Is the novel dead, or just the people who read them?
Ask any Barnes and Noble sales clerk and s/he will tell you that the novel lives as it always has—in genre: mysteries, romances, fantasies; “chick lit,” which in comparison to literary fiction titles, are flying off the shelves. In Norah Labiner’s forth novel, Let the Dark Flower Blossom, (Coffee House Press, 2013), we have a mash up of many of these genres as well as Gothic noir, Greek classics, post-modern disjunction, add a pinch of snails and puppy dog’s tails and you have the page turning quality of a who-done-it.
But who done what, and why do we care?
As the dark flower blossoms throughout the book, the reader learns that several murders have occurred. A number of moral outrages have been committed. Parents are dead. Fathers seduce daughters. Daughters k—(oops, spoiler alert!). Anyway, chaos reigns and what makes the narrative even more chaotic is that, at least for the first half of this 349 page book, we don’t know when a new plot twist will occur, character be introduced, or even where this novel is going. This is okay for those of us who can be entranced by lyrical writing, enticed by literary allusions sometimes just beyond our intellectual reach, as well as allowing ourselves to be fascinated by a writer who is indeed forging her own path, creating something new and inspired, bringing the reader from A to (let’s hope) Z in a bold and brainy switchback of a tale.
To answer our tentativeness, Roman Stone, one of the three main protagonists, a successful novelist among other things, helpfully explains: “A labyrinth is a maze, but a maze is not always a labyrinth. One wanders aimlessly through a maze, turning, lost and found, finding one’s way; but the path through a labyrinth leads always to the center.”
As readers, let’s hope we are in a labyrinth, and that at the end of our journey there will be a reward—whether it be a treasure, princess, or the answer to who killed Roman Stone. If there is a reward, then it’s up to the writer to make those twists and turns just navigable enough for the reader to hold on and reach the end. No doubt, some impatient readers will put this book down, but those who stick with it will find it’s not the resolution that’s satisfying, but the novelty, skill and complexity with which the story is told.
There are a number of fascinating totems and charms handed out at the beginning of the journey, symbols of a possible precarious passage. A Pandora-like box, a broken statue, a coin for the ferryman, rock, paper, scissors, all items that are passed from character to character, plot twist to plot twist. As Eloise Sarasine, another of the triad helpfully reassures us:
“One finds what one finds in a book. Wasn’t that the very point of reading a book?” Or “Not all books are for all people.”
In our post-modern, post structural, post-everything era, the story of this novel is not only what the writer intended but what the reader brings to the page, which is layered with classical allusions, bastardized lines of modern poetry, and a post-modern obsession with analyzing the plot and characters en media res. Symbols must be decoded and narrators’ voices disentangled from short lines and strange paragraph breaks. Consider the academic who is writing a thesis on “Who killed the novel” or “la morte de la novel.”
To drive the point of the unreliable narrator or writer home even further, Eloise’s own husband, Louis Sarasine, makes his living as a successful lawyer discrediting the memories of crime victims. “We take the truth and turn it into a lie,” lectures Sarasine. “In what do we believe…This thing called god? The creator, the authority, the artist. What if he is a liar by his very nature? What if he loves ink more than his audience?” Later, Sarasine states: “My client killed those girls…He knew it. And I knew it. But the truth was and is irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was how I told his story.”
A couple of literal story lines are bandied about as we read: “Roman Stone was murdered in Iowa on a hot June night as he sat watching a baseball game on television.” Or: “It is a story of a brother and a sister.” Or: “My father killed my mother. Or maybe it was the other way around.” But what kind of story is this? A ghost story? A memoir? A who-done-it? A tragedy? All of the above—or does it even matter?
Proclamations of the death of the novel are becoming louder and louder, yet wander along any beach resort or big box bookstore and people are still reading. Ultimately, this book is about storytelling: what is truth, what is fiction, and why many people still reach for a book or an electronic reading device when they have free time and want to relax . As one of Labiner’s narrators provocatively observes: “Liz would never have believed that readers were not looking for moral instruction; that when they opened a novel, they were not in search of either guidance or escape; but that they were looking always for themselves, along every turn and twist of the stone street and sentence.”
This book offers proof that the novel isn’t dead. With the work of this talented crafty novelist, it’s still raging against the dying of the light.