How to Tell a Messy Story: Divina Trace by Robert Antoni

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“This is magical realism with an avant-garde twist, as if Garcia Márquez and Joyce had themselves engaged in unholy cohabitation,” says Gustavo Pérez Firmat, referring to Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace. This is indeed an apt portrayal. Divina Trace is the story of Magdalena Divina, the patron saint of Corpus Christi, an imagined island in the Caribbean. We are introduced to the story by Dr. Johnny Domingo, Jr., who gives us the story from the points of view of his grandparents, a former slave, his father, the abbess of the local convent, the saint herself, and Hanuman, the monkey messenger from The Ramayana. The story itself is a wild ride, a mix of religions, histories, and sciences that come together to paint the ungraspable picture of miracles and mysteries. The elusiveness of this story is both created and made more manageable for the reader through the use of structure, language, form, and repetition.

Though the story itself is messy, with the blurred edges that come with the intense humidity of island life, the structure is nearly mathematical, precisely formed. In each chapter, Johnny Domingo introduces us to a narrator who tells him what they know of the story of Magdalena Divina. These narrators make a perfect palindrome, with chapters being told in kind by Granny Myrna, Papee Vince, Evalina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Mother Superior Maurina, Magdalena, Hanuman, Magdalena, Mother Superior Maurina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Evalina, Papee Vance, and Granny Myrna. In this way, the chapters mirror themselves, front to back, During Hanuman’s retelling, in nearly the exact middle of the book, lies a mirror. Almost exactly one-quarter and three-quarters of the way through the book, during the chapters of Dr. Domingo Sr., there is the same page from a medical journal. This structure gives the reader something to hold on to as the story and the language falls apart.

The language of this book plays a particularly big role. There are very few sections which are written in standard English. Even Johnny Domingo, who was educated in America, slips into Caribbean dialect as he writes. This is even more evident in the voices of the storytellers. Each person has their own language and way of speaking. Mother Superior, for example, uses Spanish and cusses like a sailor. Evalina talks in a thick Caribbean accent. Magdalena’s chapters are written like epic poetry or revelations from god. There are line breaks and it is the retelling of Indian epic The Ramayana. The most striking chapter is that in which Hanuman speaks. In this chapter, the language is meant to be English, but in the voice of a monkey. Hanuman invites us to look at the monkey in the mirror, “Dat sapian night, desperate, you dropasleep deaddrunk, again dreaming you writereading, you simian Bible of baboons e-eeing. Ayes close you now you simian fossil potto, you simian primate missinglink:” and then comes the page of the book that is a mirror. But this is far from the uneducated jabbering of a mindless chimp. This chapter references Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, which forces the reader to think about the ways in which intelligence and standard English work together or don’t. This chapter is certainly disorienting, but by this time the reader is prepared for it because the language has been slowly becoming more and more slippery and nuanced as the different voices take the stage.

Antoni uses a variety of forms to tell this story as well. In addition to the mirror and the pages and pictures from medical journals, he also uses epic poetry, personal letters, knot tying diagrams, musical notation, recipes, and newspaper articles. The myriad sources underlines one of the main themes of the book: Who has the authority to tell stories and decide which versions are told? In each chapter, the story of Magdalena Divina is told again, sometimes negating previous chapters, sometimes adding new information, sometimes raising new questions. This is done in such an artful way that the reader is compelled to keep going, even through the sometimes confusing, difficult-to-read varieties of language.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing, subtle techniques that Antoni uses is repetition. Each chapter is a repetition of the story. We see the same scenes from different points of view and in different languages, which make them different scenes all together. The characters also begin repeating themselves and each other. There are echoes of phrases from previous storytellers, making it difficult for the reader to tell where the story is coming from and whose words are whose. This shines an interesting light on the way that myths and histories and collective stories are told, and retold, what gets picked up and what doesn’t.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Sucked into the Maze: an Exploration of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.

The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.

The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.

This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.

The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.

The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in the book that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.