Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Lacuna

I finished listening to Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel The Lacuna over the weekend and was so happy that she salvaged a happy ending out of what I saw as an inevitably tragic story.

I listened to most of the book with a sense of dread. For starters, I knew Lev Trotsky was going to be murdered at some point in the story, so I kept on waiting for that to happen. Beyond that, Harrison Shepherd, the protagonist, was so devoid of family and friends, was so naive, talented, and different that oppression, heartache, misunderstanding, and discrimination seemed to me a foregone condition of his life.

I did really enjoy listening to this book, but I'm frustrated that I now don't have a book of marked pages with gorgeous passages to share with you. Both Shepherd and his secretary, Violet Brown, who turns about to be one of his only true friends in his life have a wonderful, distinctive way of delivering truths about people, politics, love, and life that appealed to me so strongly, and yet I can't pull out any examples so you'll have to trust me on that. That's the price of listening and not reading, I suppose.

While I have spent most of my life enjoying history, I honestly don't know a lot about U.S. history in the first half of the twentieth century beyond the headline stories. The Lacuna was a moving way to learn about how Joseph McCarthy and the Committee on Unamerican Activities ruined lives, twisted facts, and gloried in the debasement of political enemies and trampled on free speech and fundamental rights in the name of protecting free speech and fundamental rights.

When I wrote about Canone Inverso recently, I said that it was a twentieth century fable. The Lacuna is as well. It is a sobering, realistic look at how a society, a country, can run so scared that it nearly destroys itself. I used to think that WWII would have been the scariest time in the twentieth century to live through. Now, I think post-WWII was the scariest time.

In addition to the sympathetic character of Harrison Shepherd, who ended up a writer of novels set in pre-Columbian Mexico ("I work for the American imagination" was how he described his occupation), and Violet Brown, and the portrait of life in the U.S. and Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s, I appreciated The Lacuna as a work of literature. Kingsolver developed her theme of the missing piece of the story from the outset and carried it through beautifully and masterfully. At times, I wondered how she would connect the various elements of Shepherd's story together, but in the end she worked it out satisfactorily as a metaphor, as a theme ("the most important thing about any person is what you don’t know"), and as a plot point.

What makes this book more complex though is that the theme of the missing piece of the story (the lacuna) is juxtaposed with the theme of the "howlers" - specifically the monkeys on Isla Pixol that frighten Shepherd and his mother as the book opens, and metaphorically the press, whose members in the novel merrily violate the notion of free speech by willfully distorting the truth in order to tell the story they think their readers want. So you have the notion of a missing piece of the story (the lacuna), fabricated pieces of the story (the howlers), and a fictional world that consists of historical characters as well as invented ones.

Moving on to the fictional world, I did admire how well Kingsolver created a realistic world by using a narrative structure formed by invented diary entries, real newspaper articles, invented business and personal correspondence, etc. I know other readers have found this a bit jarring, but it was an interesting break from the narrative form that novels usually take. And, for me, it worked.

The only false note was Shepherd's love interest, Tom Cutty, an ultra hip guy he met while working for the government during WWII. I absolutely couldn't see what they saw in each other apart from them both being gay. There seemed to be no common ground, no mutual interests, and physical attraction didn't even seem to play a role. But, that was the only weak part in an otherwise powerful, interesting, sobering, masterful, and ultimately uplifting novel. I'm tempted to say this ought to be required reading in high school American history classes. I'm certainly getting a print copy for my kids to read this summer.

Here's a good interview with Kingsolver on PBS.


  1. This is a book I definitely want to read - thought you might be interested in this interview:

  2. Wow! I never heard of this one before, but definitely want to read it! I have a long interest in the McCarthy Era, as my great-grandparents were old school communists (big confession there!). While they were fortunate enough to not suffer too severely the repercussions of McCarthyism, it deeply shaped their children's lives (and therefore mine. as I was largely raised by my grandparents). Mass hysteria always fascinates me, but particularly as it manifested itself during this era. Now I just need to find the time to read it! Thanks for the excellent review!

  3. I like to follow writer’s blogs as I feel I learn from each one. I have a book of Communion devotionals at the printers at this time. I invite you to visit and follow my blog…and please leave a comment when and if you visit.

  4. Oh yes, now I remember why I've sort of stopped listening to books on audio. It's hard to take notes and you can't get quotes. It's okay with some books but for the deeper and longer ones, I get frustrated.

  5. Tracy - thanks so much for the Kingsolver link. I knew that there must have been a compelling reason why she choose to write the story she did--much as I loved the subject matter, it didn't strike me as particularly obvious choice, and I knew that the bitterness with which she wrote about the press indicated a personal knowledge of being victimized by the press.

    Thanks for the link--it was really interesting.

  6. Alexa - that's interesting about your grandparents--they've probably got stories to tell! Mass hysteria can be so dangerous and insidious. I really appreciate writers like Kingsolver who go out on a limb and write from the heart.

  7. I finished this a while ago, and have lent it to a bookclub friend, so I can't check back on some of the quotes, but your point about the howlers is well-observed. And it makes for a symmetry in the story - Harrison is so terrified of the real-life howlers in Mexico he wants to escape to the USA, but in the end it's the Howlers in the USA that make him want to escape to Mexico. And it's the American howlers that are the most damaging. And I agree - I liked the mixed media used in the novel, too. My review is written and will be posted at the end of the month (I don't post bookclub ones until we've discussed it, because some of my bookclub friends read my blog)