Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Lacuna

Largely because of the adulatory awe in which I hold her, I've been holding off reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna, which I actually received as a present from C at the end of 2009. Partly because its subject matter (of which, more below) didn't immediately grab me; partly because in my last post about her, I feared her work may peaked; and partly because I didn't want to exhaust her repertoire yet again. Irrational reasons for sure, but enough to stall me for a good while.

Beginning with a portion from an abandoned autobiography by a (fictional) historical novelist, Harrison Shepherd, The Lacuna is a chronological collage of diary entries, personal letters and newspaper clippings drawn from the life of the writer. Organised by his stenographer, Mrs. Violet Brown, and published 50 years after his disappearance, in part from material that he had ordered her to destroy, the book follows Shepherd's life as he travels back and forth between Mexico and the United States between the late 1920s and the 1950s.

His early years are somewhat itinerant, as he is trailed around an exotically tropical Mexico by a mother in thrall to her own heart's desires. Here, he first encounters the famous (and communist) painter Diego Rivera, and is drawn into Rivera's household because of his skill in preparing the plaster used in the painter's renowned frescos. This introduces him to Rivera's wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, with whom he begins a lifelong friendship, and who encourages his own budding artistic interests. But as Rivera's fame spreads it draws him away to big-paying clients in the US, and Shepherd finds himself unemployed.

Before long he, too, is drawn to the US where his emotionally-distant father puts him through private school. Among other events, there Shepherd becomes a spectator to the brutal crushing of the Bonus Army, a Depression-era protest, by the authorities. Returning again to Mexico, he renews his friendship with Kahlo and Rivera, and becomes part of their household as a cook. Another guest of the artists is the noted revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, on the run from Stalin's tyrannical repression in Russia, and for whom Shepherd becomes secretary, and later a friend. But the persecution by Stalin's agents, which ultimately proves fatal, as well as Trotsky's ill-judged affair with Kahlo, makes for disruptive living, and before long Shepherd washes back up in the US.

There, after being denied a combat role in WW2 because of his "sexual indifference to the female of the species", he lands himself a government job moving valuable artwork during the conflict. He also finally begins work as a historical novelist, drawing on his knowledge of Mexico to craft swashbuckling novels that weave subversive modern themes into tales about the destruction of pre-Columbian civilisations. The success of these works, eagerly communicated with Kahlo, draws undesired attention, including a coterie of female fans eager to get to know this mysterious bachelor better. But this is the time of HUAC, and his public profile, and Red-tinged past, bring him to the attention of more significant figures. Though he acquits himself well in his appearance before HUAC, Shepherd's career is mortally wounded, and he finds both his friends and his publisher deserting him. Escaping the US with Mrs. Brown, he returns to Mexico and to a favoured coastal locale from his youth, where, in a seeming swimming accident, he finally disappears from view.

Oops. I wasn't intending traipsing through the entire plot of the novel there. But it does have a lot of back-and-forthing that makes summarising it in a few lines difficult. Particularly for someone obsessive about getting things down "right". And especially in a novel that stacks so much (political, artistic, historical) onto its plate. Anyway, The Lacuna is a difficult book to give a straight opinion of. Though it only really follows the life of a single character, Harrison Shepherd is something of a Zelig-like figure whose personal history is richly populated with fairly significant events in, and figures from, the 20th century. As such, there's a lot going on, and while some sections of the novel may not entirely appeal, it's difficult to not find something enjoyable or interesting within its pages.

It's certainly Kingsolver's most overtly political book. Previous novels have had America's less admirable actions in Central America and Africa as distant backdrops, but here Kingsolver puts real historical figures and ideas front of stage, and isn't in the least afraid to cast a favourable light on those that are viewed negatively by the establishment and large fractions of the public. So, we have quite an impassioned defence of Trotsky and the flavour of communism that he favoured, together with a critical take on Stalin's brutal and dictatorial communism, and one that isn't slow to point out that America's friends/enemies in one decade easily flip to enemies/friends in another depending upon what's currently most expedient. It helps, of course, that I largely share her view of history and ideology on these points.

Strangely, though the ideas in the novel are made more concrete by attaching them to the real historical figures with which they are associated, I found that this didn't work in its favour. For me, this made the novel too obviously didactic. Ordinarily in novels, fictional stand-ins for both real characters and situations are used, and the novelist can more gently slip thoughts into the reader's head. And, hitherto, this is exactly what Kingsolver has done in her earlier novels. But here the reader is left in no doubt in either the subjects that Kingsolver is addressing, or her opinions of them. I don't think this is necessarily a lesser approach, but it doesn't work as well for me.

Of course, by putting everything front and centre, the novel does have the advantage of leaving the reader in no doubt about Kingsolver's views of America's treatment of popular socialism. She is clearly, and justifiably, angry about the unyielding demonisation of socialist ideas in 20th century America, and about the deeply repellent consequences of unthinking support for such efforts as HUAC. As such, it's clear that one of the aims of The Lacuna is to get her readers to actually stop, think and re-evaluate socialism and other marginalised ideas, rather than simply lazily misremember them as their Red Scare caricatures. Along the way, she's careful to separate ideology from history, so she's no apologist for how socialism panned out in the Soviet Union, and through dramatising the Bonus Army is keen to remind readers of America's own socialist movements. Overall, it's an interesting message for an American novelist to try to sell in the US!

One aspect of the novel that I never got a definitive handle on was what the "lacuna" of the title actually refers to. It could be interpreted (or misinterpreted) in a number of quite different ways. For instance, the way in which Shepherd, though he is at the centre of the novel, largely eludes understanding. We largely see things through his eyes, but he preserves a degree of transparency throughout the novel. Alternatively, it could refer to the lacuna in our collective memory of socialism's role as a progressive force in 20th century politics. In the present day, socialism has been tightly bound to the evils of the Soviet Union and simply thrown over the side into the depths of history. The idea that it may represent, and at times did represent, a progressive force for good is largely viewed incredulously. Another more straightforward interpretation is merely that it's the literal lacuna into which Shepherd finally disappears. Most likely, all of these interpretations have something to them, but I'm still curious and would be interested to hear other theories.

By way of a passing observation, The Lacuna reminded me of William Boyd's not-dissimilar 20th century novel, Any Human Heart. That, too, followed a novelist character through his life, and inveigled him into being a participant or witness to major events. It's also interesting to contrast the two novels. While Kingsolver's novel is a patchwork of diary entries, newspaper clippings and an aborted biography, Boyd constrains his novel to the diary format, and uses this to (convincingly) convey the changing voice of the narrator throughout his life. A more significant departure is that Boyd's novel is largely apolitical (though favourable towards progressive movements), and instead focuses on the personal life of its narrator, Logan Mountstuart. As noted above, Shepherd's personal life is very much secondary to the political waters that carry it through the 20th century. I suspect that trying to tackle both the personal and the political in the same novel, at least to the degree that both of these novels have, is liable to end in a pompous, over-extended failure that satisfies no-one.

Overall, to wrap things up, an excellent read. But (and debasing things somewhat) much as with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Kingsolver's earlier works cast a long and deep shadow over this one. The Lacuna is more significant than Kingsolver's earliest novels, but it's never going to be easy for her future works to stand proud of The Poisonwood Bible. But I'll still definitely be looking out for them!

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