Micheline Marcom Reads @ Elliott Bay Books Tonight

Seattlest, Seattle
March 14 2008

Micheline Marcom Reads @ Elliott Bay Books Tonight

Micheline Aharonian Marcom reads from her new novel tonight at
Elliott Bay Books at 7:30 pm, at 101 South Main Street.

When we first wandered over to the Seattlest Arts Desk to pick up our
review copy of Draining the Sea, we’d never heard of Micheline
Aharonian Marcom. Turns out this Saudi-born, LA-raised child of an
American and a Lebanese-Armenian is the author of two critically
acclaimed earlier novels: Three Apples Fell From Heaven and The
Daydreaming Boy. Who knew? Back in 2001, reviewing Three Apples in
the New York Times, Margot Livesey wrote that, "The fierce beauty of
her prose both confronts readers with many breathtaking cruelties and
carries us past them." Such a description recalls the Cormac McCarthy
of Blood Meridian, in which endless passages describe the
breathtaking natural beauty of the Southwest with such vivid
intensity that the reader is easily dragged into the booby-trap of
McCarthy’s brutally twisted violence (baby tree, anyone?).
Unfortunately, to judge Marcom by Draining the Sea, it would seem
that Livesey’s observation is as much a prescription for long slog of
a read as for a literary masterpiece.

One need only crack a copy of Draining the Sea to discover that
Marcom’s style is dense and darkly lyrical. The narrator inhabits a
phantasmagorical Los Angeles, where he spends his days collecting the
carcasses of dead dogs off the roads and grappling with his memories
of the Guatemalan civil war and Marta, a woman he both loved and
likely killed, as well as his family’s experience of the Armenian
genocide (this is Marcom’s central theme through all her books,
apparently). Written in a hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness,
Marcom’s prose twists and turns poetically. Take, for instance, this
single sentence:

This is my inquiry, an inquisition of the air: you say that you
cannot be undone, and you say (with your looking) that I am a beast
of clean proportions; you say nothing with your words, in fact you
have no words in my language (and I none in yours) and you insist in
your dark cold chambers, in the capital of darkness, you bring me
there, into the pit with you, with the other handless corpses, the
half-deads, the unclosed eyes of the dying: you, the rats and diptera
girls, and faceless cockless boys, and black bowed beetles, and
intrepid moths on your skin eyelids – that I stay with you in that
place, that I take up your hands (beautiful veins of indifference)
and bundle that unringed, unpainted fingers fingernails to your
mother in the Highlands: to your dead mother, the dead brothers and
father, the crucified brother, who beat each other in the winters and
for whom hunger is like an iron fist: send them these artifacts of
the body, you say; rescue me from this hole, this hollow they’ve made
for the half-deads, and I am crying uncontrollably now at the side of
the freeway, and I can’t see you amidst the piles and it is you and
then it is my mother giving me her five phrases about the Armenian
grandmother when I am a boy, and the long distances between home and
here, and then it is me, alone in my car, driving along the 405.
On the one hand, this is an act of literary bravura, a sentence
constructed with a poet’s sense of flow and a technician’s precision,
that unfolds and blossoms like a flower bud, as layer upon layer of
language opens up. There’s three parenthetical phrases, three colons,
and two semi-colons in one sentence. An impressive feat all around.
On the other hand, it’s nearly meaningless. What are "beautiful veins
of indifference" or "skin eyelids" besides pretty phrases? And
perhaps most problematically for a first-person narrative, who on
earth would talk like that, let alone think like that?

Still, accusing a book of obscurantism and aloofness is an easy bomb
to lob, and we found ourselves reconsidering leaving our review at
that, once we read Irene Wanner’s piece this morning in The Seattle
Times. "Day by day, as I slogged through my appointed pages," writes
Wanner, "I became increasingly frustrated. How could Marcom indulge
herself with such language? She had received several of the writing
world’s juiciest plums – a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a PEN USA
Literary Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers’ Award – yet this book
circled on and on and on … to what purpose?"

That’s not just unfair, it’s lacking in subtlety. Yes, the prose is
obscure and dense, but it’s not a simple stylistic choice as Wanner
seems to imply. In fact, for the genre, this is par for the course;
there are rules to writing witness literature, and Marcom – to her
detriment, in fact – is playing by the rules.

As the above passage makes patently clear, the purpose for this
seemingly impenetrable stream-of-consciousness is its ability to
collapse time and space. In one single, strung-out sentence, we flow
from LA’s super-highways through a Guatemalan Indian’s homeland, all
the way back to the inherited memory of the genocide. The effect is
to make the historically and geographically distant immediate and
personal. As a device, its purpose is just the same (and just as
central to the author’s project) as Jonathan Safran Foer’s use of
multiple layers of narrative in Everything is Illuminated (about the
Holocaust) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (about Sept. 11).
But Foer’s internal narratives, through which we in the present
experience the past, leave these psychically traumatic events safely
contextualized, first by the nature of being in the past, and then,
as the narrative takes on its surreal qualities and the boundaries
between past and present blur, by the awareness of the fictive nature
of the device.

We doubt that Marcom’s book is going to stand the test of time to
become a classic, or even, for that matter, garnish much attention
from the media. But while she may have weaknesses and pretensions,
the project of Draining the Sea is ambitious, and she deserves at
least credit for that. This being the third novel in a projected
trilogy about the Armenian genocide and its aftermath, perhaps she
can now move on to new subjects for which her considerable gifts are
suited, and manage to write a truly great novel.