligig of synth for Markus/Thomas reduplicates the hall of mirrors the information overload and propaganda of our lived reality betoken.  But synth’s workings could equally represent human apprehending of reality itself, the way a piecemeal but always inconclusive understanding of a fathomless reality is undermined by the prodigiousness of reality itself.

 

”The song of synth” is a fine novel, written with limpid understatement, with accessible prose often reaching heights of beauty through its very simplicity and sparseness. It is a novel that is a sort of sci fi novel, but also a heroic mythical conventional narrative, or a bildungsroman , or a metaphysical odyssey or perhaps all of these in one form or another. It is on a continuum with sci fi /metaphysical/slipstream  works by Philip k dick although it also partakes of the nightmarishness of Ballard. But it is ultimately a novel that carves out its own singular style and distinctness . Seb Doubinsky is also a poet whose poems are witty questionings of the epistemology of poetry itself while always alert to its potentiality. ”The song of synth” is a novel that synthesises the experience it delineates, by extricating the synthetic and the extraneous and affirms the evanescence of human presence on this planet while in its mosaic like arabesques being fully alive to the grotesque political, social, cultural reality our species now coexists with and tries hard to disentangle. But human subjectivity’s density and reality’s multitudinousness remains unaltered. Within Viborg city there are constituent cultural, literary, defiant forms/ people/groups  to counter the benevolent and imperceptible autocracy of culture that uses morality and sentiment to dissimulate its insidious power politics. And Samarqand itself pulsates with humanity even in the shadow of political uncertainty . ”The song of synth” is a fine novel.  And respectful of the diversity of human reality, beyond grand narratives .

SMALL PIECES- JOANNE LIMBURG

Joanne Limburg’s  book ”Small pieces” has a sub title affixed below called ”A book of lamentations”. Tracing the suicide of her sibling Julian through her own journeying through grief ”Small pieces” is both a self contained text and a kaleidoscope , divided into sections referred to as vessels , with each one refracting a facet of the process of mourning that is both a continuum and an ongoing journey. Threading these vessels are jewish  scriptural/metaphysical/mythical  traditions of dealing with loss and the ineffability of the beyond. Joanne Limburg’s ”Small pieces ” moves between past and present powerfully, evincing a self awareness that is admirable .The writing style is detached, often matter of fact which communicates the depth of conflicted emotions beautifully. There is a dry wit and an often tremendously moving expression of grief and coming to terms . The book is also about sibling relationships which, in the case of Joanne , leave behind an ineffaceable residuum of feelings to sift and recompose into a coherent narrative form. Life is uncontainable in narrative. Mourning is a curious process- at once holding on and letting go, held in the suspension of stasis of the interlude to be worked through .

 

Joanne Limburg’s account of her coming to a certain narrative closure with  the nebulousness of neat endings in the aftermath of her brother’s suicide tackles this attempt at resolution through multiple , interconnected frameworks- there is the Jewishness as a backdrop, with its traditions, conventions and observances . The childhood and growing up of Joanne Limburg are also a meditation on faith and Jewishness. What does it mean to be agnostic about one’s belief ? Is adhering to customs for the communality of consaguinary, community allegiances , without an unassailable bedrock of faith as belief, a form of obeisance itself, in itself ? The other lens of understanding is through the sibling relationship. Joanne limburg writes powerfully of the bond of humour and maverick bursts of idiosyncratic jokes with which the siblings found moments of solidarity. Interspersed with the often candid and towards the end of Julian Limburg’s life preceding his suicide,  with the unstated yet overloaded with unspoken resonant  conversations there is also a sense of a camaraderie between the siblings, with only a two year gap between them, that is wordless . There are the conversations and there is the subterranean awareness , captured in retrospect in the book, of a deeper divination of her brother’s feelings beyond  the integument of conscious colloquies. Julian’s suicide necessitates travelling to America with her mother. And the bewilderment and haplessness at the enormity and tumult engendered after knowing of a loved one’s death by suicide is memorably rendered .

 

The mother Ruth Helen Savinson , is another focal point through which this process of mourning is negotiated. Joanne Limburg records with her customary honesty the succession of intense metamorphoses of feeling she experiences for her mother after Julian’s death. Yet there is no apportioning of blame attached. The childhood mnemonics of  herself and Julian Joanne Limburg explores are of a keen solitariness , which is more a heightened awareness of one’s apartness and intelligence as well as a certain overwhelming ness in larger collective spaces, even within the family’s gatherings for death or other occasions. The singular humour , which the siblings carry as an inexpungible engraving of their childhood negotiations with the distinctness of each other , is a sort of bridge, an ebullient bulwark. And it is this inundation by unbidden memories of these eventful fragments that are an accompaniment through the journey of mourning, of a state of dealing with a loss that is measureless wherein working through the formal rudiments of mourning in the socialized space alternates with the incalculable immensity of the upsurge of a complex jumble of memories, feelings, absence . As a sole survivor Joanne Limburg, after her brother’s suicide and mother’s subsequent death by lung cancer, writes to endeavour a disentangling of the strands in which her psychic blueprints of self and aspects of being are indissociably cleaved to and enmeshed with her family.

 

One of the disconcerting but equally unavoidable manifestations of mourning a loss due to suicide  is self castigation. In the case of her sibling Julian Joanne Limburg retreads her childhood sibling relationship, of both the extraordinary closeness and the rivalry the siblings shared, as is identified as quite common in many sibling equations as psychologists have postulated. The point in these incursions of childhood cruelties for Joanne is to encompass the range and breadth and depth of her closeness to her sibling. The fact of suicide , of this loss which no piecing together can ever entirely explicate is a force field that absorbs everything into itself. The suicide becomes a fixed point, embalmed as an irrevocable circumference around which and through whose irretrievability , the process of mourning is predicated . Yet the nature of memory and the fact of recording them through narrative sequence means that these two forces – that of a death by self annihilation and of the compendium of unknowable yet relatable and unforgettable aspects of one’s shared history with the lost one never square up. For the survivors the suicide creates a void, a traumatic crater into which is poured the repertory of memories, self recriminations, quest to understand the whys and wherefores in order to  find a modicum of closure. Julian Limburg comes across in the memoir as a fiercely intelligent , caring , intense , uproariously funny man , with both the exactitude of a scientific  academic bent and a playful largesse  as well convoluted interior emotional landscapes in relation to his mother. Thus what emerges of Julian limburg is a mosaic, an unfathomable self, mediated through the shards of memory, lived experience and it ness and feelable ness of the loss through his sister Joanne Limburg’s account. Given that this account is infused and imbued with Joanne limburg”s own indivisible consciousness the reader gets in a sense a Joanne limburg version of the brother and mother. Yet there is also a sense of these loved ones  having a vibrant presence, a quality of individuality which is attested to by the dispassionate yet emotionally grounded quality of the prose.  Mourning becomes a site where wistfulness and anger commingle, in mourning the one lost irreparably one mourns other losses too- the loss of a possibility , of bits of the self amalgamated and embroiled with the other , of the fact of loss itself , of what of/in the self is revealed to itself. Mourning is an intensification , a concentrated fragment of temporality that is as much atemporal. Mourning, in a sense, never ends although it becomes bearable though even that is susceptible to inroads of unsought feelings. Formative bonds cannot be effaced , they persist. Mourning is a reckoning scriptures, social customs , rituals can obviate only intermittently, instituting a collective or communal way of acknowledging the commonality of loss as loss that underwrites the human predicament. However mourning is a peregrination  profoundly individual as well , subjective, freighted with the nature of loss specific to the one who has lost . It cannot be appropriated – beyond the fastness and reprieve of the sociality of mourning is the hinterland of a self/ selves  who has/have  lost and that is a simultaneal morass and too muchness only they can undergo in/by/for themselves . Julian Limburg took his life when he was 36 and had left behind his wife Ayako and daughter Giselle. Both Julian and Joanne Limburg marry outside of the jewish faith, and that is another aspect of a bond that is unique to them.  Ayako is Japanese.

