Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Caitlin R. Kiernan - The Drowning Girl
“I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.
"A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.
I also typed. (p. 1)
There are, indeed, ghosts in the pages that follow those fantastic opening lines. As well as a mermaid and a wolf, and the sharp dividing line between the two that can also blur. There're also the narrator's first person digressions and conversations, her wrestling with herself and her inner demons in dialogue and in open view. Before any of that, though, before even the first page of the novel proper with the promise of a mermaid and a wolf, Kiernan warns us that: This is the book it is, which means it may not be the book you expect it to be. Oddly enough, the warning's not so unexpected. After 2009's acclaimed and award nominated The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan's become the kind of writer with the reputation of doing the unexpected, the unexplainable, and the darkly, beautifully brilliant. The Drowning Girl shares some of that prior novel's techniques – its intertextuality and its particular style of first person narration, to give just two examples – but its results are quite different, abandoning the strong sense and confines of place that dominated The Red Tree, taking on a farther reaching and harder to pin down mantle, a story about need and change and our reality and our escaping it.
When delving into something so multifaceted and amorphous, it's probably not a good idea to begin by admitting I don't understand the book I'm reviewing. But, as I seem to have done just that, I should explain what I mean. In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Kiernan said: Over and over, I get the “But what happened?” people, and I think it causes me actual physical pain that they’ve so missed the point. Most of the time – and this is the truth – I don’t know what happened! I don’t want to know what happened! As I’ve said again and again, one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions. I don't think that The Drowning Girl is meant to be understood. It's meant to be experienced, of course, to be delved into and wrestled with, to creep into our psyche and twist and smash what it finds there, to make us think and feel – but not for something so simple and pat as understanding.
Imp, as the main character's friends like to call her, is schizophrenic. This is not, though, solely a story about schizophrenia, containing insights only applicable to those afflicted. No, as Imp says: There's always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Some of us may be more susceptible than others are, but there's always a siren. (p. 101) Still, Imp's schizophrenia is vital to the tale, allowing and forcing her to face the mermaid, the werewolf, and the reality that binds us. Early on, she draws a sharp distinction between what is true and what is factual (p. 6), and so discerning what actually happened and what's impossible, what's real and what's fantastic, is wholly beside the point. The Drowning Girl is a narrative of thoughts and emotions, desires and implications, and not at all one of concrete occurrences.
Separating true and factual, though, is a difficult thing, and Kiernan often mines the gap between them, spinning out inconsistencies that we and Imp can become mired in if we don't keep our thoughts on what really matters. Imp, too, can play the game. This is her story, as she types it out on her grandmother's typewriter, and the doubts and hesitations of Imp the Storyteller are right there alongside those of Imp the Character. The distinction between true and factual is a double edged sword, and, in the scenes that cut too deep, Imp often retreats into a barrage of dates and trivia and facts that obscures all possible truth.
I won't be blowing your mind if I tell you that The Drowning Girl is a story here, but it doesn't stop there. This is a narrative of stories within stories, art within art, and layers folded tight and wrapping round their kin. Innumerable artists and writers, bits of legend and of history, are described, quoted, and alluded to within these pages. There's Phillip George Saltonstall and his haunting painting The Drowning Girl, Albert Perrault and his explorations ofviolence and the mythology of Little Red Riding Hood, Seichō Matsumoto and his suicide-invoking novel Kuroi Jukai, the grisly murder of Elizabeth Short that was later called The Black Dahlia Murder but first the Werewolf Murder, and even Imp's own stories and paintings.
These mentions of and creations of real and unreal art are not hollow pretension. The clues are scattered in each of these sources, and the truth at The Drowning Girl's heart lies somewhere where all of this art meets and blends. Art, here, is a source of spreading ideas. And of spreading ghosts. Hauntings are memes, Kiernan writes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways. A book, a poem, a song, a bedtime story, ad grandmother's suicide, the choreography of a dance, a few frames of film, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a deadly tumble from a horse, a faded photograph, or a story you tell your daughter. Or a painting hanging on the wall. (p. 12) And, of course, it doesn't end there. The Drowning Girl itself contains a haunting, and it seeks to spread itself beyond the 336 pages of its binding. It is an infected document, just waiting to spread its load of plague. (p. 88)
As all of this has no doubt made clear, Imp's story is not a straightforward one, and neither is its telling. Midway through the novel, Imp says: I didn't set out to appease the Tyranny of Plot. Lives do not unfold in tidy plots. (p. 171) Imp is full of digressions, often advancing through the past by sliding from one isolated event to another in a path that will only make sense afterwards if it ever will. That our narrator is a character, a human and very much at the center of all the misery she must unfold, is never lost, and she skirts around the most difficult parts before darting back to confront them head on. At times, when the connections are particularly obscure and when the climax of the chapter or incident is held away for one approach too many, this approach can grow irritating. At others, the easy shattering of chronology unmoors the events of the story from their specifics, leaving them feeling timeless and all around us.
