Starting Over Easy, Gently Please

Last night a friend said to me "every act of writing is an act of starting over." This, after I told him I couldn't possibly write here any more. So I'm trying again. I miss the process of thinking more about the time I've spent with a book, rather than just consuming it.* All I can do is try. So here we go again, and be gentle please, I'm rather out of practice.

I still read the New York Times Book Review now and then, because I'm poncy like that. I try to pay particular attention to fiction reviews of authors I've never heard of, because at this point in my reading career, I prefer variety and new voices, to reading the complete works of one author, or re-reading an old favourite. This (not altogether positive) review of Bloodroot caught my eye, and into the library queue it went.

I have a proclivity for multi-generational sagas, and Bloodroot delivers, in the typical non-linear fashion of such things. The novel centres around Myra, the granddaughter of the first narrator, and the mother of subsequent speakers. The family is somehow "cursed," though their lives are no less difficult and tragic than others around them. The curse the family seems to hold onto, to explain their circumstances, could be equally applied to any of the neighbours or in-laws they come in contact with, with varrying degrees of intimacy. To illustrate that no one character is immune to this curse, the antagonist, Myra's husband John, is given voice at the very end of the novel, to show he too is only human, and suffers from social and familial difficulties that have shaped him into the extremely flawed human being he is.

Two related themes are prominent in Bloodroot: escape and incarceration. We are told that generations of women in Myra's family have "itcy feet" that keep them up at night, and many have difficulty remaining indoors for any length of time. They howl, they jitter, and they run from their mountain cabin with the first man that will take them away, mistaking "escape" for "love." What these women invariably find, however, is that life away from the mountain, down in the town, is more brutal and prison-like than they could have imagined. Myra's mother Clio falls to drink, and mental illness. Myra, too, is caged by the violence enacted upon her by her husband, twice being literally imprisoned, in the crawl space beneath their rundown house. Myra escapes her husband and flees with her twins back to the mountain, only to be found and judged an incompetent mother. When this last blow to her fragile state of mind comes, it reduces her to animalistic instincts, and she physically attacks. She is sent to a Nashville mental institution, where she spends the next decades.

Myra's children both spend time in detention centres. Johnny, her son, burns down his paternal family's hardware store, after he finds they want nothing to do with him. Laura assaults a children's aid worker, who comes to take her child away, in much the same way her mother did, resulting later in her incarceration. However, Luara is able to restrain herself somehwat, knowing that further outbursts of violence and mad behaviour won't help her get her child back, and moreover, she makes a conscious decision to break the cycle -- or curse. "I was fixing to bust out fighting again," she says. "But then I remembered how awful it was for me and Johnny, seeing Mama go wild. I didn't want to mark Sunny like Mama done me. I forced myself to be calmer."

Geographic and institutional barriers, however, stand-in for the true binding presence of violence, which touches the lives of everyone in the novel. If a man you repeat the violence, if a woman you crave it, because it means that you're cared for. Myra craves this ultimate possession proposed by John. He says "I want to marry you. But if you're going to be with me, you belong to me. I can't have it no other way" and she readily agrees, cheekily assuming "it works both ways." In a later section, John tells of the violence done to his own mother, which he unconsciously re-enacts on Myra, though time and distance are able to give him a perspective on the issue. In a rumination on the past, John notes, "Since I quit drinking and got a few decades older, I can look back and see how mean and crazy I was myself. I figure I ain't nobody to judge the way Myra acted, or where she ended up." Distance, however, is a luxury given only to males; men are free to move far away, and often do, but women only move by a few miles, into the houses of their husbands, and lives of drink, mental illness, and violence.

Bloodroot is compared to The Color Purple on its jacket, which I assume is a thematic comparison. The modern reader has likely come across many narratives about domestic violence, since The Color Purple. We are aware that those abused often abuse in turn, so Bloodroot doesn't really break new ground here. The New York Times tossed the word "gothic" around, and I suppose Bloodroot could loosely be termed as such. The curses and visions, decaying homesteads situated in a miasma of industrial chemicals and railroad noise, hysterical animalistic women, and dark family secrets can indeed be viewed as gothic devices. However, I think Greene makes a conscious decision to show that the horror is actually in the everyday details of familial violence, which in the end respects no border or class strata, but replicates itself through generations. Like a curse.

Ultimately, I feel like I've been through Bloodroot before, and I had a strange detachment** from some really horrific storylines. Maybe that's the point, I'm not sure. If you live a life of violence, for any period of time, maybe you check out and see that life like a reader or writer, instead of a participant.

*It's appropriate that my booklist tracking is on a companion site of All Consuming

**A rural-south-Americana novel I found far more moving, was the excellent Strange as This Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake, which was in my top 5 list of 2007 (as requested by Steven W Beattie).


Jack said...

"However, I think Greene makes a conscious decision to show that the horror is actually in the everyday details of familial violence, which in the end respects no border or class strata, but replicates itself through generations. Like a curse."

This sentence reminds me of another text that draws on Gothic conventions without being self-conscious in its "Gothicism": Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts. Both have a family curse that iterates throughout the generations.

Also, would you say that this novel is in the tradition of the "Southern Gothic"? Your mention of its Americana-slant made me wonder if the author is placing her book in that line or if it was a direct influence or an indirect influence...

Panic said...

You know, I did want to say something about "Southern Gothic" but as little as I know about Gothic as a genre, I know even less about "Southern Gothic." Even though I've probably read a lot of it. It's definitely rural, but it's missing some of that... heat, that "Southern Gothic" has. Funny though, the comparison to Ibsen, which would be the opposite! Chilly Gothic, perhaps! I'd go with direct influence.

Megan said...

I'm glad you're back.

Panic said...

Aw, thanks!