 

I end this book with more questions than answers yet also with a deep satisfaction. How does one even begin to conceptualize the need to unravel the skein of familial bonds – Jewishness is ineradicable for both Joanne and as she hazards, for her sibling, something they have a decidedly complicated equation with yet which cannot be wished away.  Joanne Limburg’s odyssey through mourning is both circuitous yet restitutive – there is a sense of homecoming because death, depression, loss, the strangeness of subjectivity and terrains that are coalesced to the self’s understanding of itself . Yet this homecoming is also replete with the mystery and amorphousness of the path itself with its odd turnings, byways, cul de sacs , and this is exacerbated yet ameliorated by the mourning process . The autism spectrum/ ADD ( mentioned fleetingly in the novel in a conversation between the siblings )  is another strand for both Joanne and Julian limburg and that too is , though locatable in their trappings upon self and experience also far reaching in their aetiological and epistemological bases  but in no way determinative or definitive . ”Small pieces” is a salutary reminder that absence and temporal progression is incontrovertible and any comprehension of the loved one fitful. The narrative of ”Small pieces” is both open ended and sufficient unto itself. An understated, beautifully written , searingly honest, tender  remembrance of loss that is unformulable yet honourable in being carried out with the best possible rigour , fair mindedness and scrupulousness .

AGAAT – MARLENE VAN NIEKERK

The machinations of power are both palpable and subtle. And one dimension of racim has been power and brutality, both overt and covert. Marlene Van niekerk’s splendid novel ”Agaat” is a powerful exploration of the corruptibility of power. Published in Afrikaans and translated by Michiel Heyns ”Agaat” is also a long prose poem, a meditation on mortality and an unflinching tunnelling into the most debased and poignant corners of human nature. Stylistically the novel alternates between the wordless consciousness of a dying white woman Milla at her far Grootmoedersdrift and momentary stream of consciousness poetic interludes that concentrate together the poetic limpidity of imagistic aspects of the story and a third person narration where Milla addresses herself as ”you” and is the addressee to her own experience, split between speaker and listener. There are also long though concise journal entries by Milla, pertaining to her exploration of her marriage and Agaat’s upbringing.

 

The novel begins with a dying Milla inarticulate, her body parts decaying, atrophying, ministered to by the faithful servant Agaat , who blends in her assiduous care giving both tenderness and vengefulness of long pent up unarticulated resentments . This replicates the symbiotic bond between Milla and Agaat . For Milla had taken in Agaat, a coloured girl of five as a foundling, on a precipitate impulse of generosity prompted by her empty marriage and childlessness. Agaat, abused and living in conditions of abject poverty thus experiences a deliverance from hardship under the needy , solicitous yet ambivalent hands of Milla. Milla, an ambitious owner of a tract of land and farm deemed inhospitable is a tireless carer and professional , passing on to Agaat all the experience of nature and farming and literature she has absorbed through life, from fairy tales to the bible to Mahler . Agaat thus becomes a blank vessel , a tabula rasa for Milla whom she can graft into a shape and form that is an extension of herself and a container for the primal, unprocessed feelings of inadequacy and emptiness engendered by her destructive marriage. Milla’s husband Jak is not a natural manager of farms although as a white man in south Africa his position in the hierarchy is predetermined. Despising the patient, coexistent balance with nature and unflagging hard work that is Milla’s modus operandi Jak seeks to industrialize the farm , bringing in more advanced contraptions .

Milla’s ambition in running this unfriendly piece of land and make it fruitful is commendable but her harnessing of her husband, of making him an adjunct in this process is deplorable. Milla incrementally erodes Jak, both taunting and extolling him for the standard of industriousness she embodies. She provokes him into uncontrollable violence and masochistically suffers her victimhood as a reprieve with the air of a long standing martyr. Jak , whose own unformulated though promising career choices are annexed and taken over with farming is yoked to Milla in an indissoluble bond, a bond he both chafes against and cannot extricate himself from . Thus he expends his unfulfillment in rancorous imprecations and violence . This unassuaged ardour is then transmuted to his son Jakkie who, born late in the marriage, becomes yet another victim for the trio of Agaat, Milla and Jak. Jak’s transference of his hopes and expectations on Jakkie is counteracted by Jakkie’s upbringing by Agaat while Milla is swamped in postpartum depression after pregnancy and which institutes an unbreachable distance between her son and her husband. Jak’s hatred of Agaat is not only for her skin color and her inferior inhabitation of the stratified hierarchy of south African apartheid mores but for the way Agaat becomes a focus point for Milla, thereby compounding the already widening distance between him and his family.

 

In a way the servant Agaat, alternately foundling, foster daughter, slave and therefore expendable, cherished and menial is the nodal point of the family psychodynamics that unravel. A supplementary object for Milla , whom Milla seeks to carve in her own image , Agaat experiences both toughness and tenderness from Milla after being taken on at the age of five until Jakkie’s birth. The unassailable difference between Agaat and Milla , predicated on race and skin colour proves to be insurmountable . Milla can transfigure Agaat from a bruised damaged young girl to a competent drudge who surpasses her white masters in farming finesse and acumen, or give some shelter and hope for Agaat who, had she been thoughtlessly abandoned would either have died of impoverishment or undergone protracted suffering due to race and class. Yet the steady accretion of damage inveigled by Milla, partly inadvertently and partly narcissistically is an equally dire festering wound that sets the course for the family’s self destruction. Right from childhood Agaat is seen by Milla in sub human terms, as someone to be metamorphosed into the recognizable putty shape of a human being approximating Milla’s standards while providing a safeguard and an protective amulet against a disintegrating life.The birth of Jakkie is cataclysmic at many levels chiefly because it kickstarts the erosion of the uncomplicated though iniquitous symbiosis between Agaat and Milla. Having been rescued, given hope, educated Agaat after Jakkie’s birth is relegated to the peripheries, consigned to her role as a menial despite the emotionally complex topography she has had with Milla. Though not born to Milla Agaat is , in a sense Milla’s progeny and the birth of Jakkie would have presumably induced sibling rivalry. Yet that rivalry is circumvented by the unconditional care Agaat bestows on Jakkie, making him in turn a blank vessel onto whom she pours her own complex being, both as Agaat as indivisibly herself and the Agaat moulded and fashioned by Milla.

 

Jakkie too thus reduplicates the ambiguous power politics he witnesses . He is estranged from his father and mother, estranged from a south Africa where as a fighter pilot he experiences profound disenchantment with the settler racist way of life and decamps to Canada to crystallize the irretrievable gap between his consciousness and that of previous generations. Jakkie recedes from Milla right from childhood yet he becomes a force field around whose childhood self the battle for psychic ascendancy is staked between Agaat and his father Jak. Milla’s stronghold over her family, precarious to start with, undergoes an imperceptible though undeniable attrition. Hapless, dependent on drugs, gradually ceding psychic and familial territory to Agaat Milla watches with frustration how her altruistic yet unconsidered act, leaving ineffaceable the realities of racism and patriarchy , only reaffirms the oppressiveness of the system and the moral turpitude her selective generosity unleashes.

