Thursday, August 26, 2010

A TORN CURTAIN


Brian Evenson The Open Curtain (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006).

Brian Evenson’s new novel, The Open Curtain, begins with what increasingly has become an almost predictable plot: a basically good boy—in this case the son a Mormon widow—at puberty begins to explore the past along with new ideas that gradually alter his personality. In this case the young Rudd uncovers a letter sent to his father by an unknown woman, claiming that he was the father of her son. Rudd’s father—who later committed suicide by slitting his own throat—denies any paternity, and when Rudd confronts his mother with the letter, she can only repeat the denial, claiming to have no knowledge of any such event.

The incident is forgotten for a while, but as some time passes, Rudd looks up the address written on the letter, uncovering his half-brother Lael. At first the boys, radically different from one another, do not particularly get on. Indeed, Rudd is frustrated by Lael’s lack of communication skills and, more importantly, his manipulation of Rudd as he maneuvers the two of them into increasingly dangerous situations. In one instance, for example, Lael determines that they drive Rudd’s scooter far beyond the point in which they will run out of gas and be forced to walk several miles in return. But it is precisely Lael’s going beyond the limits that both attracts and repels Rudd; being the psychologically weaker of the two, he cannot resist his brother’s entreaties. Rudd clearly feels a sense of near-powerlessness around Lael, with whom, as he rides clinging to him on the scooter, he seems gradually to develop an attachment that, if not actually homosexual, borders on the kind of relationship that one might compare to the famed Leopold-Loeb friendship, a love ending in a murder, explored from the various viewpoints of Hitchcock’s film Rope and Levin’s novel and play Compulsion.

It is not long before Rudd begins to lose faith in the church. An English class project for a research paper results in Rudd (and Lael, who joins his half-brother in later treks to the local university library) uncovering a turn-of-the-century murder of a woman, Anna Pultizer, by Mormon founder Brigham Young’s grandson. The murder, which implicates not only the young boy, Hooper Young, but his homosexual friend Elling, was also connected to a little known doctrine of Mormon theology—utterly denied by the church—of Blood Atonement, a doctrine that suggests when sinners have become so guilty of sin that they cannot be forgiven, a ritualistic murder (in which their throats are slit and blood, let to drain from their bodies) is not only justifiable, but that the murderer may be forgiven and awarded in the Mormon afterlife. With its mysterious story and its gruesome details, it becomes quickly apparent why two young Mormon boys, in a time of confusion and disbelief, might become fascinated with the tale; but the mystery surrounding the form of the murder and the relationship between Young and Elling attracts the boys in ways that might be inexplicable if Evenson had not carefully developed his story to suggest both their own relationship to one another and to their dead father. The books in Rudd’s father’s home library are marked, moreover, with marginalia on the very pages describing the Mormon Blood Atonement theory!

Before long, Rudd is having difficulties in school and, more importantly, in paying close attention to anything around him. He and Lael are somewhat involved in drugs, but what is even more horrifying are the long stretches of time in which Rudd later can remember nothing, periods which he describes as “blackouts” or “holes” in time. Part one of this sophisticated horror tale ends with the boys together on an adventure in the woods, with Rudd feeling “himself crowded out of his senses and into oblivion.”

The second section quickly shifts the action to the aftermath of a multiple murder of campers, their bodies placed carefully in positions suggesting a ritualistic act. There is only one survivor, a young boy whose neck has been severely cut. The daughter of the murdered family—who had stayed home during the camping trip—is strangely attracted to the survivor, a boy close to her own age, and watches over his comatose recovery. As the police are pulled away from his protection—the murderer still at large—the girl, Lyndi, pulls him into another room and watches over him until he finally awakens. The survivor is Rudd.

No perceptive reader observing the developing relationship between the daughter of the victims and Rudd can move forward in this tale without great discomfort, for we know instinctively that Rudd was in some way involved with the deaths. Strangely, we have no choice now but to hope that Lael—the evil twin, so to speak—is the guilty party, that Rudd will somehow be brought back into sanity. Rudd has, however, no memory of the events.

After a period in which Lyndi’s aunt encamps within the family home, hoping to cheer up her grieving niece, but having quite the opposite effect, Lyndi is only too happy to let Rudd, whose mother has forced him to escape his own home, move in with her; the two set up an awkward household outwardly, perhaps, suggesting a sexual relationship, but, in fact, consisting of a kind of brother-sister or roommate situation. Rudd is painfully confused, sometimes gentle and solicitous, clearly feeling the need to protect his new friend, but at other times he remains aloof, secretive and protective. He insists that she never enter his (formerly her sister’s) room uninvited. As time passes, the two grow further apart until Lyndi confronts him, ending in Rudd’s attempted suicide and his insistence that they get married.

