Sunday, 5 May 2013

Week Eighteen - Jeanette

A Book Of Common Prayer by Joan Didion (1977)
Recommended by Tom

This is Tonantzin Villaseñor.

Tonantzin is my favourite character from one of my favourite things: Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories (a key part of the Love And Rockets comics). I’ve read these strips dozens of times. Tonantzin is a strong and confident woman, who sells fried babosas (slugs, yum) and looks like Sophia Loren. She becomes very politically committed, a stance to which her friends, lovers and family find difficult to adjust.

Palomar’s location is never disclosed: ‘somewhere below the US border’ is all Hernandez tells us. However, we do learn, through Palomar's course, something of the complicated relationship between the US and Central American nations. This most obviously happens in the story ‘An American In Palomar’; it concerns a photojournalist, Howard Miller, who comes to document (and simplify) the lives of the Palomar residents for consumption by the US.

There are very notable differences between Palomar and A Book Of Common Prayer (which I’ll come onto shortly) yet both have a central unhappy idea that wider societal forces, especially the relationship between nations with a history of explicit or implicit colonization, poison individuals and their naturalness with one another. Within a few chapters of A Book Of Common Prayer, I was compelled to pick up Palomar yet again.

A Book Of Common Prayer is set in Boca Grande which is (like Palomar) a fictional Central American location. Our narrator is Grace Strasser-Mendana. Originally from Denver, Grace – like Howard Miller – looked outside the US, fascinated by the ‘other’.

I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasions of birth, copulation, initiation and death; did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grosso and along certain tributaries of the Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.

Grace, disillusioned with anthropology, marries a rich Boca Grande man and takes up amateur biochemistry instead, ‘a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and “personality” absent.’ Her status allows her knowledge of both the high political machinations and everyday gossip of Boca Grande.

Give me the molecular structure of the protein which defined Charlotte Douglas.

Charlotte is another American, yet she is a far more recent traveller to Boca Grande; the locals refer to her as la norteamericana, or sometimes la norteamericana cunt. She is attempting to track down her daughter, Marin, who is being investigated by the FBI for her political activism and terrorist links.

Like Tonantzin, people found it hard to adjust to Marin, a young woman, becoming enmeshed in radicalism. However, whereas Tonantzin explains her ideology (which is then generally dismissed as crackpot paranoia), Marin only really gets to express herself through slogans on a fuzzy tape recording.

This is not an isolated action. We ask no-one’s permission to make the revolution.

These slogans – not explanations, but merely empty signifiers –are not dismissed, but taken very seriously indeed (even when it is revealed that at least one was lifted wholesale from someone else). Marin thus becomes the sum of how other people attach meaning to her, slivers of a fun-house mirror glued together.

Although Charlotte’s physical and psychological search for Marin might be the premise of A Book Of Common Prayer, it quickly ceases to be its point. Instead, Didion creates a completely unforgiving web of human relationships – parental, sexual, communal – within and beyond Boca Grande. Conversations are mannered and conventions often polite, but obviously people want to garrote one another with piano wire.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s extremely well-written. Magnificently so.

But the second thing to say about this book is that I’m not sure I liked it.

I admired it; I found it to be almost perfectly structured and ferociously intelligent. But its greatest achievement – its pitilessness – was what prevented me from bonding with it.

             They had made that crab bisque in Greenville. She had bought the crabs and Warren had
             shown her how to make the bisque.
‘You’re ruining it,’ she had said. ‘You’re putting in too much salt.’
‘You don’t know anything about it.’
‘Taste it, it’s brine.’
‘Taste it yourself,’ Warren had said, and pushed the wooden spoon in her face.

Unlike Hernandez’s Palomar stories, which invite you, allow you, demand you to care about every single character, even those who appear in only a few frames, and even leeches like Howard Miller, the surgical precision of A Book Of Common Prayer allows for little human sympathy. As I was reading it, it struck me that I would hate to know Joan Didion, because she would find your flaws as easily as a night vision camera finds a fox.

I think this aspect of A Book Of Common Prayer surprised me, given who recommended it: Tom, also known as Thomas Jerome Seabrook, the author of the brilliant Bowie In Berlin. He edited my book Seasons They Change and in the acknowledgements I gave my thanks to him first and foremost. I stated that I couldn’t have written it without him.

This is because Tom’s importance to me and to Seasons was never confined to the physical task of editing text. From the very earliest stages, he listened to my worries, gave me priceless advice, kept me focused and – something I’ll never forget – stood up for the integrity of my work to others. When I submitted a manuscript way over my agreed word limit he got it down to a manageable length without changing my intention or tone. Tom is overflowing with sympathy – and not only for people, but for words, too.

Given that, I think I’m missing something of Didion’s intention. The skill of the woman is such that it must have been a very conscious choice to savagely cut back on the emotional content of what could have easily, and perhaps more naturally, been a melodrama: after all, the story deals in terrorism, sexual intrigue, fractured relationships and political shitstorms. Until I understand why she takes the tone she does – which will require a re-read, plus a wider investigation of her authorial notions – A Book Of Common Prayer is, to me, a perfect heart of marble.