 

So a dying Milla , saturated with the detritus of her past, looked after by the faithful slave Agaat , seeks a redemption that is unforthcoming. Agaat has an inalienable subjectivity of her own but she seems to lack a free self. Indefatigably careful in her nursing , replicating the power that she was under the burden of and to subsequently inherit the farm after Milla’s death Agaat’s putative future seems set, as an indomitable farm owner in post apartheid Africa. Yet Milla’s  ineradicable shadow will hover. Milla , even from her deathbed seeks a simultaneal foreclosure and resolution from Agaat from the imponderable adhesiveness of their presence in each other’s lives. In a way propinquity has inculcated in both Milla and Agaat a closeness that can read beyond words and cues and gestures into the depth of each other’s being. There is too close a familiarity, too cloying a bond to not therefore manifest in this blending of essences between both. In another sense however their subjectivities remain impenetrable to each. Agaat’s life anterior to Milla is a mystery much as Milla’s senescent , somnolent , near extinguishing consciousness is unplumbed by Agaat . The scenes of care , of Milla’s mute consciousness taking on its own associative leaps and Agaat’s imperfect and infrequent grasp of this movement of Milla’s slumbering consciousness are powerful. Agaat is often petty as a carer, slyly punishing Milla while elsewhere almost preternaturally attentive to Milla’s emotional vacillations . Jakkie , meanwhile , who comes for Milla’s funeral, to a home which never was a home , returns to Canada yet again.

Power in the novel is explored truthfully and in each emotional inflections that are the accompaniment of the febrile trajectory of this family. Agaat is a slave/servant /master rolled in one . Slavery or white superiority, the bedrock or cornerstone of Jak’s and Milla’s actions and conduct has an overall deleterious effect and impinges on everyone. Across generations too there is a huge gulf. The forty odd years of  Agaat and Milla’s momentous overlapping life histories , with their points of convergence and retraction , are also accompanied by a changing south Africa, where entrenched racism gives way to the possibility of more equality. Thus in a microcosm mnemonics of south African templates, familial, gender based, social, cultural play out in the course of these decades in this family. But within this microcosm the irreconcilability of closure is the lasting impression. Deracinated Jakkie is left dwelling on his predicament after his parental loss , a mourning both for his parents and for a south Africa he felt dispossessed from yet is cleaved to formatively. Agaat has attained a freedom of sorts yet her future at an age nearing fifty, though never adumbrated in the novel, seems to suggest to me as a reader a continuum of the discrepant power equations of mistress /servant whose mixed messages/motives so bewildered Agaat herself . Agaat is in many ways a victim and what she has suffered cannot be expunged . The alteration of her status , the confounded irresolution of what exactly she means to Milla and Jakkie and her immuring herself in this family that takes her in as a waif is an umbilical cord like fastness she cannot or perhaps does not wish to foreswear. But Agaat is equally a prime mover , a sly tactician in that she, through her indispensability becomes a person on whom others depend however much she is  rendered repugnant by their loss of control. On the surface the unalterable hierarchies of man/woman, white mistress/ servant continue but underneath are palpable disquieting ripples as the fabric snags, sways and is ultimately rent. Agaat may simply be succumbing or capitulating to her incarceration psychically with guile but she is an unknown quantity. Ever vigilant of Milla’s obsessive interest in herself Agaat can also be disingenuous in her performance, as is evidenced by a ritual she makes of a dance Milla taught her. A servant/ a coloured woman, Agaat is experienced by Milla and Jak as an incubus, an underminer , a threat and a pathetic figure. These are partly extrojections of their own latent unresolved psychological landscapes , partly demonstrations of the soulless , unwilled, undetermined way they regulate their lives , partly detestation for the reality their unreflective actions and unsought bids of freedom have wrought and ultimately acknowledgement of their collusion in this very structure they brought into being and are ensnared by. Neighbours, other white settler’s, their disfavour and looking askance at Agaat’s presence in the family becomes unignorable for Milla , thereby necessitating a realignment of Agaat’s presence and status in the family, indeterminate to start with in the first place.

 

”Agaat” is a poetic masterpiece and a novel so searing in its exploration of power that to read it is a visceral shock. The south African landscape, the flora and fauna of the farms, nature are evoked with luminous kinaesthetic and tactile immediacy. The underbelly of brutality and cruelty mixed with tenderness in various interknottted relationships is unforgettably captured. But above all Agaat is a psychologically nuanced novel that elucidates, upends and reconstitutes the shifting axis of power and how racism , racialization remains and always will , unless mourned and transcended , as a live throbbing force whose grotesque shadows persist .

 

 

 

THE BLACK PRINCE- IRIS MURDOCH

What does art mean and what understanding  another person implies are explored playfully in Iris Murdoch’s ”The black prince”. The black prince is a frame novel, narrated by Bradley Pearson, a seeker after artistic perfection yet a failure at living.  Suffusing his imagination with theories of art that are partly self exoneration for his minimal output Bradley lives a tortured interior life. This inwardness, which is a conglomeration of grandiose fantasies of artistic apotheosis, a profound loneliness , and unprocessed emotional issues is overlain with the carapace of intellect. As a narrator Bradley oscillates between hapless confession of his emotional vulnerabilities and generalized exegesis on his predicament. The novel begins with him  being visited by Francis Marloe, the brother of his ex wife Christian  whom Bradley felt appropriated by and separated from . Christian’s return to London after her second marriage ends with the spouse’s death unfurls the chain of events that Bradley’s narration postulates as a possible causal determinant in the plot.

Arnold Baffin is a writer who is a figure through whom Iris Murdoch pokes gentle self mocking fun at her own oeuvre. Arnold is a prolific writer , with an annual output of a book an year. Detested by Bradley as a lightweight Arnold and Bradley are nonetheless symbiotically aligned in their mutual attraction and repulsion to each other as writers and people. Bradley refers to himself as an artist as opposed to a writer only. A domestic skirmish between Arnold and his wife Rachel, which is witnessed by Bradley becomes the graceless moment that would later propel Rachel to momentarily idealize and love Bradley before accepting the truth of her misplaced yearnings.  Meanwhile Bradley’s sister Priscilla , after submergence in an empty marriage after a youth spent in feckless fickleness , chooses to leave her marriage and be with her brother for a while. So self contained, puritanical Bradley who begins the narrative with a putative plan for a vacation to nourish his creativity in solitude is beset and undermined by a concatenation of spiralling supervening events that unnerves him. Falling in love with Julian Baffin, Arnold’s twenty year old daughter, recklessly and spontaneously, Bradley seeks a foothold in romantic love as a deliverance for his empty life where at fifty eight, after years of uneventful service at the Income Tax revenue office and a few meagre publications to his credit , a modicum of purposefulness after voluntary retirement beckons .

Bradley’s narration, self reflexive, wordy embodies the multifariousness of consciousness. Given his inveterate intelligence and propensity towards sophistries he can disarm the reader with a conscious entreaty for levity for what he sees as  his understandable weaknesses. Elsewhere he elaborates in recondite pronouncements his belief in art and truth and the necessity to embrace stasis for the sake of perfection . When his sister Priscilla, after absconding from her marriage, is swamped in clinical depression , Bradley is busy finding an oasis of self aggrandizing virtue in running away with Julian Baffin and staying away from everything that challenges him. For all his asceticism and self denial, as well as sanctimonious propoundings of morality , evidenced most in his attempts to stave off Rachel Baffin’s desperate overtures while irrepressibly succumbing to her wooing due to his own repression , Bradley is exposed in the causal fortuitous unspooling events that materialize as a needy, inadequate and lonesome man, desperate for love, unworldly, erecting a barrier between self awareness and truth through the agency of language and rationalized primordial emotions.