The Drowning Girl is very much a work of Weird Fiction, that strange subgenre of horror and fantasy and more crystallized by H.P. Lovecraft (who Imp is "distantly related" to (p. 169)) that shows how the world is so much larger than what we see. It is not at all, though, a typical work of that genre. The world is vaster than we can grasp here, yes, greater than can be glimpsed through our "counterfeit sanity," (p. 285) and all the impossibility beyond may be damaging and deadly and potentially destructive, but characterizing it as simply malevolent is a hopeless oversimplification. Roles are reversed here, what's beyond the pall often being savaged by us and our world. It's not Elizabeth Short's murderers but the victim herself who is, in five stages, turned into a werewolf here, and its's not the siren but Imp who is the "author of abrasions" (p. 282) on that siren's perfectly soft skin.
Imp remembers Eva Canning coming to her twice, once in July and once in November, once as a mermaid and once as a wolf. Only one of these recollections is true, but, not knowing which is, she has no choice but to tell both tales. These two appearances, of the siren and of the predator, of seduction and of violence, are often sharply differentiated in the novel, with memories of one eventually coming clear as a manufactured self defense mechanism against memories of the other. But, like most such dividing lines in the novel, the mermaid and the wolf, the women walking into the water and the women slain by claws, come together.
All these come down to changelings, don't they? (p. 158) Imp writes, and so much of it does. The Drowning Girl is a novel about change, or at least the desire for it, a novel about mutability and collapsing boundaries, about being held prisoner by flesh and wanting to be free so badly that death finally becomes an option. (p. 151) These transformations play into every part of the novel, from transsexuality to the wolf in a girl's skin, but it's the border of reality that's most frequently railed against, cowered behind, and penetrated. Normal is a bitter pill that we rail against, (p. 65) Imp tells us, and insanity becomes a siren (p. 101), but things aren't that easy.
Insanity and the supernatural is here countered with Imp's humanity, both in its greatest aspects and also in its least glamorous. I pissed, she writes, and so I knew I must be alive, because I don't think dead women piss, do they? (p. 292) It's not, of course, limited to piss. Abalyn is Imp's girlfriend and lover, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the novel's strongest aspects. Their history together is meshed in with Imp's uncertainties about Eva and the world, but the two's interaction is rich with personality, hesitation, and, eventually, love. Besides which, showing Imp's vulnerabilities outside of the context of the purely impossible – showing how, after just meeting Abalyn, she wanted her to say yes so badly I probably had my fingers crossed. (p. 19) – goes a long way towards humanizing Imp.
Kiernan achieves all this with excellent prose that lives up to her reputation as a peerless wordsmith, but that's not to say that it, like the story, is exactly what you'd expect from her. The majority of the writing here is somewhat similar to that found in The Red Tree, at least insofar as it is as conversational as it is erudite, a mixture of insightful and vulnerable, traumatized and cutting. In marked contrast to the all out assault on every sense that defined so much of Kiernan's earlier prose, many of The Drowning Girl's descriptions and scenes read with the easy fluidity of dialogue, the unnatural rendered ethereal with suggestions and self examinations. All of that only adds to the impact of the barrage of images and emotions when it does come at the peaks of Imp's madness and the impossible's hold. The seventh chapter is the height of this, made up of pages of long paragraphs that snake and twist every which way and filled to the bursting and beyond with meaning and absolutely stunning writing, like: Dead wolves are sin-eaters. She was nailed with iron spikes to a smokehouse wall and gawkers came from all around to bear witness to laid low Christ Wolf in her mock Calvary tribulations. (pp. 210-1)
As I said in the beginning, I can't claim to fully understand The Drowning Girl. Then again, I'm not sure if such questions about sanity can ever be properly understood. I was, though, totally enthralled by this book. This is a novel about a haunting and about hauntings and about telling the stories of hauntings, and its characters and images, its words and power leave its page and haunt you as you read. But, though it hits you hard, The Drowning Girl is not a book of one note doom. It is a book about drowning, but it's also a book about learning to swim.