21 December, 2009Issue 10.6FictionLiterature

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Archives and Artifice

Jane Hudson

foerBarbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna
Faber and Faber, 2009
532 Pages
ISBN 978-0571252640

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest protagonist rivals Forrest Gump in his serendipitous ability to wander into defining historical moments. Harrison Shepherd, a novelist, is involved in many of the major cultural and political events of the 1930s and 40s, including the affairs of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the assassination of Leo Trotsky, the Bonus Army riots, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trials. The Lacuna is a mid-century odyssey assembled from Shepherd’s fictional diary entries, correspondence, the first chapter of an abandoned memoir, newspaper clippings, and book reviews.

One characteristically chirpy review, which Shepherd sends to his lifelong friend Frida, firmly identifies him as a popular novelist:

Do not mistake Harrison Shepherd for a literary great. His stories are full-to-brimming with lusty, bare-chested youths. The settings are glamorous, the plots chest-heavers. You may not admit it to your friends, but somehow you can’t put them down.

As the author of a mega-successful Oprah’s Book Club selection (The Poisonwood Bible), Kingsolver, too, knows what it is to be a popular favourite. Her status as a must-buy for literary fiction readers inevitably begs the question of her works’ true merit. The answer is a soft thud. While The Lacuna is far from being a “glamorous chest-heaver” of a book, Kingsolver’s over-determined use of choice themes and motifs, most egregiously the lacuna symbol itself, comes off as a bit facile.

Indeed, Shepherd’s first-person objective narrative voice is the only really successful incarnation of the lacuna in the novel. Violet Brown, the fictional secretary-cum-archivist who assembles Shepherd’s journals, describes her subject’s writing style “as if he’d been the one to carry the camera to each and every one of his life’s events, and thus was unseen in all the pictures.” Shepherd’s description of the day he moves away from the Riveras’ in order to work for Trotsky shows how the record of his life is characterized by a gaping hole (lacuna!) where the first-person singular would normally be found in a diary:

At seven this morning, after a brief rainstorm, Lev Trotsky lifted his suitcase, stepped across the puddles in the brick wall, and left the Blue House for the last time. He and his wife climbed into the back of the car with Lorenzo the guard, his rifle lying across their knees, and Van in the passenger’s seat, also armed. The driver sat very straight, as if his body were pierced like a Hindu’s with a thousand nails of guilt.

An inattentive reader could easily miss that the narrator is himself the driver described. Shepherd casts himself as the anonymous servant in a snapshot, allowing Kingsolver to quietly insert him as an observer into historical events.

Shepherd’s narrative voice shifts mid-way though the book, soon after Trotsky’s assassination, when all of his journals and the draft of his novel are confiscated by the police. Despairing that “an imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery”, Shepherd abandons his “embarrassing” hope of becoming a great novelist whilst Trotsky’s entourage breaks up.

Shepherd then returns to the United States, a move which, for Kingsolver, represents a shift from the confines of a detailed historical setting to a comparatively open narrative space. From then on, much of the story of his adult life is recorded through correspondence and newspaper clippings. Disheartened by the loss of his papers, Shepherd keeps no journals until three years after leaving Mexico when he discovers that Frida has salvaged his lost draft and his journals. When he does write in a diary, Shepherd now obliges the more conventional first person.

As Shepherd becomes a best-selling novelist and faces suspicions of being a communist, Kingsolver supplements the journal entries and newspaper articles with book reviews, a transcript of his HUAC trial, and finally, an obituary. Although Kingsolver pens all of the sources relating directly to Shepherd, a good portion of newspaper articles are taken from the New York Times archive. Virtually all of the articles, real and fake, reinforce Trotsky’s comment to his secretary that the media “tell the truth only as exception”. Quoting Zola, Trotsky explains: “The yellow press lies everyday without hesitating. But others, like the Times, speak the truth on all inconsequential occasions, so they can deceive the public with the requisite authority when it becomes necessary.”

Kingsolver’s conflation of real and the fictional articles underscores the ease with which ostensibly “factual” sources can be falsified and words distorted. At the same time, in selecting articles that serve her purpose and inventing others as required, Kingsolver ventures close to recreating the scenario she takes such pains to critique. Of course, Kingsolver has artistic license to play with historical sources; but given the humourlessness and force of her indictment of media at the end of the book, her method raises thorny questions.

This tension surfaces throughout the novel. Following postmodern conventions, Kingsolver uses a nested, destabilizing structure to question the possibility of “filling in the holes” in the historical record when representing the past. Shepherd’s imaginative retelling of Mexican history in his novels is couched within Brown’s barely editorialized publication of his journals. Both of these writers are, in turn, Kingsolver’s own creations, inserted into history to interpret and animate Kahlo and Trotsky (she consulted their autobiographies) and the historical records of McCarthy-era America. The desire to “set the record” straight, or at least offer a competing narrative, motivates all three.

These themes are explored within Brown’s editorial notes and Shepherd’s diaries. In one entry, for example, recorded in Mexico, Shepherd notices tiny flecks of red, green, and violet paint clinging to the surfaces of the limestone pyramids of Chichén Itz√°:

In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realize that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, “How quiet this man was, and how thin.”

These layered questions—of memory and truth—set the stage for a textured enquiry into the nature of historical representation and (auto)biography. Unfortunately, Kingsolver’s preoccupation with more superficial issues, such as the duplicity of the press, distracts from these interesting questions and will disincline readers from investing the thought to unravel them. Over and again, Kingsolver reminds us: the most important part of a narrative is the part you don’t know; the press is deceitful. These lessons are true, but also commonplace.

The book’s greatest disappointments, then, are its didactic repetition of certain themes and the heavy-handed—yet still inadequate—application of the lacuna as a motif and structural device. Kingsolver’s extensive symbolic framework, which motivates and might have refreshed these staid lessons, remains somewhat outside the story, only partially absorbed. One cannot help wondering if Kingsolver has written down to her audience. We can all feel clever for identifying (and highlighting in day-glo yellow) the passages about the trendy lacuna motif studding the painfully tidy structure of the plot. If The Poisonwood Bible makes us reconsider our prejudice against bestsellers read by book clubs, often times The Lacuna feels like it was written for one.

Jane Hudson has degrees in international studies and humanities from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and York University in Toronto. She currently works at Oxford Brookes University.