 

It is unsurprising that he falls for Julian Baffin, letting a stray glimpse of her youthful beauty that engorges him to build a grand mythology of love and eros. Julian is a reservoir for the depthless uncontainable ardour Bradley carries throughout life and has not expended. She exists as an apparition for him, because as a symbolic mnemonic the idea of his untimely desire for her, disproportionately exaggerated as love and salvation means  he never sees her as she is . Yet her gamine, louche, eager palpitating youthfulness, in thrall of his presumed repository of experiential wisdom , makes her too corporeal a physical presence to reckon with. The disordered feverishness of romantic obsession is never relinquished by Bradley to the very end. Yet this phantasmagoric displacement of his own unresolved life conundrums labelled love has its own sincerity . Having ruminated more on life than engaged with the realities of life Bradley’s understanding of reality is mediated by the incommensurability between his emotional desire for flight and transference of unreflected feelings and the redoubtability of his intellection which seeks to circumvent the painful self knowledge confronting truth necessitates through self justification and evasiveness and misrepresentation. Yet the intelligence he possesses problematizes his narration in that unbidden a well as conscious and half conscious intuitions of reality do creep in. The substratum of the absurdity of his predicament and the contretemps of his obsessiveness exacerbated by unfulfilled needs and so far unconsummated by artistic transcendence never passes Bradley by. He comes across as helplessly embroiled and implicated in his own story yet aware of , albeit intermittently, its less glamorous and debased motivations. Bradley’s narration ends with his imprisonment for the murder of Arnold Baffin which Iris Murdoch characteristically fudges by leaving unproven. To Bradley Rachel killed Arnold in a fit of jealously prompted by his closeness to Christian , Bradley’s ex wife. While for the tabloids Bradley is the culpable party, envious of Arnold’s superior talent and professional success.  Priscilla’s suicide is an albatross Bradley has to shoulder although he seeks to skirt by referring to the irrevocability of her unremitting despair. It is this escape from commitment , which is a cover story for an unwillingness to tackle quotidian life morasses that leads Bradley to embed himself in a self created miasma   impassioned physical commingling with Julian precipitates  immediately after being notified about Priscillas’s suicide. In trying to obviate the burden of truth his own complicity in ignoring his helpless sister inveigles Bradley seeks in Julian’s ingenuous arms some reprieve but cannot experience that reprieve as exculpatory. This is a replication of the larger asymmetry of pull and push in his life, of avoidance and futile self transcendence.

 

Iris Murdoch adduces the indeterminacy of the story by affixing to Bradley pearson’s story postscripts by the other participants in the drama.  Thus Christian , Bradley’s ex wife, sees the story as a fabrication by Bradley through a narcissistic overinvestment in his interpretation of his experience. To Christian Bradley never effaced the love he felt for her even though he saw her as a succubus. To Rachel, Bradley is a failed writer, a man to be pitied, a man indulged by her husband and herself for his unreconstructed emotional feelings and inadequacy,  disdaining Bradley’s account as the febrile, fanciful falsifications of a deeply tormented man .  To Julian Baffin Bradley is simply a tumultuous representative of her youthful self whom she saw in unrealistic terms and what she finds in Bradley’s account is the undercurrent on unsifted emotion which makes it an imperfect and failed work of art . And for Francis Marloe, who is a psychoanalyst , seen as an ineffectual weak homosexual in Bradley’s story, Bradley himself is a repressed homosexual whose real love object was Arnold Baffin and partly himself. . If there is a tentativeness about factuality in Bradley’s fictitious account then these postscripts augment that amorphousness. Because each participant projects parts of themselves in the analysis of Bradley’s filtering  of his experience in the form of fiction.  The unknowability of any one being by another is the metaphysical confidence trick Iris Murdoch playfully negotiates in this novel. P. A  Loxias, a musician as well as a fellow prison mate of Bradley’s enwraps the entire frame of Bradley’s novel and other postscripts. Being sympathetic to Bradley P. A  Loxias allows the self explanatory artfulness of Bradley’s story to be its own testimony to the experience encapsulated in this novel.

 

Bradley pearson himself is not an undiscriminating narrator, nor fatuous enough to not cogitate on the compendium of emotional vacillations he undergoes. Yet to him the otherness of others around him is unbreached because his solipsistic immersion in himself and his abstruse expatiating of what within human nature perpetually escapes him is a larger force which no analogy from art or immaculate phrasing can ever obliterate.. He is a man with a desire for an immensity of experience without undergoing the concomitant subjection to humility and reality such an intense craving for formlessness would involve. Interposing language in his narrative, dissimulating where he wishes to obfuscate, half hinting where he wishes to reveal more than he can, justifying where the conditions for justification are spare and unmerited and indulging untrammelled in philosophical nuggets and substantiating his unexceptionable experience through art, music and life Bradley is a narrator who is too intelligent but ultimately too naïve for his own good. What he does by fictionalizing his crude life story, often compellingly, at times maladroitly , is reveal the complexity of any human being. Bradley himself is ungraspable , despite the palpable irreconcilability between the unformed self he experiences only fitfully as primal need or pixels of a supercharged intellect , and the unerring prescience, although infrequent, yet startlingly revelatory, that completes his self enclosed, inconclusive  narrative. He isn’t simply a conduit for swathes of inrushing feelings, nor just emotionally grasping, or for that matter a cruel heartless man. He is simply someone muddied by the ceaseless irresolvable dialectic between sophisticated ratiocination and unrepresentable and misunderstood inner promptings of the heart. And the other characters too evince the same interplay between sagacity and foolishness, of prioritizing their ego as well as immured in compunction and self loathing at the ungracious way they become victims of their interior life.

 

What does a self mean and how human consciousness is understood remains mired in convoluted reasoning and unconstrained iruptions of primal feelings in this novel. Iris Murdoch takes on here, as in many of her other novels, the indecipherability of the human soul. Art cannot capture this ineffableness as form disallows a neat packaging of the rumbustious full bloodedness and unclassifiability of phenomena , metaphysical language can only hint at a vastness validated by an experience whose self authenticating integrity testifies to the spiritual and psychoanalysis can only concretize through looking at patterns of aberration of disavowal of a dense human subject. ”The black prince” examines romantic love without foregrounding what the lineaments of such a form of loving may be. Love is experienced as unrelieved ardour, misspent and misdirected emotionality, entanglements of physical and emotional needs in the idiom of morality and self deluding inauthenticity. Eros can create an irresistible novel form for Bradley, an allegory that in gilded form, alternating with its own deconstructive paradigm, confers meaning for a life that is unremarkable, the other characters can attach their own interpretations, presupposing their superior divination of Bradley’s psyche while inadvertently revealing the slippages of their own extrojections and extrapolations. But ultimately all that is seen by anyone of anyone is a stray glimpse, partial apprehending and a fathomlessness within and without.

TARJEI VESAAS – SPRING NIGHT

Tarjei Vesaas’s ”Spring night” is a beautifully understated evocation of adolescence . The mediating consciousness in this slim novel is fourteen year old Olaf, poised between imaginative daydreaming and adolescent sexual stirring. The novel begins with Olaf eavesdropping on a conversation between Tore and Sissel, his eighteen year old sister. Olaf’s burgeoning consciousness alters his awareness of Sissel as her physicality and mystery are increasingly apparent to him. It is a definitive Norwegian classic.

The core plot element in ”Spring Night” is an evening in Olaf and Sissel’s house ruptured by the arrival of a family with a pregnant woman Grete, her husband Karl, Karl’s father Hjalmar and Hjalmar’s recent wife Kristine while their car breaks down . Seeking shelter With Olaf and Sissel during a balmy spring night the family engrave their imprint on Olaf and Sissel. As is characteristic in this novel with its spare yet telling prose the family details are not delineated but hinted at. Karl has fought in the war and is destabilized and gradually regaining equilibrium, Hjalmar is a chattering nervous wreck , beleaguered by incessant wranglings with his wife and Kristine is swamped by Hjalmar’s ministrations and fractiousness. There’s also Gudrun , Hjalmar’s thirteen year old daughter , as well as a corporeal materialization of the Gudrun Olaf has created in his own fantasy. Thus the unbidden visitation by this family in a moment of crises for them blurs the fantasy/reality, interior/exterior demarcation for Olaf. Through this eventful night and the supervening morning Grete gives birth aided by a midwife and Kristine dies and Olaf undergoes a metamorphosis that is indelible yet uncapturable.

