Book Review: Weighty Words That Sink Like Stones


Washington Post
July 22 2008

In Micheline Marcom’s ambitious novel "Draining the Sea," a nameless
narrator collects the dead bodies of dogs, puts them carefully into
the trunk of his car and takes them to his house in the Santa Monica
Mountains. When he’s not driving this stinking roadkill around Los
Angeles, he watches game shows on television, ponders the sterility
of American life and dreams of a woman in Guatemala.

Los Angeles seems to induce the same apocalyptic visions in writers
with very different sensibilities. For Jack Kerouac, Nathanael West
and Joan Didion, to name a few, the city is a burial ground for the
American dream. For Marcom’s narrator, Los Angeles is a nightmare
where "the horizon has perished, and we are stranded here, at the
pilgrim’s apogee" — the place where Americans play out the last act
of their lives, "eating ice cream," "dieting on fat bowls of cereals
and swimming in . . . chemical pools."

"Draining the Sea" is the last volume of a trilogy in which Marcom set
out to explore the atrocities of the Armenian genocide of 1915. But
here, the author’s interests have shifted to the Guatemalan civil
war of the 1980s. The book’s title comes from words attributed to the
military commander responsible for the scorched-earth policy his army
carried out against the people of Guatemala: "The guerrilla is the
fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish you have
to drain the sea." What justified this madness, in which children’s
heads are bashed against river stones and young men are beaten until
their brains fall out? "We are fighting a cold war," he says. "The
communist scum will get us if we don’t watch out."

The novel is a richly symbolic dream. Wandering around Los Angeles,
the narrator is overwhelmed by his love for Marta, an indigenous girl
from a remote province of Guatemala. But Marta — a simple creature
who can speak only the Ixil dialect, and who fled to the mountains to
escape the massacre — may be a phantasm. A year after her flight,
government soldiers murdered her in the basement of a school in
Guatemala. Or did they? Was she tortured and killed? Did she ever
exist? And finally, does the narrator bear a responsibility for her
death, even if she is his creation?

In this highly mannered, plotless novel, the leading characters share
a tenuous connection to reality. Given the author’s predilection
for ambiguity, it’s not easy to summarize the plot of "Draining
the Sea" — or even to follow it. Her frequent use of invented
words and run-on sentences perplexes the reader and disserves the
writer. What are "denizens of livered historiographies"? Can you
make sense of this? "The heart, an organ’s meaty desire, can be like
capital’s descent into your cities and towns — because who built
the cathedrals?"

Outside of creative writing workshops, stream of consciousness has
pretty much gone out of fashion, perhaps because, except where the
consciousness belonged to a master like James Joyce, it is such a
chore to "unstream." The inner workings of a character’s mind do
not necessarily communicate the character’s essence. More important,
stream-of-consciousness prose often lacks emotional texture, resulting
in a flatness that bogs the reader down. "Draining the Sea" fails to
reward the reader for the hard work of slogging through its text.

Whatever meaning one can discover in Marcom’s novel comes from
its incessant repetitions, which create indelible images for the
reader. Most of these sensational images are almost too much to bear:
Marta with her hands cut off; Marta possibly alive when she’s thrown
into a pit and doused with chemicals; young soldiers carrying their
dogs on their backs, forced to kill them with their bare hands and
ordered to drink their blood. Seared in one’s mind is the image of
the complicity of the United States: "My president [Reagan] is eating
dinner sugary desserts in Tegucigalpa with your general."

Raised in Los Angeles, the child of an American father and an
Armenian-Lebanese mother, Marcom observed the force of history as
it bore down on her grandmother during the Armenian genocide. A
talented, passionate young writer, she urges the reader to revolt at
the inhumanity in our midst. Even though her style lacks maturity,
"Draining the Sea" is a daring attempt to face down evil and an
original contribution to a growing body of literature that bears
witness to the atrocities of our time.

The dog-corpse collector narrator who watches television from a green
armchair in L.A. finally becomes a sympathetic Everyman. He starts out
as a "good American boy; he likes parties, he likes the television,
he likes ice cream." But in re-creating the martyrdom of Marta, he
transcends his passivity to become a storyteller. Stories console
for the memories that prompt them, making it possible to endure all
that is precarious and horrific in reality. In the end, it’s stories
that defeat death, and if that’s the case, then for Micheline Marcom,
writing them is an act of love.