Monday, January 21, 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. NY: Knopf, 2012.

You may have heard about (or of course already read) this book. It has received a lot of attention. I received this book as a Christmas gift, in part due to its Philadelphia setting, but Philadelphia has only a minor role to play in this series of tales. Hattie, at a young age, moves with her mother and sister from Georgia to Philadelphia during the great northern migration--it could have been any southern state and any cold northern city. Hattie settles in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and marries and has children, twins, by the time she is 17. During the twins first cold, northern winter, they contract pneumonia and die. Hattie survives their deaths, but despite giving birth to nine more children, her tenderness is gone with the twins, and pragmatism directed toward bare survival is her primary parental characteristic. Mathis's novel is essentially a collection of linked stories, each chapter telling the story of one (or two) of Hattie's children at a different point of time from 1925 to 1980. Each story is moving in its own way and demonstrates the hardships of poverty, racial discrimination, gender and sexual orientation bias and the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with living with all of these hardships.

Floyd is a jazz musician coming to terms with his sexual orientation, for which he faces violence and descrimination from whites and blacks alike. Floyd has chosen to remain away from home, working in the north and the south as a musician. He seeks out the love and comfort of his mother in his confusion and fear. In this story, Hattie maintains some of her motherlove and tenderness ... but it is far from present in the stories that follow.

Six, who has serious scars from terrible burn accident, has violently beaten another boy in retaliation for the treatment he has received from others. He is whisked away in the night to avoid punishment and enters the preaching life living primarily in the south. Although he has no sense of his religious calling, Six nonetheless undergoes a transformation in the heat of revival meetings, and evokes the spirit for others. In addition, Six is believed to have healing powers. Women are drawn to him and he does not resist them.

Ruthie, is one of Hattie's youngest children. Hattie believes her to be the child of her lover, Lawerence, not of her husband, August. Although her husband is a source of unhappiness for her, August is in his way devoted to his children. He is lost in the world he lives in, floating from job to job, woman to woman, and neglectful of his wife and fiscal responsibilities. In Ruthie's chapter, Hattie attempts to run away with Lawrence, and he is ready to care for her and their daughter, but, in the end, Hattie cannot leave her older children behind. And it is clear, from the scenes of the abandoned at home, that the household depends on her. August, her husband, takes her back gratefully and loses none of his love for Ruthie as Hattie reveals that the child is not his.

Ella is born five years after Ruthie, and August arranges for her to go to Hattie's childless and well-to-do sister Pearl who lives with her husband in Georgia. As the couple drive to Philadelphia to meet their soon to be adopted daughter they are violently harassed by white thugs at a roadside park. Escaping with their lives but having been robbed of their belongings and their dignity. As they make their way to Philadelphia, Hattie struggles with the approaching loss of her daughter and her resentment of her sister and her lifestyle.

Jumping from 1954 to 1968, daughter Alice has married into wealth. Her concerns have to do with the managing of a large home, entertaining, and looking the part. She is close to the extent of co-dependency with her younger brother Billups. It becomes clear as the story progresses that she and her brother have a dark secret about which they have never told their parents. The secret is theirs together. Billups finally succeeds in breaking free of Alice's desperate hold on him, but this is devastating for her.

Franklin is serving in Vietnam. He is writing a letter to the girl at home who he lost even before leaving for the war. If going to war is supposed to turn the boy into a man who can face responsibility, it is clear from Franklin's letter that the war is devastating and dehumanizing. Bell, in 1979, is dying of tuberculosis. As a child, from the school bus window, she had witnessed her mother out walking with her lover. Her mother looked beautiful and happy with Lawrence, and Bell wonders how this same woman could be her mother. Haunted by this, as a grown woman, she meets an older (but perhaps not wiser) Lawrence and seduces him eventually createing an impenetrable barrier between mother and daughter, that only begins to heal, when Hattie, through various twists and turns learns of her daughter's illness and comes to care for her and help her back to health and to family.

Cassie suffers from severe mental illness and her parents have decided to institutionalize her and the final chapter, the twelfth in Hattie's tribe, is devoted to Cassie's daughter Sala who suffers through the deterioration of her mother's mental health and then loses her altogether when Hattie and August determine that Cassie is a danger to herself, Sala, and others.

While each story on its own is moving, it is difficult to accept that all of Hattie's nine surviving children could have such unrelentingly tragic stories. In the end Hattie recovers some of her tenderness to nurse Bell back to mental and physical health, and it is clear that she will attempt to nurture Sala. Bellup breaks away from his dark past to find a new path to wholeness. August appears to go through his difficult life without being destroyed by the pain and misery around him and he maintains a kind of loyalty to wife and children. Mathis's novel fits into the genre of expansive family sagas, as she picks up the reader and drops her in and out of individual moments within one Philadelphia family's history.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Yann Martel: Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel. Beatrice and Virgil. A Novel. Random House, 2011.

