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Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Illustrated Version of Things by Affinity Konar

The initial chapters of this fine book caused me to wonder if a truly original writer was emerging. Konar in this, her excellent first novel, uses a particular style to explore the mind of a disturbed, unwanted and unloved teen-age girl. I recommend it highly.

But this is far from The Catcher in the Rye. Here, Konar plays on the distinction between the sense manifold and perception. The sense manifold refers to the data picked up by the senses. We sense much, much more than we pay attention to: rather, we focus on what needs doing, saying, thinking. This focus is made possible by perception, which processes the sense manifold into what is useful in a given moment or series of moments.

Konar's first-person narrator perceives with an incredible freedom. While keeping us grounded by referring to some sense material, Konar has the first-person perceiver not recognize the usual boundaries between animals and humans, between genders, between prostitution and mere trading.

Konar uses a highly individual style to create this tension. Layers of nuanced, detailed language combine with other such layers. This long quotation should illustrate:

"I'm about to replace [my brother] ... I can do better than this, I figure. After all, what's the point in keeping a brother that I have to share with my father?

Down in the alley, I decide that I'll trap a new brother by sunup. I have my red dice and my best wishbone for bait. No one can resist those dice, they're always rolling high and getting even, and the wishbone has some clingy meat on it still. I figure I can catch a pretty decent brother with bait like this ... Soon, the trap is approached by a gang of cats, a homeless pack of limpers with damp paws...

When I don't respond favorably to the cats' offers of brotherhood, they circle the trap and mew...

The sound of their howling unions makes my eye tear, but before I have a chance to surrender, a different kind of paw ventures out into the trap and pockets the bone. It's a human paw. I can't see who the human paw belongs to, because its own is shrouded in knits and newspaper, but I can see it roll the dice between frostbitten fingers."

The narrator goes on to bring the person home, put him or her in the bathtub, and unpeel the layers. Underneath, is an old woman. The narrator has no problem identifying her as her brother, and she demands that she dress like him and so on. The brother who was replaced is then referred to as the "demi-brother."

This writing style opens profound questions about the connection and disconnection between the sense manifold and perception. Are some responses to the sense manifold better than others? What happens to someone who processes the manifold differently, according to different values and assumptions about the way the world works? To what extent are the categories that we divide the world into, in the needed effort to create a socially-based perceptual given, also blinders? What is the value of realizing that our categories are a mere convenience and not connected to nature in any way? What is the relationship between possibility and the processing and perceiving I am discussing?

Reading Konar's highly detailed rendering of this issue is a profound, and disturbing experience. When what is assumed becomes ignored entirely, when what is taken as a given can be instantaneously violated without the least forethought, when deep values are shown to be permeated with alternatives, we are left unsure, to say the least.

Now comes my reservation about this excellent novel: she turns it psychological. I admit my bias: I believe that most novels work best when character is not at the center so that other aspects of the work can bring up issues wider and more trenchant than psychology. We don't need real people in fiction: we already have them. And I am rarely in favor of having a character suffer from mental illness, as does the narrator, in a novel because then the book's complications can be explained away as the result of a diseased mind.

While taking two isolated passages from different parts of the book does little more than illustrate a point anecdotally, I want to offer another quotation from when her mental illness was more or less at the center of the action in the book:

I can promise to stop visiting the mental ward where I can talk to and bother the nurses who cared for me "as easily as I've promised it once before, and so many times before that. To nurses and nuns and elevator boys. To bus drivers and Ferris wheel operators and bunny handlers at the pet store. The tattoo parlor had me put it in writing. The butcher shop wanted it in blood."

It goes on from there. In this passage the narrator becomes a simply pitiful human being-like entity, and not one of a group of narrative strategies that pose questions and provide tentative answers about highly complex, and essential, issues.

My emphasis on concepts, ideas, and the intellect over character may seem to some as too masculinist. My answer is that plenty of women writers would seem to agree with me. To take some canonical examples, Jane Austen named her novel Pride and Prejudice, not Elizabeth and Darcy. Emily Bronte named her book after its setting, which in many ways is the overpowering force in the book. Finally, Tender Buttons is in many ways a domestically situated book: Stein wrote it soon after she and Alice B. Toklas had an apartment all to themselves. In part, that book is about the giddiness and joy of having a private space.

I don't want this reservation to cloud my admiration for this book. I have often wanted to write using details in this concentrated and free manner, but I have never been able to pull it off. Affinity Konar does it in spades. I am definitely reading her next book.

1 comment:

  1. Good to know about this one..nice article..thanks for the information..

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