The Mormon marriage ceremony described is perhaps one of the strangest passages in the book. As the couple, who have previously remained outside of church ritual, are taken through the various steps of the ceremony—the ritual washing, the awarding of a secret name, the various questions asked as they sit on opposite sides of a veil marked with symbolic slits in positions not unlike those in which Lyndi’s family were placed by their murderer—the reader feels nearly suffocated by being enwrapped in such ritualistic acts. The couple themselves seem about to flee, as Rudd, breaking with the ceremony, denies Lyndi the use of her “secret” name Rachel, insisting it is Elling—and, in so doing so, feels he has cheated the blessing of the church, has torn the veil.

But if Lyndi is merely confused by the event, we know that within Rudd’s mind the symbolism of that veil is interwoven with the events of both the 1902 murder and the murders of Lyndi’s family; and the two begin to converge in a way that becomes increasingly frightening. As Rudd and Lyndi attempt to begin life as a married couple, he retreats even further, ultimately moving into a kind of makeshift tool shed, the entrance of which he has now covered over in a veil—a real sheet that serves as a symbolic separation from the world at large. As Lyndi grows more and more troubled by the course of events, she explores the shed, realizing in the process that Rudd was indeed involved in her parent’s murder and discovering something that is too horrible for words.

The third section of Evenson’s unholy trinity relates a near-surrealistic series of events in which Hooper’s murder of Anna Pultizer, his determination to hide the body, and his attempt to send off her clothes in a large chest is played out again and again, as each time Rudd—living like a drugged man in a time warp—is coached by "Elling," actually Lael, apparently have returned. Gradually, the reader realizes that the seemingly murdered body is, in fact, Lyndi, still living perhaps, but bound and suffering as the boy enacts, again and again, the events from the distant past. When suddenly the deus ex machina return of Lyndi’s aunt interrupts this horrific passion play, Rudd refuses to let her enter, and Lael/Elling announces his departure. At that very moment, we suddenly are faced with the possibility that, in fact, there has been no Lael, no half-brother, ever in Rudd’s life (Lyndi has previously sought out the brother, who insists his name is Lyle—an incident repeated from Rudd’s first encounter with the boy—and that he has no knowledge of Rudd), or, even worse, he has been himself sacrificed to Rudd’s horrific myth. With the policeman in tow, Lyndi’s aunt gains entry to the house, but neither she nor we know what she may find. Even if Lyndi is still alive, we perceive that Rudd has lost his life to the demons of the past. We can only imagine that he sits somewhat like Psycho’s Norman Bates, wrapped in a sheet, living in a world from which he can never return.

Evenson has created a compelling horror tale that is not as much an indictment of Mormonism as it is a warning of the dark sides of all religions and the willingness to (con)fuse the power of faith with the power of controlling other people’s lives.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2006
Reprinted from
The New Review of Literature, IV, no. 2 (April 2007).

LOOKING FOR LOVE


Nathanael West Miss Lonleyhearts in The Complete Works of Nathanael West (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957)

Preparing to teach an MFA course on American Satires at the Otis College of Art + Design in the Fall, I recently reread Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933).

I had remembered better than I thought I might. I had correctly recalled from a youthful reading that the major character, a male newspaper writer assigned the job of answering letters from the love-stricken and forlorn, becomes increasingly forlorn himself and ultimately becomes depressed as he attempts to honestly answer these anonymous epistles of distress. Moreover, I had remembered the spiritual demise of the "hero," as he becomes more and more entrapped in the cynical lies of his own world—a world partly of his own making, pointed up by the very fact that the feature editor, Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts' boss, has assigned the job as a joke. In short if the newspaper's advice to a suffering public cannot be taken seriously, what can be said of its reporting of city and world events; are their reports also jokes? And if so, where does any notion of reality begin. It is no wonder that Miss Lonelyhearts falls deeper and deeper into despair until in a feverish vision he rushes out of his room into the arms of death in the form of a vengeful husband of a woman with whom our "hero" has (somewhat unwillingly) had sex.

But this time around, I also saw what I perceive as a somewhat deeper structure to the book. I kept thinking, as I moved forward in the plot, of a popular song (not one of my favorites) made famous by country western singer Johnny Lee. One phrase will suffice to remind the reader of the piece: "I was looking for love in all the wrong places / looking for love in too many faces." For that is just what Miss Lonelyhearts does throughout West's masterwork. It is almost as if the moment he has become assigned the job of responding to his audience's tales of heartbreak, that he himself begins to seek out love, while brutally rejecting it, failing just as miserably as do his readers.

His first vague encounter with the possibility of "love" is with the all-male gathering of fellow workers and friends at Delehanty's speakeasy after work, where Shrike and others mock his job:
Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend, I advise you to give your readers stones. When they ask for bread don't give them crackers as does the Church, and don't, like the State, tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by bread alone and give them stones.