Beatrice and Virgil is about a couple of Henry's, a donkey, and a howler monkey. Henry, the first person narrator of the novel, is a successful author whose idea for his second novel has been politely and kindly but quite definitively rejected by his publisher and agent. In the first part of the book, he describes his rejected idea and his thinking behind it. He wants to explore the possibility of writing about the Holocaust as fiction and metaphor. He writes, "A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality? ... Other events in history, including horrifying ones, had been treated by artists, and for the greater good.... Art as suitcase, light, portable, essential--was such a treatment not possible, indeed, was it not necessary, with the greatest tragedy of Europe's Jews?" (p. 11). To explain the thinking behind his fiction, Henry decides to begin his novel with an essay, and he gives substantial thought as to how best to present the combination novel and essay. How can he make sure the reader  reads the essay and does it matter whether it is read first or last? Henry decides to turn the book into a flip book--read one way from one end, turn around and over, and begin another text from the other side. It has been done before but not often. Thus, neither the essay nor the novel is privileged and the reader can freely choose, without hierarchy, where to begin his or her sojourn through the linked works.

The rejection of this completed work of five years throws Henry into a crisis and he and his wife decide to pack up and move to an unidentified city outside of the United States. "They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin" (p 21).   His wife easily finds work and Henry is involved in theater. They adopt a cat and a dog and are expecting a child. In the midst of this seemingly settled life, Henry receives an unsolicited scene from a play, accompanied by "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitator" the striking feature of which is the young Julian's love of killing animals, in large numbers, with relish, and without regret. Although in the end he achieves sainthood Julian is apparently absolved without asking forgiveness or expressing regret. The scene from the play that arrived with the legend, involves two characters, Beatrice and Virigil, who are discussing the merits of a pear. One of them has eaten a pear, and one of them has never seen a pear. Henry is intrigued by the juxtaposition of the play and the legend, and decides to find the writer, who in his letter, has asked Henry to help him with the play. The playwright is also named Henry.

Henry's first visit to Henry the playwright who is also a taxidermist, leads to many more visits. They discuss the play, and Henry the novelist, tries to understand the motives behind the play as well as the connection to the St. Julian legend. Henry the taxidermist never gives him the entire play to read, and rather than hand him pages, insists on reading it aloud. It gradually becomes clear to the novelist through more subtle and less subtle details that the play is in fact a fiction about the Holocaust told from the perspective of Beatrice the donkey and Virgil the howler monkey, both of whom are victims of a regime of hate. It is in fact, the very thing that the novelist had hoped to accomplish. The play about, as Henry the novelist thinks of it at one point, "the abomination of animals," is never far from his mind and he works on sections of it, makes suggestions to Henry the taxidermist, and is fully engaged in its development. But as the novel progresses, Henry's views of the taxidermist as benign writer in a dying profession begin to change.

Although Henry, for various reasons leaves the play and its author behind, the characters of Beatrice and Virgil stay with him. In the end, it is the memory of these tragic charters that leads him to begin writing again.

As I started to read this novel, I was surprised at how much Beatrice and Virgil were not the subject of the novel. Yes and no.  I liked Life of Pi very much and after reading that read Martel's novella, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (no animals in this one, but it is a story about creating a story), which is an amazing piece of writing, so I was looking forward to a new novel by Yann Martel. But when I read the review of Beatrice and Virgil and what I picked up was that this was a story about a donkey and a monkey and that just didn't really excite me.  I  couldn't bring myself to read the novel. I don't know if it was a terrible review written by someone who hadn't read the novel, or if I skimmed the review so mercilessly I didn't pick up any of the important points. At any rate, this novel is so much more than a story about a donkey and a monkey although they are central to the novel, both in their theatrical representation and in their preserved form as products of the taxidermist. As I started the novel, I was immediately drawn into Martel's writing. He is thoughtful, and is not afraid to give the reader something to work with. Indeed, his novel, although not a flip book, is very much the rejected work he describes in the opening segment of the novel.

Why so important to fictionalize the Holocaust? To make it a large and universal, perhaps timeless story that goes beyond the individual stories we hear and read about, to make it part of our ancestral memory, a story that is retold, a fable, a cautionary tale, a nightmare, a horror story, something that brings all the threads and thoughts and pieces together into something that can never be forgotten or diminished. It is hard to imagine that this could happen, that we could forget or lose touch with this historical reality, but we are still within living memory of the murder of the European Jews, and one day, we won't be and in this small piece of fiction, the stage is set.

Martel's adroit use of animals in his novels makes me think of the writer, who according to Wikipedia is currently living in Philadelphia, Josh Emmons. I heard him read a short story at Grinnell College where he spent a year running the creative writing program a few years back. The story was essentially a fable with animals--it has been awhile--but it was an excellent reading and an excellent story. It looks like he has two novels published--so perhaps next on my list.

But back to Martel--read this book. It is barely 200 pages, and, while it will give you plenty to think about it, it is a beautiful novel and you will not find yourself struggling to get into it or reluctant to turn the next page.