Where is Eugene K. Garber now? Some years ago he distinguished himself as a writer of dazzling short stories, many of them with an experimental edge. His Metaphysical Tales won the Associated Writing Programs annual prize for short stories, and a later work, The Historian, took the William Goyen Prize for fiction. Those two books, a dozen years apart, established Garber as an intellectual fabulist, a dazzling juggler of narrative devices, a witty and self-conscious artist with a subversive vision.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote a brief foreword to Metaphysical Tales which sounded more like a warning to readers than an introduction. After remarking on the author’s “extraordinary skill and vision” she wrote, “Garber is also stubborn, eccentric, self-conscious, and so willfully dazzling -– to be a virtuoso, or to be nothing! — that readers must be enjoined not to attempt to read this volume straight through, or even to read more than one story at a time.” And she concluded with, “Like all gifted writers, Eugene K. Garber is not to be understood – or loved – too quickly.” Clearly, that brainy Garber guy was some kind of card sharp, but with words.
Happily, Garber is still around, still writing, still publishing, understood and loved by a devoted cadre of readers. Over the years, he’s collaborated with several other artists to create the hypermedia fiction, Eroica; he’s written numerous short stories, reviews, essays and more recently he’s published some remarkable novels – fictions that are intellectually rich, multi-layered and dark, that last one being darkness visible. His newest book, Maison Cristina, is out now and it’s a surprise.
Maison Cristina, has the depth and disquiet we expect in his work, but with a bare boldness, comic spirit and light that’s quite new. Like his three previous novels it’s written in the present tense, but unlike those works where the episodes have the surface detail of conventional fiction, the scenes in this book read more like a movie script. Before the action, each scene is described precisely and then is followed by pages of crisp and impelling dialog broken only by a stage direction or whatever notes might be added by the movie director or cinematographer.
The novel’s opening is a brief but horrific clinical report on a dead man’s naked body lying in the sea amid rocks at the foot of a sheer cliff. We’re presented a detailed description of the scene and then, as on a theater stage, “a scrim drops over the scene,” the light changes and the “tapestried image of a beautiful dark-haired woman” appears.
That scene is projected onto a blank wall by Peter Naughton (the movie-script-like form of this novel is perfectly suited to the content.) Naughton, a man in his eighties, is resident by court order in a small institution for crazies, Maison Cristina, run by nuns. It’s a symptom of Naughton’s disordered state that he doesn’t control those dramas; some of them arise from memory and others are spontaneous creations which he sometimes cannot distinguish from reality.
Peter Naughton was brought to the Maison Cristina by his son Josh, which Peter regards as a betrayal. His counselor, or psychiatrist — no such terms appear in this novel, but a better one eludes me — is Sister Claire, a remarkable woman who is calm, attentive, responsive and intelligent. When Naughton asks what his son has said about him, Sister Claire replies that it was a very brief report which said Norton was siting alone in his house, drinking whiskey and waiting for a drama to appear on a wall. A moment later she adds:
“I was thinking of something else that your son’s report said, that you’re essentially a man of words.” Sister Claire smiles. “Many Words.”
Naughton returns the smile. “Yes, a good number, but it seems they’ve come to naught.”
“Nothing comes to naught, Mr. Naughton. This isn’t wordplay. It’s a promise we have. All our deeds and thoughts are saved.”
“Are you speaking of Judgement Day, Sister?”
“I wasn’t thinking of judgement, Mr. Naughton. You’re not under judgement here.”
Garber, a master of words, has created a central character whose great verbal talent, according to everyone in the novel, is complicit with his downfall. His skill is a damning weakness, a mark of folly, and no one is more down on Naughton’s talent than Naughton himself. Only Sister Claire sees it as a virtue of good use.
The story is set in motion when Sister Claire asks Naughton to share with her whatever he sees on his walls, which he agrees to, and though Naughton himself is fearful of what might appear, Sister Claire is not. She also asks him to help her with another patient at Maison Cristina, a young woman, Charlene, who is in a catatonic state, not eating, sleeping with her eyes open, and now on the edge of dying. Naughton has occasionally spoken to the unspeaking Charlene, and Sister Claire thinks that Naughton might help Charlene recover by talking to her, telling her stories, even such dark stories as Naughton believes he has within himself. He agrees to that request, too.
