Archive for May, 2011
I thought that I would be an ideal reader for Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, her 2011 work of magical realism and Russian folklore. This particular brand of fiction is what I read and what I write. I’ve familiar with most of the folk tales and practices on which her work is based. I’ve taken courses on Russian literature and history and toured both Moscow and St. Petersburg extensively. I speak enough Russian to understand the references (not quite puns) in the character and geographic names. But all of this, I’ve found, actually makes me less than an ideal reader for Deathless — my dilettantish dabbling into various parts of Russian culture leaves me equipped with neither of the frameworks I could use to appreciate the novel.
If I weren’t familiar with the source material, I would be more awed by the strangeness of Valente’s work and the striking images she presents — a world of eggs, feathers, huts with chicken legs, galloping pestles, magical villages, and house spirits. Valente casts these elements into beautiful English prose, but they are not her inventions. The banya ritual, with its bizarre lashing by birch branches, is a beloved Russian pastime, typically enjoyed with alcohol and picked victuals. Baba Yaga, Koschei the Deathless, firebirds and mustard plasters (and even the main character, Marya Morevna) are all part of the Russian folk tradition. And if I had absorbed the source material through a lifetime of culture, rather than a few book and college courses and weeks abroad, I could better appreciate Valente’s inversions, re-castings, and transformations. Deathless is a catalog of Russian folk lore stitched into a novel.
The overall plot is impelled by the demands of the fairy tale, not the motivations of the characters, inevitability without agency. Goldilocks has to eat the three bears’ porridge, else she wouldn’t be Goldilocks — she has no choice in the matter. Similarly, Marya Morevna has no choice in her interactions with Koschei the Deathless. They are preordained by centuries of Russian tradition. “Why” or “How” are not a question one can ask of fairy tales, and they doesn’t figure into Valente’s novel, either. It’s better to let the striking images and strong, direct language exist as points and not attempt to resolve them into a coherent outline of a plot.
The real world / Soviet elements of the story aren’t as well fleshed-out as I’d hoped. This is a shame, because they are among the more intriguing ideas. What would Baba Yaga or the Firebird have done at the Siege of Leningrad? The domovoi (house spirits) organizing themselves into soviets and committees is brilliant (they have been too long oppressed by the bourgeois inhabitants), and I’m sorry that this didn’t play a larger role.
Valente’s narrative voice is lush, ornate, packed with adjectives and descriptors, and borrows the cadence of the fairy tale. This is usually powerful, but in certain moods and quantities feels oppressive. The voices of her characters are no different. Characters speak in lush, large, sweeping sentences, proverbially, poetically and axiomatically. This fits their role as archetypes and ideals, not as people:
“‘As you swallow the cow’s tongue, think for a moment about how strange and holy that is, to devour the tongue of another. To steal from it all its power to speak, to low at the moon, to call to its calf. To be worthy of such food you must guard your own words carefully, speaking only the wise and clever ones, lest your tongue end up likewise, on the plate of a rich man.'” (65)
“The stallion snorted, and his breath curled in the cold. ‘Marya Morevna, we are better at this than you are. We can hold two terrible ideas at once in our hearts. Never have your folk delighted us more, been more like family. For a devil, hypocrisy is a parlor game, like charades. Such fun, and when the evening is done we shall be holding our bellies to keep from dying of laughter.'” (148)
“Aleksandra was silent for a long while. The sky got blue and depthless. ‘I seem to remember, in my heart. In a part of my heart locked up behind the farthest, smallest room of my heart. Under that lock is a place with a dirt floor where it is always winter. There I seem to think that someone has died, and no one has helped them. Then I weep so bitterly that horrible flowers grow from my tears.” (304)
There are frequent jumps (temporal and thematic) between sections and between sentences, so that at times, the novel feels non-sequitur. It is cleverer than the reader; it is wiser. It expects the reader to keep up, and I couldn’t always meet the challenge.
Deathless, to me, succeeds as a series of images and fails as a story. It has more in common with the snippets of Akhmatova poetry found throughout: best understood as fragments of some much greater whole.
