Friday, March 30, 2012

Only a Messenger

Eastside Road, March 30, 2012—
BACK FROM A TRIP to find in the mail a new novel by an old friend whom we see too rarely, Sumner Carnahan. I have always liked her writing, but am surprised by her novel: in it she sets aside her post-Burroughs deconstructed style for a fascinating and subtle alteration of a more conventionally narrative approach, weaving together two dissimilar but fluid points of view, touching on the conflict of two quite different cultural mentalities, to deal with matters of environmental and economic urgency, while in fact toying imaginatively with the genre of detective fiction.

Reading it, all kinds of things come to mind while I'm simultaneously caught by the effortless onward flow of the narratives. An intelligent, diffident young American man, David Ambrose Gentry, maintains notebooks in which he records meditations on the names of things, on nature and procreation, and on relationships — particularly one that develops in the course of the novel with an observant, spiritual, utterly believable young Mexican woman, of strong Mayan heritage, whose own diaries are intercut to form the structure of the novel.

An example:
We discuss mining. C. doesn’t believe in removing things from inside the earth. Says that metals and chemicals can be retrieved gently off the surface using simpler techniques.

I explain that civilization would not exist without mining. We wouldn’t be riding in this fine green four-speed half-ton truck just now without the mining of metals and petroleum. And the airplane we will board for San Diego:

"You want it to be made of cardboard and tree sap?"
That made her laugh. She laughed and laughed, almost hysterically, her thick dark hair falling in waves across her face. Then, abruptly, knotting her hair over one shoulder, she stared straight ahead in that way she has of keeping still..

…I see the indigena in her… Mixtec, Mayan? Her heritage is confused. (Whose isn't?)…

op. cit., p. 44-5
I still think of William Burroughs from time to time: also E.T.A. Hoffmann, Carlos Castaneda, Gertrude Stein, Sebald— perhaps because I've already associated some of them with Carnahan's earlier work. She has been an attentive reader as well as an inventive and methodical writer, and if these are influences they seem fully internalized.

Her more avant-garde style frequently used vernacular and commercial styles ironically; here I think she has found a perfect balance between stylistic, even linguistic (taken in a broad sense) universes, producing an apparently artless straight ahead whodunit, with satisfyingly surprising twists, giving the reader subtle esthetic pleasures on top of the entertainment of the plot and the substance of the social and political issues it involves. I like this book; I like it a lot, and I'm glad to say so. I hope she writes more novels: I think she makes an important contribution to the form.

• Sumner Carnahan: Only a Messenger, Burning Books (The Quadrant Series), 2011; ISBN 978-0-936050-34-8

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