Naughton’s wall visions unfold as fragmentary episodes, shards from his past, while his interactions with Charlene and others at Maison Cristina happen in his present. In addition, Naughton has a visitor from his college days, a dead man named Vogt who intrudes on Naughton, criticizing and deriding him, a person who was real once but is now — as Vogt himself says — a product of Naughton’s brain, a fabrication Naughton can no more control than he can control a dream or nightmare. This stream of events sounds more confusing than it is; past and present are distinct, so that Naughton and the reader of this book work in parallel to make sense of Naughton’s life.
Advertisements for Maison Cristina and, indeed, the author’s own web site, present the central drama of this novel as Naughton’s use of story telling to rescue Charlene, but good novels can escape even the best of writers, which means that most readers will be far more engaged by Naughton’s past life and the lives of the women around him as those cinematic events play out on the wall.
Peter and his gentle sister Stella, a pianist with longings for a religious life, grew up in ugly poverty with a slatternly mother and slovenly father. I mean, really gross. The parents were boorish louts who sent their kids to be schooled by Catholic nuns and priests. In college he fell in love with a woman named Cam, a beautiful self-contained and opaque woman whose features suggested she was from elsewhere, possibly India, more likely Asia. They married and had two bright children. Unfortunately, Peter’s life did not turn out well. He had been a brilliant star in the classroom, had entered a graduate program in American literature at Tulane, but he quit before getting his doctoral degree and dead-ended as a re-write man for a parochial Catholic news sheet in New Orleans.
Now an old man, Peter Naughton watches his life play movie-like on the walls around him, especially his recent years when he tried to reconstitute his family and reclaim the women who had left — his sister, his wife, his daughter — for each had cut all ties to him and disappeared. His sister Stella, who almost became a nun, shed her name, severed her family ties and joined an anonymous group of emotionally battered women. She describes what they do with this hodgepodge: “We try to immerse ourselves in our beings and understand how each of us is part of a larger Being.” Cam, Peter’s blank wife, deserted him as soon as their children were able to fend for themselves, and the last we see of her she’s part of a circle of naked withered people, their ceremony a meaningless hum around burning incense propped up by a stone lingam. Only Peter’s daughter Alexie found some kind of happiness, narrow and limited, as an abstract painter sharing a primitive life with a male companion atop an isolated berm above a wilderness of lagoon and desert sand.
At this point I must say that any brief summary of this book is unfair to its rich, overlapping themes. Peter Naughton’s somewhat whacky days at Maison Cristina are a brightening contrast to the dark and isolating scenes from his past; indeed, his present is a critique of his past. There are resonant themes of spiritual failure and redemption or, if you wish, psychological repair and recovery, in the lives of all. And throughout this scattered story there’s a wonderful out-loud commentary on the central characters by others in the book who have a talent for lively, comic vulgarity and criticism. In a lesser book I’d call these critics minor characters, but they’re too vivid, too demotic and too right to be called minor.
And it was my error to call Sister Claire a psychiatrist or spiritual counselor. Instead, the forgotten word “alienist,” coined in middle of 19th century and out of circulation a hundred years later, fits her best. That uncomplicated and humane theory about the mind asserted that mentally deranged people had become separated or alienated from their own lives and the alienist hoped to lead them back to themselves. Viewed that way, it’s not only the patients at Maison Cristina who have lost their way, for Peter’s wife Cam and his sister Stella are alienated from their former selves and from each other, alienated from Peter Naughton and Josh Naughton, and estranged from everyday society.
