23 February 2008

Shadows of the plain truth

Having finished reading and jotting down my notes on Kirstin Allio's Garner yesterday, I've begun reading the relevant thread at The Litblog Co-op. (Litblog archives in general are so much buried treasure. I always have to remind myself to not let the immediacy of the Internet get in the way of all the wonderful stuff that's already been written.) Although I have a clear idea of the ending (after reading it twice), others didn't, which made me reexamine my own conclusions. (I'm tempted to specifically discuss it here, but refuse to spoil anything for those who haven't read it.) Yet I would agree with the general consensus that it's the beauty of the language that makes this such a memorable novel.

The electricity went out yesterday at school, so in between classes, I sat in the heat (windows wide open for the occasional breeze), and lost myself in its pages--a vague drowsiness blurring the boundaries of the outside world while I read, as if in a dream. Kassia Krozser describes this very well,
Quiet voices demand your full attention. You turn off the stereo, maybe head to a corner of a your backyard, away from the everyday life sounds. You don't want to miss a moment of the voice. This is reading at its best. You become one with the book.
I found the feeling the novel gave me evoked in Ed's use of "mesmerized" (and even "warm bath"!), as well as Heather Birrell's sense of being "enthralled in a near-hallucinogenic manner by Allio’s prose."

Dan Wickett does a good job of reviewing it. I just wanted to add some observations that I haven't already seen discussed elsewhere.

Much is obvious about the stoicism and repression in the lives of Garner's citizens. What isn't so apparent is the understated way in which Allio reveals their darker aspects. For example, I was well into the novel before I realized (with a slow shock) that Willard Heald reads much of the mail he delivers (when he decides it worthy of being delivered at all). I supposed that since he's the town's self-appointed historian, he believes his activities justified and has no qualms.

The other surprise was the revelation of who it was who actually burnt down Franklin Abbott's home--and the subsequent realization of the motive (p. 181). It's a passing mention that Willard writes to himself in tiny, offset, parenthetical prose--but what is equally shocking is the townspeople's (seemingly) calm acceptance of the fact. Is the event perceived as "normal"? Or is it more a matter of everyone's unwillingness to admit to the insanity of the act? (I tend to think the latter because it harmonizes with the horribly casual conversation that ensues at the end as Buck Herman "shoulders the weight of the girl"--just as he would a sack of the potatoes he's so nonchalantly discussing.)

Heald's participation (or should I say intentional non-participation?) in the various questionable circumstances of Frances, Abbott, Bickley, and even Asa Robinson amount to a chilling complicity with outright evil.

But as Kirstin Allio points out,
Ambiguity provokes tension. Ultimately, I think the story is more powerful if it remains less delineated. I hope the tension in Garner is compounded by Willard Heald’s voice bleeding into the text – he is that dangerous person who tries to speak for all. Where does Heald stop and Garner begin? Where does he read the town, read the mail, write the town, love the girl?

That being said, there are clues everywhere [...], and I hoped very much to elicit close readings. Words are shifty characters.
The text on the book's cover is about Heald, for starters. But as much as he writes and admits to himself, there are also things to which he is blind. At first I didn't believe that he knows what actually happened to Frances because his ability to consider another's perspective is completely subsumed by his own ("weak, unwise owl eyes"). In other words, he thinks he understands everyone else, but to him, other people are just mirrors that reflect his own propensities. This is why he doesn't think twice about the god-like decisions he makes. But as I reread the beginning, I found it on page 11. He knows. Of course, whether or not he believes himself to be at fault is another matter entirely.

Yet as far as ambiguity goes, I was much more perplexed by the fate of Hal Bickley than that of Frances Giddens. What had Abbott actually done? Was it merely a perceived threat, or something much more final? Again, Heald is there to lend a frightening cruelty to the scene:
So she loved her husband. Well he would fling such love from a brutal height so that nothing of its body would reach the earth.
If indeed it is a murder that has occurred, it precedes Frances' own death. But again, the town's reaction is not given. Is this yet one more example of the complicity of their silence? This event takes place in "Part Four: Abbott's Return." Is there a more sinister reason for the title? Does he, in fact, "return" to another violent act?

The various mentions of the lithium water found in the streams of Garner caught my attention as well and made me immediately think of bipolar disorder. In searching for more information, I read that lithium can be found in granite and found a page that discussed lithium's presence in water. It doesn't seem like it would affect anyone who drinks it, but the very mention of it was interesting.

Another aspect of this novel I love are the meditations on womanhood and the characters of Frances and Mrs. Heald. As tragedy nears, Frances begins to voice her own quiet resignation:
Became a woman, she forced herself to say it under her breath, and in her voice it sounded poor and defeated. She began to watch the boarders with envy.
Flipping through the book as I was writing my notes, I accidentally read this last sentence as, "She began to watch the borders with envy." Not only are her own boundaries being crossed, but elsewhere, Allio states, "Willard's voice insinuates, so that the man of the borders violates the borders." I didn't catch the interplay between "boarders" and "borders" until after I'd finished the book, and seeing how violation inverts the natural order, I also understood how the "boarders" served various purposes of misdirection as well.

Allio conveys volumes in slight passages of piercingly subtle words:
Dozens of first pregnancies were lost for modesty. The corset too tight, the housework exhausting, the appetite weakened so that the man bellowed about the waste in his house and the woman simply stopped preparing her own portion.
Beauty shifts its weight, thought Mrs. Heald, to lean harder upon new places, to bruise the places it uses as footholds, to leave tracks across hips and behind the knees.
Secrets, Frances put down despite her pledge to quit the diary, are the shadows of the plain truth between us.
Allio also succeeds in creating a wood nymph of a girl that is at the same time fully flesh and blood. She conveys her love of nature in a poignant manner that made me think of A Girl of the Limberlost or even L.M. Montgomery's beloved novels (on Anne, Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, Marigold, the Story Girl, Kilmeny, etc.). It was amazing to see how little sentimentality Allio uses while infusing Frances with life--a life that endures beyond her death.

There is only one thing that bothered me--the line on the back cover that reads, "When Frances's body is found in rain-swollen Blood Brook, the town begins to unravel"--as if her death is a catalyst rather than a result (or symptom). The entire novel is concerned with events before her death (including the possible violent death of another character), and in the case of Malin Nillsen's section (years after the fact), she doesn't even know Frances has died.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have read the novel twice now, and I think I know what happened, but I would love to hear your version. Please e-mail me: ottobonnie@gmail.com.