Olaf’s perception of this night is imbued by the oscillation between the hallucinatory, the supra sensory and the amorphous , thereby corresponding to the lability of adolescence. He can both understand the essence of the fraught relationships of this family during their one night at his house and be befuddled by the fine details of their predicaments. An almost disconcerting prescience and divination of the primal feelings of dense adult emotions coexists with a confusion and unknowing for Olaf. He can both see too much and understand very little. The balmy spring night augments the phantasmagoria of perception as too muchness crowds in . As also presumably the pubescence of awakening physical desire. Gudrun, who embodies in her singular form, through this fortuitous concatenation of circumstances for this night is both illusory and all too real for Olaf. Her distinctness and embedment in her family’s distress, the consolatory role she plays to emolliently pacify her disoriented father is simultaneous with the wispy attenuation of shards of her physicality as filtered through to the supercharged perception of Olaf. That night for a brief interlude they innocently yet with a wise intuition of the nature of adult sexuality compare the lengths of their arms. Gudrun is the focal point keeping Olaf in a state of concentrated fixity for this  single night yet is equally indistinct in that she is both an ethereal concretization of Olaf’s fantasy and interacted with too fitfully amidst the various crises plaguing this family.

 

Kristine, Karl as well as Hjalmar respectively enlist the help and complicity of Olaf in their subjective misapprehensions and deadlocks with each other  . Kristine , simulating inarticulacy,  veering towards paranoia, watchful and over attentive to each sound and texture of vision is a sort of psychotic doppelganger for Olaf’s current frame of mind and consciousness. Olaf can intuit her distress , as he can process the pulsating primordial emotional topographies of Karl and Hjalmar because they are reverberant with unprocessed profundities and efflorescent turbulences of feelings within himself. Yet being only fourteen he can only experience these turbid emotions by osmosis, as transmutations of quickening impulses , as pre verbal , wordless communications operating  subterreneously , in some twilight stratum where desire, longing,  fear, excitement, nothingness , exuberance are conjoined so compactly and in  such intensified febrility that they manifest as ungraspable and sharpened pinpricks of  ways of seeing . What began as a desultory mooching about through the rainy afternoon and a harmless viewing of snails with his sister , in the absence of parental vigilance becomes a rite of passage. The night , authenticating some pathetic fallacy of the vacillations, both circumstantial and temperamental, within the characters blows hot and cold , of enervating stuffiness of claustrophobia contrasted with resurgent and rejuvenating puffs of fresh air , of the new life embodied in the baby Grete conceives and the death of Kristine. The adults who make this random incursion in the lives of Olaf and Gudrun are themselves foundering, in life as well as in the concomitant tensions produced by this interregnum of their contingent life situation. By the time they leave they have kickstarted inadvertently, albeit ineluctably, an initiation for Olaf. He bids a valedictory goodbye to Gudrun, has an inveterately shrewd assumption, never explicitly elucidated in the novel, that his sister has expended this nerve wracking night through a sexual commingling with Tore. There is a keen acuity at this point for Olaf, of an irretrievable loss as the verdant valley of childhood is irreparably relinquished. Gudrun the fantasy figure is dissipated by the all to real Gudrun. In an instantaneous pooling in of myriad facets of  inroads of realities Olaf is inundated in he realizes his sister’s receding away from him, the finality of Gudrun’s imminent departure to support her disconsolate father after the loss of his recent spouse . Though tragedy and renewal unspool through the course of the night they are peregrinated by Olaf in an overwrought, high strung, overstimulated state of consciousness where excitement and abjection are concurrent and indistinguishably blended . The same could be postulated for the other characters in varying degrees.

”Silent night” is written in prose so lucid and denuded of fancy metaphors and baroque pyrotechnics that the sparseness of the prose amplifies the hallucinatory effect of the narrative.  And it focuses on the multifaceted incipient disenchantments and epiphanies of adolescence not just through the lens of sexuality or desire but of responsibility and the inchoate nature of adult tangled feelings which Olaf at present can’t disentangle . There is a limpid poetry striating the novel . The tensile experience of adolescence has been a subject matter for other novels too, . It is a difficult stage in life where the shock of the potentiality of the body and mind can upend any previous self conceptions. It is unsurprising that the onset/ worsening  of certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or anorexia is precipitated by adolescence. No such dire straits are portended for Olaf except a journey that in a fractional temporal sliver, a night, is momentous , unforgettable and ineffaceable for Olaf.  The tenderness of the prose , its scrupulousness is commendable and Kenneth. G. Chapman’s translation is to be lauded, as also Peter owen  for rendering this classic accessible.

THE SIRIAN EXPERIMENTS- DORIS LESSING

In his book ”The sufis” Idries Shah referred to the practicability and nebulousness of sufi thought, embodied and discernible to those who had embarked on the path or the sufi way.  ”The sufis” had a huge impact on Doris Lessing. But in the canopus in argos series, the quintet of science fiction novels Doris lessing endeavoured to explore a cosmic vision of humankind. Using the tropes of science fiction, of expanding and compressing temporality, see human consciousness in large historical sweeps and yet up close , the canopus in argos series is didactic, enriching, profound, clumsy, wordy but always profoundly illuminating. In embodying in Canopus and their conception of SOWF ( substance of we feeling) Doris lessing explored the big questions of existentialism, free will, historical awareness, rhetoric and metaphysics. ”The sirian experiments” , shortlisted for the booker prize, is the third in this quintet and a journey of self exploration allied to the larger framework of galactic strife and pull and push.

 

Ambien II , the dour, dry bureaucrat is the narrator of this novel. A diplomat, policy maker for Sirius, the rival planet yet coextensive with  Canopus Ambien II is brittle and occasionally caustic. Emblematizing in a microcosm the alternating layers of consciousness in Sirius Ambien II undergoes a metamorphosis as her preconceptions about growth, progress and sirian omniscience are systematically dismantled, cracked open and usher in a receptive porosity .

 

Sirius is both a component part and a truncation  of  the vision of Canopus, oblivious to its own subjection to a larger cosmic indeterminate force. Ensconced in the self satisfaction of its values Sirius sees Canopus as a rival to be outwitted. This is presumably why the canopean message, transmitted truthfully yet respectful of unknowability , encapsulated in phrases like ”necessity” and need” grates on Ambien II. Ambien II herself as a Sirian diplomat, under the sway of this rivalrous impatience  and unaccountable fascination and intermittent deference for Canopus ,undertakes decisions of Empire expansion , seeing the planets possessed as experiments where hardihood and adaptability of the species that are located, relocated and recirculated in the Sirian territories to further evolution. Sirius is not a barbaric dispensation,often benevolent, yet they lack the disinterested Wisdom and compassion of Canopus. It is because as Ambien II discovers, their interest in their colonies or outposts of empire, though genuinely well meaning, is disembodied, smug, enwrapped in narcissistic gratification of their technological feats and prowess.  Thus Rohanda, an allegory for earth, referred to as Shikasta or the broken one , becomes Sirius’s biggest failure. Part of this failure is the lack of awareness within Sirius , which Ambien II demonstrates in her sojourn and emotional vacillations, another part is the considerably lesser stratum of consciousness Sirius inhabits, in relation to Canopus though a residual awareness of this inadequacy spurs the truculence and misguided zeal of Sirius .