Sister Claire turns out to be a far more complex person than she appears to be in the early chapters. In the extended episodes that close this novel, a small angular male character in black appears outside the Maison Cristina; he moves in a jerky angular way, visually rather like an early movie, an odd figure of only two dimensions, a cubist icon of evil. A figure looking very much the same had turned up in one of Peter’s visions early in the novel, apparently a priest, and now at this novel’s end the figure is seen by others at the Maison Cristina, including especially Sister Claire, who tells Peter more about herself than we had ever expected to hear. And among the things she confesses to him is how “three of us naughty students at St. Cecelia got hold of a forbidden book of modern art” to search out the painting of a nude descending a staircase, hoping to see a prophecy of their own budding sexuality. “Imagine our horror to discover that the artist had broken the nude into innumerable sharp metallic plates and assembled them precariously.” Of course, the cubist nude in Marcel Duchamp’s painting isn’t assembled precariously, though it may look that way, but Sister Claire’s remarks do lead us to other assembled fragments, namely the shards of Naughton’s life that make up so much of this book.
By the way, though the Maison Cristina is where Sister Claire shows Naughton the way back to himself that is not to say the church or Catholicism is the agent of rescue and redemption. Quite the contrary. The Jesuit priests and scholastics mentoring young Peter are intellectual gymnasts who undermine his growing facility with words, teach him to fear it as a potential occasion for sin, and erode his talent. It’s Sister Claire, the woman herself. Indeed, when Naughton badgers her with fancy nonsense and refers to something “dating back many centuries before your faith,” she dismisses his concoction and is unperturbed, telling him, “My faith is from the beginning of time.”
Eugene K. Garber has written a wonderfully rich and engaging seriocomic novel. Peter Naughton’s old college friend, Vogt (a real pest who tells Peter inconvenient truths about himself) provides comic relief along with insight. The same can be said of Peter’s aunt Ettie, a cheerfully vulgar truth teller, born with a love for talk. One of my favorite characters is Ms. Trask, an irrepressible woman who maneuvers her walker like a weapon, insists on calling Naughton Mr. Nobody, and constantly refers to her non-existent relative Lloyd Trask, a masterful railroad executive (a fanciful revision of the real historical Spencer Trask) who’s about to rescue her from Maison Cristina.
Here’s Peter’s mother speaking to middle-aged Peter about his wife: “What is she, Peter, some kind of female Buddha? Titta [Peter’s aunt] can’t get a rise out of her. Her eyes are like black stones. Does she ever say anything or just blink and lower he eyes because you already know what the command is? A minute ago she smiled, a pasted smile like you could buy at a novelty store and stick it on your mouth like a fake mustache. I don’t see any breasts. Bound oriental style maybe. What does the color of her skin look like in moonlight? You don’t want to say? I’ll tell you. Mushrooms. We’re opposites, Peter. I married an ape. You married a porcelain mystery….I thought you were smart. Flunking out and hiring on at a sleazy print shop was bad enough. OK. Some kind of rebellious romantic Whitman thing. Man of the people and the cosmos. But being a manservant to an oriental goddess or whatever she imagines she is. That’s the limit. I’ll come back when everything goes to hell in a handbasket out there by the ocean. Which it will. I’m your mother.”
Or this from the owner of that sleazy print shop telling Peter [Pepe] how he, the boss, treats everyone without bigotry, no matter their race or color, starting with his mulatto typesetter, Martyne:
“Actually, Pepe, I ain’t got nothing against color. Take my man Martyne. Biggest cocksman in Darktown. They all want a piece of that little yellow dickie-bird. I ain’t saying nothing against any of them. People got to live. And I don’t say this with no malice. Orientals are also good. Different yellow from Martyne’s though. Color is beauty. Whites ain’t white either down in the lower precincts where it counts.”
Garber lets himself go in these later scenes and not only gives unexpected emotional life and history to Sister Claire, he also lets loose on the boundaries of fiction and allows the illusory person of Vogt to mingle with certain of the novel’s living people. It’s as if the comic spirit has gotten into the structure of this story, too. Maison Cristina, like his other novels, has purposeful ambiguities that permit multiple readings counter to the one I’ve given. Readers unfamiliar with Garber’s other works may think he’s accidentally omitted some scene which would rid us of those ambiguities, or they may think the cinematic wall scenes are arranged haphazardly or as precariously as the elements of Duchamp’s nude. But no. Everything is here just as the author wanted it to be. This engaging seriocomic work may be our first cubist novel. This is where Eugene K. Garber is these days.