Because Wednesday’s jaunt into DC went well enough (i.e. the only tears were hunger-related and thus easily remedied once recognized as such), the Lime and I embarked today on a much more ambitious trip. The two of us (daddy & baby) set out for Baltimore, 45 minutes north of base camp, to visit the American Visionary Art Museum.
The baby began the trip well-fed and made it all the way into the museum before requiring food. She had lunch in front of the farting post, a curious installation that, among fart-related pieces of art, encouraged the viewer to record his (inevitably) fart, in the spirit of 19th century British street corner humor. Fortunately, no one availed himself of the opportunity during our mealtime.
The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) was one of my favorite museums, and now I can’t quite recall why. Perhaps it was different company (the Lime, while adorable, is not yet a stimulating conversation partner), or different exhibits, or different mindset. I found most of the museum to be cruder than I remember — not in terms of talent, but source material (see “farting post”). The gift shop, which I remember as a wonderland of strange and wonderful things, was actually filled with tacky plastic crap. I was last here in 2005; I hadn’t thought my sensibilities had changed so much.
The temporary exhibits included one on laughter (featuring a bench covered in Whoopee cushions [!]) that was less than compelling, but there was also a spectacular collection of paintings by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, including paintings such as:
The Lime also got to see her first Howard Finster piece, a cutout of Francis Scott Key (appropriate to Baltimore), dedicated to the museum by Howard in 1995. Rev. Howard Finster is tremendously important to me, and I was glad to share even this one little piece with the Lime.
I asked the desk clerk where to go next; she suggested Druid Hills Park, Baltimore’s “Central Park” (though not exactly downtown). It’s home to the Baltimore Zoo, as well as other walking trails and sights. As Lime and I were idly orbiting the perimeter, contemplating where to stop, I spotted an orate but slightly dilapidated Victorian greenhouse / conservatory. We had to stop here — this is my kind of place.
The conservatory contains a small public botanical gardens. In five rooms, we saw tropical plants, orchids, Mediterranean gardens, and the desert. The last two were the most impressive: the first for the culinary aromas (lavender, oregano, citrus); the second for huge succulent plants, bigger than I’d ever seen or thought possible.
As Lime had another feeding in the air-conditioned reception area (it was too humid to feed her in the gardens themselves), I asked the desk clerk for a lunch recommendation; she mentioned the Yabba Pot, a vegan restaurant in Charles Village. The neighborhood was a little run-down and featured loiterers on the steps of a discount liquor store, but in broad daylight along a busy street, I wasn’t too worried. The Yabba Pot turned out to be a vegan restaurant of the pseudo-food variety: the only entree available today was drummies, a kind of ersatz chicken drumstick that looked and tasted very much like its model when nibbled close to the fried exterior, but they then became inexplicably rubbery and gristly closer to the Popsicle-stick [!] core. I can’t even guess what the “chicken” was made from — I honestly have no idea. The only successful pseudo-food restaurant I’ve eaten at was Soul Vegetarian, in Atlanta, and there, the Black Israelite religious convictions assisted the food in mysterious ways that New Age hipster-ism could not.
With food supplies for the Lime dwindling (she doesn’t always drink formula, but when she does, she drinks only Enfamil Newborn Nursettes, two per feeding — perhaps the most expensive source of infant nutrition short of pureed white truffles, but very convenient), we returned to base camp, weary. Travel by car with the Lime is substantially easier than by Metro. Unloading baby, supplies, and stroller is manageable for a solo parent.
I’ve asked myself — why bother? The Lime sleeps through the bulk of these adventures; she’s not getting much out of them right now. It would be more convenient to stay in the hotel, and I could get work done. But I need to stay in practice, as a traveler. I hope to raise the Lime as a Modern American Eccentric, like me and her mother. I want her to see (and want her to want to see) the unusual parts of of world culture (the Georgia Guidestones or Mammoth Cave or Appalachian Trail or Odyssey of the Mind World Finals). She doesn’t have to build Paradise Gardens, but I want her to be a person who visits it, even if only once — to appreciate that there are a tremendous number of passions in this world, and she shouldn’t be afraid pursue hers, even if they are eccentric, with excellence, spectacle, and joy.
The Lime is now seven weeks old – high time to get some culture. We’re in College Park, MD, for the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals. Arriving early, Meg and I decided to head downtown to see some sights, with the Lime in tow.
