Amazing Grace: Tracing the Almanac's Branchings.
The opening pages of Bradford Morrow's The Almanac Branch are as entrancing to the reader as the fictive sequence of events there narrated are to Grace, the novel's protagonist. The shimmer of her migraine aura mesmerizes us; the concentrated imagistic power of its articulation holds sway over the novel every bit as much as its plot intricacies (business scam/"real world" matters, money, etc.). In most Morrow novels there is a dream-center that quietly holds court over realism: Hannah's loft/farm in Come Sunday, the Laos flashback pages of Trinity Fields, the night visitors of Giovanni's Gift, the flare men in Grate's physiologically induced fantasy life. The sensibility that presides over Morrow's second novel is Grace's; it is explicitly her story. (To me, she stands as Hannah's expanded and worthy successor: a center of sincerity amid the chaos of male corruption.) Each of these women merges the implausible with the intuitive, bizarreness with utter trustworthiness--as if to say, follow a man and his schemes to the ends of the earth, into uncharted waters, and take your chances, but follow a woman beyond adventure to an internal geography more mysterious, yet paradoxically, more authentic. The real authority, I sense the author is positing here, resides in negative capability, to which women hold the key. Beatrice has many guises, and these novels in which men would appear to hold power are just as much dedicated to scrutinizing those appearances.
The way Morrow creates in every novel an elaborately plotted realism fueled by intrigue and then inserts within that mimetic landscape a dreamscape gnawing at the fabric of the real, is his genius. A migraine to the one who suffers it is obviously as concrete as any gleaming coin, but Morrow uses the more mysterious features of this pain to lend an otherworldly quality to his heroine and her family, their house and the island upon which it is situated, their life besotted with the mundane woes of money troubles, delapidated structures, harsh weather, proliferating geographies.
Let's hear Grace's voice as she looks back, in first person, on the events recounted in the quote that opens this essay:
I still don't understand how imagination works, what it is, what its relation to the body is, because the flare man was so sophisticated, and I, who (surely must have) created him there on the ailanthus branch, so young to have invented this. He flipped himself over onto one skeletel finger of one hand and balanced on the branch, then filliped himself to a twig, still aloft on the finger. A wiggly tongue of yellow light streamed from his navel, and he slowly lifted his finger up so that he was perched on the yellow stream, which just barely touched the twig....
Then he said, Have you ever cried backwards, Grace? (26)
She hasn't but she will now. You know she's hooked; who wouldn't be? But her addiction adopts less original forms as it comes of age. Morrow takes some very familiar patriarchal tropes (incest, sadomasochism, bondage) and redeems their potential sensationalism through the powerful rendering of Grace's consciousness, lending the expression of her interior life psychological and poetic complexity. (He also works through them to Grace's ultimate empowerment; innocence and experience are not mutually exclusive here.) The incantatory list of what to do on a beach in summer, in winter, "Bury my feet in the sand. Bury Mother's feet in the sand. Bury my whole laughing brother in the sand. Wade. Watch the sand clouds in the water that the waves make. Pee in the ocean, the fish don't care because the ocean is so big" (74), is writ large as Grace grows from girl with the most anomalous and spectacular of imaginary friends into woman on an existential quest. The task, then, evolves from how to bide time--"Skip stones. Listen to the foghorn. Listen to the buoy bells clang. Pop seaweed bulbs under foot" (37)--to how to observe and respect its welding and cutting, how to receive the indulgence that is its gift. "From where I sit it looks as if that could be the most subtle and dangerous gift any of us should ever hope to hold in our hands" (286).
Young Grace lives a poetry of pain in a physiological underworld, with its own Faustian seductiveness. Her triumph is in not being swallowed by that pain, in acquiring, inversely, the taste to swallow it:
And he did, he came over, floated to the window, and I was looking straight at him he couldn't have been more than a few feet away from me (he seemed smaller the closer he got) and he reached out with the tip of his finger toward my eyelid--my eyes were closed, I couldn't keep them open, and yet I still could see him--and a stream of light came into the pupil of my eye. My mouth began to fill with liquid light, and he said, Swallow, and I swallowed, it was acrid, and I gulped it down. (27)
Grace is not passive; the crosses she bears do not assign her victim-status. She makes her mistakes consciously, to learn, as she resurrects her dead brother through desire, and through "compromised" relationships: a brief yet officially unterminated marriage, a menage a trois with a third suppressed, and a random mildly masochistic alliance to dislodge the former (for just as scissor cuts paper in her childhood games, her fling with Li Zhang cuts the adulterous Cutts from her life). Because Grace's point of view presides, and because it is so intelligent and humane, we see her quest as one for authentic self and for an integrity and loyalty lacking in her family. Intimacy here has many contortions.
One of the most twisted aspects of that intimacy is The Almanac Branch's play within the play, or film within the novel, as the "outside" brother Berg seeks artistic realization through voyeuristic and plagiaristic means (his own brand of incest). He robs his sister's diary, her almanac, to make his own--a sinner's almanac--which draws its existence monetarily (illicitly, of course) from the branch of Geiger called the Gulf Stream Trust. He violates her past by distorting her memories, already larger than life, more expansive than "truth." Indeed, his bastardized version is hokey--to say nothing of morally depraved--against the performance-art of Grace's sensorium. The novel very neatly offers us Berg's pseudodocumentary art trying, and failing, to imitate Grace's private life-art. Indeed, what depiction, re-creation, or for that matter flesh-and-blood sexual relationship, could match the "actual" sensuality of her visions, the lush disorientation of their disabling magic?