Despite his superior's cynical advice and the writer's attempt to laugh at himself, Miss Lonelyhearts realizes: "He had given his readers many stones; so many, in fact, that he had only one left—the stone in his gut."

Still, he sits down with these men, attempting, if nothing else, to engage them in conversation, to participate in a kind of male camaraderie at the very least. Soon, as these men become drunker and drunker, they spill out onto the streets where they buy a lamb to sacrifice. The men only half-kill the poor beast and Miss Lonelyhearts, after begging them to put the lamb out of its misery, is forced to go back and crush its head with a stone. Almost immediately in this work, West reveals the violence behind almost all actions in this society, and the inability of more caring individuals, which Miss Lonelyhearts would like to be, to prevent it.

His second encounter is with Betty, his girlfriend, who it is clear is not at all suitable for the writer. As he describes her, she is "Betty the Buddha," a unmoved woman, smilingly and smugly judging his every act. What begins as an attempt to find some rapport, ends, once more, in a kind of violence, abusive language, followed by tears and the order for him to leave.

The next adventure in this "Looking for Love" tale is even more brutal as, once more with his speakeasy friends, he encounters an older homosexual man waiting in a public bathroom. The group entices the man to join them. After toying with him for awhile, joking about the psychologists Havelock Ellis and Krafft-Ebing, the men begin to get ugly, particularly Miss Lonelyhearts. As the man begins to sob, Miss Lonelyhearts falls upon him: "He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of the Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband." As the old man screams, someone hits Miss Lonelyhearts over the head with a chair.
It is not unusual, I should mention, for highly-closeted individuals such as Miss Lonelyhearts seems to be, to turn their frustrations and violence upon those who are more sexually open.

His next stop, a swing to the opposite sex, is to visit his arch-enemy's wife. Mary Shrike, hating her husband, is only too happy to accommodate him; but the sex is empty, and leaves him even more lonely: "Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile." Later Mary invites him back to the house, and he agrees to return, finding a diffident Shrike at home. The two, Mary and Miss Lonelyhearts go out on the town, but when they return she no longer will let him kiss her, and they are greeted at the door with Shrike in only his pajama top.

Within this dizzying spiral of failed love is Miss Lonelyhearts' meeting with one of his readers, Fay Doyle, a woman who literally entraps him and forces her love upon him.

A field trip and even a short stay in the country with Betty does not cure him. Upon his return, he meets with Fay Doyle's crippled husband, who—in the very language of Miss Lonelyhearts' letter-writing sufferers—pleads with him to help him regain some self respect, follows. That outcry finally begins to awaken something in the failed would-be lover; the newspaperman finally finds someone with who he can share his love:

...Doyle's damp hand accidentally touched his under the table. He jerked it away, but then drove his hand back and forced it to clasp the cripple's. After finishing the letter, he did not let go, but pressed it firmly with all the love he could manage. At first the cripple covered his embarrassment by disguising the meaning of the clasp with a handshake, but he soon gave
in to it and they sat silent, hand in hand.

It is only after this homoerotic experience that Miss Lonelyhearts is prepared to give in to the easy "normality" that stands as a false image of true love. He agrees to marry Betty, attended with all the legalistic decision-making of any new partnership: she agrees to have a child, he agrees to see a friend about a job. "...They decided to have three beds in their bedroom. Twin beds for sleep, very prim and puritanical, and between them a love bed, an ornate double bed with cupids, nymphs and Pans." It is clear that love will be more a symbol in that household than an everyday reality.

Once he has settled for this image of normality, however, a fever rises in him like a furnace to reveal what no one in this fiction has previously seemed to comprehend: the spiritual force (he names it as Christ) he has been searching for is life and light! His search for love has always been undertaken in confusion and the dark, never openness and honesty. In something close to a recognition of a new sexuality, Miss Lonelyhearts (who in an earlier draft was named, but in the final version is described only his female moniker) is prepared to rush down the stairs and embrace Doyle, who has just rung the bell.

God had sent him so that Miss Lonelyhearts could perform a miracle and be certain of his conversion. It was a sign. He would embrace the cripple and the cripple would be made whole again, even as he, a spiritual cripple, had been made whole.
He rushed down the stairs to meet Doyle with his arms spread for the miracle.

Confused and frightened by the rushing man, Doyle attempts to escape, but in their fall, accidentally it appears, shoots him with a gun he has wrapped within a newspaper. The false, the dark hypocrisy of that newsprint world of lies, wins yet again, destroying, evidently, any chance of life and light. And so ends West's brutal satire of love.

Los Angeles, July 19, 2010
Reprinted from
Green Integer Blog (July 2010).