Saddled with all the accouterments of modern baby’s existence, we began our journey at the Prince George’s Plaza Metro stop. We quickly learned that all elevators are not equal — they serve different sides of the platform (north or southbound on the green line). Descending, realizing, ascending, crossing, and descending became a theme for the day — a ritual dance.
The Lime slept for the entire journey down to the Smithsonian, including a delay in the heat of the train, where we had a pleasant discussion with another traveling couple. They advised us to get out daughter interested in Thomas the Tank Engine, rather than Dora the Explorer, for reasons of finance — Thomas DVDs and toys are much less expensive, apparently! If she could be persuaded to be fascinated by say, Magic cards or books or Star Wars toys from the 1980’s, that would be even better — we have a great deal of those in storage already!
Upon arriving at the Smithsonian Metro stop, we found that there was no elevator up to the Mall-side exit. There was an elevator to Independence Ave, but only to the mezzanine. Then, the only option was escalators. We disassembled the stroller and car seat and baby and carried them up. It was safe, but a hassle — a two-person job, at a minimum.
We paused as we crossed the Mall to take appropriately epic pictures of a seven-week-old in front of the architectural pageantry of our nation.
The front entrance to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History is also not stroller accessible. We carried the stroller up the front steps and into a sea of middle schoolers. The museum is not so much a catalog of artifacts and discoveries of the natural world as it is a laboratory to observe the American middle schooler in its natural habitat — their socialization and mating rituals, the grace of their limbs as they dart across the rotundas and playfully scamper the wrong way on escalators, their various vocalizations that register emotions as varied as disgust, contempt, boredom, weariness, and superiority. I don’t mean to wave my cane and shout “Get off my lawn!” (especially since I had a seven-week-old), but I wish that, in the absence of self-discipline, that there had been more adult oversight of these rambunctious youngsters, if only to encourage the educational aspects of the museum over the social ones.
Meg and I needed to eat; immediately after we did, the Lime needed to eat. An hour and a half after arriving, we were ready to enter the first gallery: gems and minerals. Spectacular, of course. Given the nature of the book I’m writing, I had to linger for awhile in front of the displays of gold. We saw moon rocks and touched a piece of Mars, a fragment knocked to Earth by a meteor.
The Lime, unfortunately, lost emotional containment at this point, so we had to flee this exhibit after twenty minutes and wend our way through to the only second-floor bathroom, which was at the far end of an exhibit. The Lime, screaming at the top of her lungs, is still a order of magnitude quieter than a caffeinated middle schooler cooing to her crush in front of a dugong skeleton.
The men’s room had no changing tables — only the women’s. As I waited outside the women’s restroom (fortunately, the presence of the stroller marked me as an attentive father, rather than a pervert), I observed dozens upon dozens of angry middle schoolers. Because of renovation, this exhibit dead-ended at the restroom — on reaching the end, one had to retrace one’s route out of the exhibit and back to the main hall. Several signs at the beginning of the exhibit announced this fact and apologized for the inconvenience. Still, party after party of teenagers arrived at the dead end and were disgusted that they would have to walk back out the way they’d come. Apparently, the American middle schooler, in addition to being lazy, is also illiterate.
I would call the trip a success, though. We successfully reached our destination and returned safely. The Metro is clean and safe, if not always clearly signed and stroller-accessible. The citizens and staff are kind to out-of-towners like us — our ignorance of the SmarTrip system was going to cost us an additional $10 for parking (on top of the regular fee of $4.80, plus the round-trip fare of $7.20 per [non-Lime] person), but the station master took pity upon us.
When we were planning this trip, Meg told me that, on days when she was busy with Odyssey activities, I could take the Lime into DC for sight-seeing. As we were retracing our steps up on down some elevator in the bowels of the earth, laden with the stroller, the carrier, diapers, bottles, blankets, burp cloths, and a precariously sleeping baby, Meg said, “I retract my statement that you can take her sight-seeing. I think it’s impossible for one person to manage all this.” I think she’s right. When the Lime is a little older, she can go in a backpack, with fewer artifacts necessary for her care, and with longer times between feedings. Then, we might get to see a few more galleries at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Middle Schooler.