Grace is more herself than anyone around her, not relying on others (though protecting others all the time). By means of an earnest if sometimes desperate trial and error, she attempts to remain true to the intensity and beauty and strangeness of the flare men, who were her Annunciation angels. (The tidings they brought her were equally conspicuous, suspicious, though perhaps from the chthonic realm instead. And yet there is her name.) After all, who but Grace would choose the Northern Lights as her honeymoon theater, the literal highlight of her brief marriage?
Discovery was linked to suffering for Grace early on. We are doubly intimate with her struggle, because through the smooth intermingling of third- and first-person narration, objective and subjective are steeped in each other's juices. One lovely subtle instance is the conclusion of that very what-to-do-at-the-beach list, when the charming child-voice of the winter litany removes itself in the last line to offer adult Grace's sober summary perspective: "Mostly, stay away from the beach in the winter and, yes, often wonder when Father was coming home" (37). A similar effect is achieved when the impatience of first-person Grace impinges on third-person Grace at the end of a paragraph addressing her spontaneous infidelity: "But she never asked for presents from Cutts. She never much liked the presents he gave her anyway, although they were nice presents (the scarves were silk and colorful). They indicated to Grace more that Cutts felt guilty toward Bea than that he felt generous toward Grace. The scarves were more sacrificial offerings than true gifts. So, all right. Let's make a sacrifice with them" (169).
In addition, Morrow deftly juggles many characters; we are privy to numerous points of view through the novel, but our knowings are always restricted to third person with these ancillary characters. The lead to her supporting cast, as it were, Grace remains the reader's only I/eye; we know her outside and in. Thus our trust and intimacy accrue each time we "flip," and the integrity of her voice (so down-to-earth for all its access to the otherworldly) is perpetually reinforced. Let's hear her again.
While I am tending to business, there is another matter I want to address. I hadn't understood it until I went back and reread this, my almanac, hoping to discover some common thread of thinking through it all. It is well known that we least understand what is right there in front of us. How strange it is then to look over these other pages, my pages, and come to the realization that my almanac has turned out to be so much a sexual history. I would never have guessed it would turn out like this. Everything I have said, for what it's worth, is the truth. Even so, I stand before myself and confess that my life has been largely led in solitude. I've been married to a husband not even for a hundred days before retiring back into myself; so weak was my sense of being a wife that I have never been compelled to push for a divorce. (211)
Initially television heroines are all Grace has as models--specifically those with magic as their shtick: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie--their triteness and their power. (These popular culture icons are later supplemented by literary creations: shrewd Scheherazade and Can Xue's protean characters, whose resources are their mutability.) As to the former, their socially conditioned female roles are preserved because their "outlet" transcends the real, and thus their power is secretive, unthreatening, i.e., not integrated. The stakes for them are the disruption of suburban status quo; but for the sustainer of the thousand and one nights, higher: life and death. In Can Xue's world, identity is not stable to begin with, deconstructing narrative reality is her magic.
Grace's magic is at root megrim-magic; while Samantha wiggles her nose or Jeannie authoritatively folds her arms and nods her head, Grace's head merely throbs, blossoms by implosion if you will, and her conjuring is less active or direct, i.e., it would appear her flare men summon her rather than she them. But her thirty-three years (Christ-analogy: the female martyr to secular passion) of life are a struggle above all to integrate her power/debility: the singular calling thrust upon her by an accident of brain chemistry that renders her special, which is to say pampered, reviled, exposed, marked, chosen.
And she too, ultimately, chooses: to read what she loves against degree requirements, to drop out of college, to marry, unmarry, to have one "wholesome" and one "unwholesome" affair, to seek out her dead brother and her live one, to confront the elder who is jealous of the younger and thus censorious of Grace's bizarre manifestation of closeness to him, to remain pure of and then try to unravel the overwhelming unsavory Sprawl of the Geiger company, to forgive her mother and her father their respective transgressions; in sum, to be at every moment true to a self in the making.
I still hope that twists and turns of the past can somehow be straightened out, leaving me free to walk on a different road than the one my feet are used to traveling on. In this way I'm like everyone I've ever met. Not that it would matter if I weren't. Time is a welder; time is a cutter. And time--dream in it as you may of toads or cranes, of church or wealth, of iron or a lover's flesh--is indulgent, for all its nasty side. It will let you do in it whatever you want. (286)
Grace Brush is surely a contemporary heroine--and as compelling a one as any in American literature--who says what she means, who via instinct and fate finds her own elliptical path. If I may steal her final words, with intentions far purer than her brother Berg's, "Anyway, that's what I think."
Morrow, Bradford. The Almanac Branch. New York: Linden Press/ Simon & Schuster, 1991.
MARY CAPONEGRO's Five Doubts was published last year by Marsilio. A recipient of the Rome Prize, her other work includes the book The Star Cafe. She teaches at Syracuse University.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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