Ambien II understands her unwitting collusion in/with the sirian galactic empire  in detached, depersonalized terms and it is largely due to the distance she imposes between her experience and her intelligence. Though a long standing bureaucrat , with an amplitude of professional experience Ambien II is disconnected from her own potentiality for corruptability and ambivalence and mixed motives. Her retrospective narration , embalmed for history, is revealing in its ellipses and half stated propositions. Ambien II records candidly the flickering motions of her ebbing and flowing consciousness, hankering for the distillation of wisdom from Klorathy, the canopean agent, the intermediary between the immensity of incommunicable wisdom and the hard won process of divesting falsifications that Ambien II has to get through . Thus Klorathy himself becomes simultaneously attractive and repulsive to Ambien II, eliciting exasperation and infantile longing for approbation . Ambien II never establishes the requisite impersonality that truth involves because her enmeshed emotions of attachment, fear and ego weave in and out throughout her eventfully momentous intersections and colloquies with Klorathy. The Sirian arrogance of ”we know it all” is incrementally dissipated , to be replaced by a more detached perspective on the Empire expansion of Sirius , including unnerving self questioning of why? what for ?

 

This odyssey for Ambien II comes through her embedment in experience . Thus at the planet Koshi, overrun by cupidinous oblivion Ambien II encounters Nasar, another canopean agent , subsumed under the seductive wiles of Elyle . Here Ambien’s laconic sparseness of expression and self discipline allows a circumvention though not without identifying Nasar’s predicament between the poles of temptation and responsibility, desire and transcendence that beleaguers and ravages him. But in another temporal setting Grakconkranpatl , dominated by feudalistic , totalitarian priests Ambien II is nearly exterminated and by chance escapes through the mediation of Rhodia , the prison wardress . Transplanted to Lelanos , a paradisial city about to be transmogrified into its  antithesis  due to unprocessed, unresolved inner contradictions Ambien II falls under the charismatic spell of Tafta, albeit momentarily, hankering for the bloody revolution Tafta seeks opportunistically and for his own selfish ends before common sense prevails and precipitates a considered acknowledgement of the harsh lesson of her own complicity and propensity for  violent emotion . These instructive enmeshments in calamitous situations force Ambien II to awaken . Enlightenment is a process before whose exacting lessons Ambien II is hapless. Her own questing intelligence and heightened awareness of the layers of conflicted dense feelings render selective amnesia impermissible. Yet the tangled skein of her working through makes Ambien II both resistant yet voracious for this insight or wisdom. It is an immanence of insightfulness Ambien II cannot but embody as a constituent of the larger cosmic processes. Yet she had squandered or mislaid it and never entirely finds it again. But repudiating the self deceptions that had bolstered her,  letting  stressful life situations, some potentially hazardous , to temper and modify her worldview she becomes more open minded. By the end Ambien II has exiled herself to write about her experiences, much misunderstood and reviled by her fellow bureaucrats , nursing the lonesomeness of the larger vision she has garnered and still experiences in concentrically expanding fitful visitations . She is an unreliable narrator in that she inadvertently reveals what she may seek to dissimulate or hint at. Yet there is a concomitant honesty in elucidating the fraught nature of her journey towards a greater awareness. Thus the zigzagging, crisscrossing byways , alleyways, disconcerting abruptions and frustration induced cul de sacs that are then negotiated themselves become adumbrations of the path towards acceptance.

 

What then is the indwelling recondite wisdom the Canopeans contain that has hitherto been inaccessible or unreachable for Sirians and Ambien II ? It is simply an attunement to the processes of the cosmic universe itself, its multitudinousness where indivisibility and interconnection are inextricably conjoined, indefinable, formless yet a part of the fabric of the capaciousness without and within.. There are two instances in the novel where intimations of this prodigiousness and memorably engraved upon Ambien II’s memory. The first is a topsy turvy realignment of the order of Rohanda where travelling in a spacecraft after a fit of pique with Klorathy Ambien II is contained in this simultanal nothingness and expansiveness where the old order of balance is upended, the vision sharpens, sounds, light, senses swarm in a mode both phantasmagoric and pellucid, and everything and nothing are indistinguishable. The second is the putative unrolling of Rohandan history and future Ambien II witnesses with Klorathy where in concentrated focus the entirety of Rohandan past , its flotsam and jetsam, straining towards wholeness and undermining of that through small mindedness unspools . This macrocosmic vision of history and present and future, the rise and fall of empires, the presence of darkness within human nature, Shammat, that imperils and capsizes the very stability it yearns for are delineated in one brief vision that incorporates the larger pattern before which everyone is abject. Other moments of misgivings surmounted, pettifogging rancour dissolved striate the transformation of Ambien II.

In ”Shikasta” Doris lessing took on the totality of human history, reweaving in a complex tapestry the trajectory of human life. The cosmogony of the old testament and the new testament, in conjunction with other similar mnemonics of religious traditions that were non Christian is the conduit through which ideas of human civilization were explored fictionally.  In subsequent novels Doris lessing built on this cosmogony. The group mind or the group psychology is another underlying pivotal theme in ”The sirian experiments”. Ambien II apprehends this after her disqualification from the group of five bureaucrats of which she was an important member. Her willingness to ask questions, even unpalatable ones , is , as the novel ends, burrowing into the sirian psyche by osmosis . Thus ideas held to be seditious become commonplace, or arcane , ostensibly immutable immovable ideas become unacceptable , lose ascendancy. In this interknotted  cosmic world Lessing creates in this quintet the message is of self awareness, of understanding the past and constant vigilance so as to not replicate its self destructive paradigms. This knowledge of the past also would shape the present, institute the distance between the disfigured present reality contained in a newer deludingly glimmering form that obscures its undertow of continuity with the past. Ambien II learns to operate at a confluence of wavelengths, both experiencing experience and studying the machinations and workings of that experience within herself as a third person. Appraisal thus becomes an inhabitation of parallel contiguities or myriads of contexts. It is unclear as to whether the canopean wisdom has filtered down to Ambien II but she has learned to discard the extraneous, resist seeking certitudes for unanswerable conundrums and identified her role in this vast reality of which she is but a part and to which she bears a colossal responsibility, which is of staying with the truth, anchored and coming to a condition of conscious acceptance with the rejuvenated belief that by doing this, doing her bit to deepen the process of the larger amorphousness, without any foreknowledge of whether the effort will materialize tangibly yet believing sufficiently in the process to keep going on.

ICE- ANNA KAVAN

”Ice” is an indeterminate novel. In that it is an unclassifiable genre although possessed of the strands that permeate Anna Kavan’s earlier work. Ice is the frosted glacial nothingness that signifies the end of the world. Ice could represent mortality or death before whose finality and irrevocability most human beings are hapless. Ice could represent the chip of ice in the heart of the trio of characters in the novel- the nameless narrator, the woman he pursues obsessively and feverishly through his sojourn around landscapes of violence , brutality, surveillance, and the warden, the unknown authority figure, the narrator’s rival for this woman.

Around the masochistic triumvirate of sadism, monomania and abjection , with the backdrop of ice overhanging everything, beckoning, imminent, the drama of this dense tight novel unravels. The narrator’s erotomania for this woman is exacerbated by her pliancy. The woman, pale , attenuated, fearful, is hinted as having lived through a tumultuous childhood with  a bullying mother which accounts for her supineness, enervation and timidity. The narrator is both enthralled and suffused with self disgust for his obsessiveness and desperation.

 

Apocalypse in the novel in manifold . The incontrovertibility of ice, the dwindling resources, mob violence and militarism that the narrator encounters in his peregrination through various towns and unnamed countries , the paranoid vigilance of authority figures who keep tabs and track records of the narrator’s movements. Scenes of atavistic violence alternate between ”civilized” controlled authoritarian violence and disquieting eruptions of mass hysteria or collective frenetic outbursts of madness as embodied in a scene where a hungry, restless mob thoughtlessly and viscerally murders an official or a town the narrator finds himself in which, underneath its civilized exterior believes in dragons and sacrifices a young nubile woman to that dragon as a propitiatory , supplicating offering .

