Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode


Astonishing and I'm only two chapters (100 pages in). A stunning opening where a son makes his father's coffin out of scratch.

Now I'm 450 pages into 600. Still going but it is a heavy, dense book. Some of the prose gets a bit wiggy and descriptive, but the weaving of past and present, and characters' thoughts and actions, has real power. Will finish if it kills me. Thankful that the county library system has abandoned their punitive overdue fining system.

4/16/2024. only 40 pages to go. Still amazing.

This extended section hear the end is as close as I have gotten to an understanding of Woiwode's complex, heavy novelistic structure:

Charles had a vision of a book: it would be a journal written by his mother, beginning the day Jerome was born, and would move throughout her years in Hyatt in an earth-colored, unbroken line, and then begin to explore her past, tentatively at first, as though stalactites were forming below the line, and suddenly drop and move back toward her birth, while the narrative grew thinner and thinner, until, at the journey's end, you'd feel left on paper-thin footing, looking down a sheer cliff. That would be her death. Then a series of multicolored pieces about North Dakota and Illinois, like large rocks in a stratum at the edge of her journal, each piece complete in itself, whole and unshakable, bearing no outward relationship to any other piece, implying that it's impossible to relate experience or contiguous periods of time in terms of continuity in our time (each moment, each year sealed off because it's escaped destruction and has to buttress the chaos battering at it), so that an incident from childhood might have more temporal value that ten years of adulthood, and this particular incident -- set off and explored to its limits (this harked back to her journal) -- would be more mature than the man carrying it; or it might be seen as outside him, a luminous omnipresence, a portion of his past that lay ahead and was a goal to be achieved if he was to grown -- This wasn't entirely clear yet. But the pieces themselves, the rocks of the stratum, would lie where they were, so you'd bump your head or wedge the lines apart if they weren't entered on their own terms, and then as more were added (but not so the book was like shaking a puzzle box), pressure would be put on earlier ones, and then at certain points the first piece would shift. Then, as another was added, several would shift at the same time; and then a continual rearrangement, a giving away begins (somewhere in here would go all the trouble he'd had with women), and suddenly there's a feeling of an earthquake, and an abyss opens in the book. On this side of it, Charles' journal, the actor's journal, Karl's journal, begins in New York, where the desolation, the bleakness and anonymity are identical to that of the plain, but more pernicious: man's constructed the city and chosen to live in it; the plain is a natural phenomenon he can always leave; swarms of people shoulder past more swarms in the city without touching another life; people move over unpopulated spaces of the plain to have a specific effect on a particular person -- so the city makes him more conscious than ever of the plan. In his journal the actor discovers attributes that belong to his mother instead of him and so, fearfully at first, begins to explore his past as his mother has, hoping to follow it backward to hers, and sees everywhere in the city parallels to an earlier life (these winos would be in it; like the Plains Indians, caricatures of their former selves from the time their homes, their spiritual roots, had been usurped; more committed to illusions than others to reality, and determined to sustain the illusions be continuing to drink -- firewater, the Indian's name for it; how could the two elements mix?-- and remaining rootless), and after a month's work it occurs to him that he's constructing, as the city's been constructed, his own reality, artificial or not, and making room for himself to operate within it (his generation acting what hers actually felt), whereas his past lies outside him in a state as natural as the plain, and he begins to long for an early love affair (here he'd use Jill), but realizes that the affair began as early as memory, or more. And then he sees his mother signaling to him from the other side of the book and they reach for each other across the abyss. (And now it had a title, The End of Flesh, which would tie these two themes together.) The edge of her journal is like the border of North Dakota and he wants to return there, not just metaphorically, and is planning a trip when one afternoon in the New York Public Library he finds in a history volume (like the one his father found; that would have to be in earlier) a paragraph about his great-great-grandfather, on his mother's side, who disappeared from the plain without a trace during a buffalo hunt. He's electrified. He then begins to act out his prose instead of writing it (he'll say that without the voice, without the limbs and their movement through space, his spirit -- his flesh? -- turns stale) and then the prose begins to act on him; it hangs from him like ropes and chains and unopened padlocks and replicas of all his joyful days gone hard as brass. And then it works inward. He can't eat and it's hard for him to breathe. He puts pieces of it down on pages, finally, like scattering paper over paper in straight lines, and finds himself becoming unburdened, fragile and airlike, and then glances at his band and sees that he can read his manuscript beneath it; his hand is transparent. This doesn't bother him, he's expected it, he makes a note of it and goes on writing, and at the end of the book his completed journal is discovered by a cleaning lady in an empty room with a mound of hair piled over its top. Maybe then an introduction by somebody who's known him (an editor? his brother?), telling how his family has instituted a search for him that's lasted several years, with Emil involved in it, but found no trace? Or a final paragraph of the actor knocking on the lines of his prose from behind to get out? Or into the world of his family? No, he'd remain motionless, flat on the page, like a plain. The plain, the plain, and each page a reminder of the cycle of the book, of course!
    And then he remembered those puerile, unpolished, ramble-tongue and tongue-tied paragraphs, those scribblings in his room, which he'd torn from the letter tablet and hidden in his paperback dictionary, and knew he could never write a book such as this, not in a lifetime or by himself, not without outside help, and never would.

[pp. 548-560]

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