Friday, September 17, 2010

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes political novels; in The Lacuna, she takes up the question of the relationship between politics and art and how two neighboring countries--the United States and Mexico--see the relationship differently. She addresses that issue by looking at one character with ties to both countries at a critical time in history.

The main character of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, who is 12 years old as the book opens in 1929. His Mexican mother has recently left his American civil servant father to follow a Mexican oil man back to her native country. They are living in an area so isolated that no school is available for Harrison and he writes in a journal and practices holding his breath to pass the time. The latter skill comes in handy when he discovers a "lacuna" in the wall that he can swim through at high tide to a lovely jungle grotto. This lacuna becomes the first of several empty spaces or gaps that attract Harrison's attention throughout his life.

After his mother leaves the oil man (to follow another man to Mexico City), Harrison has an unfortunate school experience and is eventually shipped back to his father in Washington, DC. Though it is hard to believe anyone could be a worse parent than Harrison's mother, his father tries, immediately delivering him to a military academy. Harrison makes only one friend (who is also his first real romantic interest) at the academy, and the two boys have various adventures around Washington, including being gassed during the government quashing of the Bonus Army protests.

Soon, Harrison is back in Mexico, expelled from the academy and working first as a plaster mixer and then as a cook for leftist artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When Lev Trotsky is looking for somewhere to hide from Stalin, the Riveras offer him safe harbor, and Harrison also works for Trotsky, first as a cook and then as a secretary. Despite the best efforts to protect Trotsky, he is first attacked and then murdered--both crimes that Harrison observes and is greatly affected by.

As World War II opens, Kahlo tells Harrison it will be safer for him to return to the United States, and she arranges for him to be in charge of transporting a collection of her paintings to New York for an exhibition. This leads to wartime work protecting American art treasures (he is ineligible for military service because of his homosexuality). He settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he eventually becomes the best-selling author of two novels set in ancient Mexico. With his history, however, it is inevitable that he will come to the attention of HUAC. The latter part of the book is devoted to the investigation and its effects on Harrison and his devoted secretary Violet Brown. While the outcome seems inevitable, Kingsolver does a good job of detailing how these "investigations" worked.

Kingsolver tells the story through Shepherd's journals, his letters, news articles (real and fake), and archivist notes from Violet Brown, who we learn edited Harrison's journals for publication. Gay Davidson Zielski, a friend of mine who teaches college English, was just remarking on Facebook that contemporary authors seem to have abandoned "straight narration from one point of view" for "narrative tricks." While I agree with her, in this case, the "tricks" mostly work--though fewer news articles and Violet Brown insertions might have pared a few of the book's many pages without sacrificing insight.

For me, the length of the book, the inevitability of the outcome with HUAC, and the unsurprising surprise ending resulted in the last sections fizzling out. But the book's flaws do not negate Kingsolver's accomplishment in exploring the nexus between art, politics, and the artist's life.

Of interest:
A feature in the paperback edition of the book is a brief Kingsolver essay about how important titling books is to her--the title for her is "the key that allows entry into every part of the house." The fact that Harrison's editor always insists on retitling his books is a nice inside joke.

Favorite passages:
Delight appears to be his natural state. Does a man become a revolutionary out of the belief he's entitled to joy rather than submission?

We sat on the ledge looking down on the tourists in the plaza, pitying those little ants because they were not up here, and if they ever meant to be, they would have to pay the price. And there is the full sum of it, senseless ambition reduced to its rudiments. Civilizations are built on that, and a water hole.

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