 

The warden, the narrator’s putative rival in the pursuit of this young woman is a doppelganger of the narrator much as he is his own figure. Inhabiting the upper echelons of authority in the momentous intersections the narrator has with him the warden also emblematizes a potentiality for violence the narrator feels as indwelling in himself – both towards the woman who is elusive yet submissively pliable as also the larger scene of wreckage and inchoateness that looms large over humankind as the ice incrementally yet inexorably burgeons , not to be outwitted or escaped from. But the narrator’s eventful navigation through landscapes of strife, untrammelled violence, warfare culminates in his speeding away into the emptiness of an ice infused landscape that is accepted as an inevitability with him driving speedily in a car with the woman, his object of desire, obtained at last and held in the stasis of time both frozen and dimensionless, the ephemerality of this interlude of survival and love they are embalmed in sufficing as a momentary comfort zone or reprieve  , cherished for its very fleetingness and transience. The incursions of violence the narrator experiences fitfully and disgorges unchecked in survival situations is resolved into a tenderness, a hitherto inconceivable, unimagined tenderness towards the woman for whom the certitude of his love shadowed by a heightened consciousness of evanescence is a bulwark, a stalling force, a no danger zone of the moment and content to reside in the moment before ultimate destruction.

”Ice” in the novel is informed by the emotional temperature of the narrator as much as it exists as an ineluctable physiological reminder of mutability and disintegration. Ice materialized as snowflakes, as splinters , as jagged bits of fleet, as sheets of frozen water, as a storm that carries whiteness to enclose, entomb and encapsulate whatever landscape it flurries through , as inhumanity, a hard edged glitter of derealisation and disembodiment, as unreality because of its colossal massiveness as an incipient blankness, as all too real and tangible . Benumbing , bewildering, both movement and motionlessness, spectral and unignorable  Ice is the visitation of impersonal nature against which human hubris and self destruction is carried , carried away and carried into the empty folds of white coldness.

 

From a certain perspective ”Ice” is a love story foredoomed by the foreknowledge of extinction. But equally the iciness of indifference and cruelty the narrator, warden and the woman bring out in each other, be it passive aggressive, manipulative, simultaneously tender and cruel  or rejecting. The woman the narrator loves is both hallucinatory and too palpable an imprint. At times indivisibly singular as a focal point, at others an extension of the narrator, the woman and the warden are as much split off projections for the narrator, and hence his unbidden yet unsurprising moments of collusiveness with the warden who is his shadow self. The fixed point of reference where the narrator and the warden converge is the woman who remains an enigma , an unknown quantity. Meek to the point of willingly succumbing to subjugation, uncomplaining, resigned, throwing herself to the exigency of chance and existing in stultifyingly exiguous conditions this woman is the prime mover for the plot. Although bullied since childhood and therefore fatalistic she nonetheless possesses a core of strength. Her repugnance for the narrator’s quest in wanting to claim her both rouses his ire and induces an immense weariness. She is both dependent on the narrator while spurning him for the depth of his irrepressible , uncontainable ardour where violence and tenderness are often indistinguishably conglomerated . It is this hesitancy in this woman,who entrapped yet liberated , that drives the narrator through eddies of massed conflicted emotions. While his mirror image/negative – the warden can unceremoniously and unconscionably exercise brute control, ravaging and destroying the woman’s soul by bending her enfeebled, malleable will through forceful coercion.

 

Yet ”Ice” remains an elliptical novel – the seething primordial chaos of unregulated human emotion proliferating in violence and death in the novel is counterpointed by the intractable rigidity of uncompromising militarism which tolerates no opposition. Small countries , the few the narrator lands up in are at the behest of the bounty of bigger countries. The surreality in ”Ice” is layered so that on an ostensibly straightforward account the narrator proffers are superimposed constituent phantasmagoric episodes of collapse and violence- whether these are externalizations of the narrator’s incommunicable anxieties, fantasies spawned off by the reality he is surrounded by in each sliver of temporality he works with and through or wish fulfilment of his own sadomasochistic fantasies is unclear .  Scenes of possible violence to the woman, or her own extinguishment are pre empted speculatively and then dissipated as the narrator, after this embedment in an unreal offshoot of his phantasmal thought processes, an unreality which, in its compressing of imagination and actual, the all too plausible and the implausible , is as real , lapses back into the contemporaneity of timelessness and ice he inhabits. Thus the linearity is punctuated by trajectories of speculative tropes that branch out from and coil back into the durationless present of Ice.

 

Some readings suggest ”Ice” could stand for the heroin Kavan consumed addictively and copiously. That is a convincing though eventually untenable reading. The expansion and diminution of ways of seeing, the enlargement and contraction of the perceiving eye and I corresponds to the drug addled vision, supra sensory, with channels of unconscious overlapping , dovetailing and meshed in an intensification of logic/illogic apprehensible and experiencable in the moment of intoxication but uncapturable in language. However ”Ice” is too well structured a novel and ice has multifarious ramifications in this novel including the fear of nuclear collapse which is a very post second world war fear, inexpungible,, an irremovable substratum striating the minds of many, even in 1967 when the novel was published. Ice also extrojects primal feelings of deracination, voracious longings , damaged childhood, paranoia , fear of being inundated by authority figures and the undercurrent of violence in love that have permeated many of Anna kavan’s novels and short stories. To categorize or compartmentalize Ice is impossible although it does partake of a continuation of the themes Kavan explored . But it is ultimately neither a sci fi novel , nor a love story, nor a post apocalypse novel but a form, a genre that incorporates all these yet is itself , its own narrative.

WONDERLAND- JOYCE CAROL OATES

”The phantasmagoria of personality” is the phrase affixed prior to  the beginning of Joyce carol oates’s novel ”Wonderland”. the fourth and final volume of the wonderland quartet. Wonderland evokes the obvious association of ”Alice in wonderland”, with the attendant evocation of inner and outer worlds both familiar yet topsy turvy, revealing the underside of neurosis and paranoia. Joyce carol oates in ”Wonderland ” distills the visceral primevality of lived experience in a heightened mode. The prose is torrential, capturing the ”vortex of being” of its central character Jesse Vogel , who at the novel’s beginning, saturated with an unignorable but nameless anxiety subsequently escapes his father’s brutal murder attempt on himself while the rest of the family, his siblings and mother , are obliterated . Carrying this trauma through adulthood , Jesse never processes it, the shock it engenders is so unshakeable that it results in an atrophying of his own spirit.

Desultorily benumbing himself in routine Jesse’s deliverance comes from Dr. Pendersen , who, disappointed with uxorious comeliness and the borderline between creative genius and inability to negotiate reality his two prodigy like children represent, finds in Jesse a medium for his transcendence. With his expansive intellect he adopts and conscripts Jesse into his family. The gratitude for Jesse involves a systematic stalling of his repressed inwardness in the pursuit of science, which interests Dr. Pedersen.  Dr. Pedersen is an autocratic patriarch, albeit benevolent, embodying the pursuit of excellence and achievement. His persistent haranguing damages his children Hilda and Frederich . Frederich , musically inclined but slovenly, disorderly and unkempt in his daily life , cocoons himself in the deadlock of his talent while Hilda, with her mathematical bent, is interlocked in numbers and figures. Both are ”freaks” and Jesse himself becomes freakish with the Pedersen”s. But his attempt to help Mrs. Pedersen to flee her husband brings about his expulsion from the family.

Thus Jesse reverts to his childhood surname Vogel. His university life is on a continuum with his adolescence, watchful, studious , enmeshed in scientific study, desperate for orderliness and excellence. This single minded ness drives him to feats of hard work and commitment, to match up the vision of his immense potentiality outlined by Dr. Pedersen. Science offers a way out, with its earmarked delineation of physiological processes . It represents the structure that he can absorb himself in without bothering about nature and human nature. Such intentness renders Jesse haggard, perpetually exhausted, his senses throbbing, alternately over alert and flabbergasted. His interior life is awash in a welter of sensations and primordial intimations, eruptions of the unconscious manifested in outbursts of inexplicable anger, depthless ardour and longing and an instantaneous need to expend this cavalcade of knotted impulses, energies he cannot segregate in oblivion. Unflagging commitment to science becomes its own oblivion, mediated by Jesse’s grandiose plans of serving humanity, saving lives. Yet when he eventually becomes a successful neurosurgeon, and throughout his medical practice his patients are only disaggregated symptoms for him, of case histories whose physiological aberrations and anomalies are engraved accurately in memory but not as subjective presences. His attitude to surgery is also similar, as an analgesic, as a focus point which concentrates his prodigious energies in undeviating commitment to the task at hand, with all the ambivalences of the world kept at bay or determinedly avoided .

It is this depersonalization that infuses his relationships with women. With Anne Marie, a young nurse whom he dates during college, his wife Helene, daughter of Dr. Cady whose courses Jesse attends at university and with Reva Denk, a woman met accidentally but reminiscent of some inward fantasy mechanism. Anne Marie is an appendage for Jesse, a fixed point for his deracination from the human condition and he outgrows his need for her by thoughtlessly discarding her. Helene, his wife, whom he marries for her intelligence, becomes another receptacle, someone with whom a fantasy of domesticity and communion can be actualized. Yet Jesse destroys Helene, entrapping her in his inhumane and intensified ardour where her subjectivity is subsumed under his unprocessed emotional landscape. Reva Denk embodies pulsating erotic focus, a channelling of misspent, unalleviated vastness of love and desire intermingled and indistinguishable from anger and frustration for Jesse.

It is with Dr. Perrault, the neurosurgeon who makes Jesse his shadow that Jesse achieves professional success. Interestingly Jesse is obsessed by father figures, his will supine and yielding to their unyielding and exacting demands. Having been overawed by his own father whose murder attempt he escapes at fourteen, fascinated by the durability, strength and coarseness in his biological father Jesse seeks in Dr. Pedersen and Dr. Perrault, men of science, a fastness. And these two doctors, make Jesse a conduit for their megalomaniacal aspirations. Dr. Pedersen, benevolent/malevolent patriarch instills in Jesse a sense of his future destiny for success , evoking an apparition of Jesse, an ideal Jesse which the broken Jesse fails to live up to. While Dr. Perrault , disdainful of human consciousness and personality, sees the human brain and the physician/surgeon as being at the service of the  state/ country /nation . Dr. Cady, his father in law also, initially functions as a role model. It is these father figures who imperceptibly imprint the residue of their essences and madness in the tabula rasa Jesse is, underneath the armour of professional ambition. The blend of megalomania and monomania, a staving off of absence dehumanizes Jesse Vogel, makes him a bundle of primal emotions, a patchwork of impulses, needs, longings and desires that roil and churn tortuously , seeking containment and release. This hallucinatory sense of self makes Jesse apprehend the world around him with a way of seeing grotesquely enlarged yet intermittently startlingly prescient. Things loom large then shrink, the retina experiences physical objects as magnified yet shadowy, people in his life are either amplified representations of hope or unmitigated despairing disappointments. Jesse has become a freak himself and this tumultuous swiftness of perception and delusion is captured in Joyce carol oates’s prose, rushing headlong, swooping, descending the visual, aural, kinasthetic, somatoform lenses of perceiving consciousness where surrealism and realism interpenetrate disquietingly. Jesse does possess compunction and a maverick authenticity of genuine solicitude for his wife and daughters, especially Shelley, but he cannot broach the unbridgeable gap between his tormented subjectivity and their indivisibility.

The damage is protracted with Jesse’s daughter Michele, Shelley, who is vagrant, lost, unanchored, feeling resentful of her father’s embargo, by the feverishness and omnivorousness of her father’s love which she both yearns for and is horrified by. As part of the sixties counterculture in america , Shelley self destructs , freebooting in toronto, doped up on drugs, ill until Jesse comes to rescue her and enwrap her in his patriarchal folds. The novel ends with Jesse rescuing his daughter and bringing her back to the family bosom, ensconcing shelley oppressively into the very reality she tried to repudiate. While Jesse’s other daughter Jeanne, is all set to replicate the purposeful scientific pursuit that her father navigated so successfully .

In the W.B Yeats poem  ”The statues” the memorable phrase ”knowledge creates unreality” is befitting for ”Wonderland. Jesse Vogel is born in 1925, on the school break from christmas, during 1939 dec 14, Jesse escapes his father’s attempt to murder him by jumping out of a window, surviving a bullet shot. This is the great depression, with impoverishes Jesse’s father, who impecunious, cowardly, in a fit of hapless derangement kills his family. The second world war is imminent yet at Dr. Pedersen, the world war and Europe’s fate is extraneous. What matters is the future, the pursuit of excellence . Thus Jesse never experiences the second world war except as a spectral shadowy phantom underwriting daily life. Dr. Perrault , for whom consciousness and personality are dodgy, precarious and evanescent propositions at best can even conceive the human brain , if embalmed . as a useful weapon for science and america’s growth. These attitudes are mnemonics of aspects of the American psyche and the wonderland is both boundless possibility and a labyrinthine, uncontrollable whirlpool . It is these poles that Jesse oscillates between , of self aggrandizing ambition and the turbid emotions unconnected as well as disconnected from reality. Convulsions of interiority are tormenting for Jesse , the corncucopious knowledge of science he has garnered has not led to a realization of his hope of serving mankind  but has detached him from the human condition. Impersonal yet impassioned , unaware of human subjectivity yet submerged in the inrush of his own unconscious Jesse has become the very freak he dreaded . And this odyssey of Jesse, his remarkable professional ascendancy, material appurtenances and scientific threshold mirrors the three decades of the american psyche in its specific facets. The assassination of president Kennedy, the anti war vietnam protests pass Jesse by indistinctly because he is focused on rescuing Shelley, not realizing the spot of contagion that impelled and propelled Shelley to desperately escape, and which is himself. Befuddled as to why he is deserted and unloved and abandoned Jesse never effaces the childhood yearning for a foothold.

”Wonderland” is a visceral novel, written by Joyce carol oates under the propulsion of a creative surge that was like a visitation. It culminates the wonderland quartet and was published in 1971. The analogy of Jesse’s progressive regression is not directly coterminous with the american psyche and to overemphasize the equivalence would be stretching it. But it is indisputable that there are parallels – and yet a closed circle too. Jesse’s journey is through a hinterland of self and the world . Science and medicine have metamorphosed the possibility of treating ailments yet the ineffableness of consciousness, which Dr.Perrault can blithely dismiss as a superfluity, and as a tool for the state , is indefinable. As an adolescent posed on the brink of a promising future Jesse stands watching the waters flow in the Erie canal, and this gives him a momentary insight into the profundity and teeming flux of nature The wonderland of the self in Jesse Vogel  is a conglomeration of multifarious unconscious signifiers crisscrossing, zigzagging  that are fragmented, unwholesome, with an odd remnant of humanity here, and an unbidden recollection there. That is why the pursuit of scientific excellence leaves Jesse exhausted , where drive, dispassionate study, the human body in its shards and organs, distensions, cancerous, with tumours  and providing surgical prophylactic becomes  recompense. These can be healed upto a point and Jesse does so with sincerity but in the shadow of an absence, an unformulated void or vacuum which is unconceptualized and indescribable- it could be an idealism uninformed by reality, it could be primordial childhood longing for unconditional containment, it could be the too muchness of inner and outer worlds but it is, with all this, something more, beyond, anterior, unapproachable, inaccessible and insurmountable. Jesse is , for all his neurotic hypervigilance defeated by reality as it is and the reality he has created of/from his life as a bulwark against the infinite.