'The Lacuna,' Kingsolver's Vacant Return

'The Lacuna'
The Lacuna: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover, 528 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $26.99
Read An Excerpt.
Barbara Kingsolver i i

Barbara Kingsolver is an author, a poet and the creator of the Bellwether Prize for "literature of social change." Annie Griffiths Belt hide caption

itoggle caption Annie Griffiths Belt
Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is an author, a poet and the creator of the Bellwether Prize for "literature of social change."

Annie Griffiths Belt

The Lacuna is Barbara Kingsolver's first new novel in nine years. Interest in it is unusually fierce for a work of literary fiction. Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target are engaged in a price war against booksellers over the hot late fall/early winter releases. Almost all of the blockbuster books in question are works of genre fiction — suspense and horror stories by the likes of James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham. The Lacuna is the only literary novel caught in the cross hairs of this sales skirmish.

Kingsolver deserves kudos, if only because she seems to be single-handedly keeping consumer zest alive for the literary novel. I wish I could say she also deserves kudos for writing a spectacular work of fiction, but to tell you the truth, it's just — at best — so-so. In fact, as a piece of historical fiction, it has a lot in common with those conventional works of genre fiction that Amazon and the big box stores are hawking at cut-rate bargain prices.

A serious problem with The Lacuna is telegraphed in its striking title. "Lacuna" refers to a gap or something that's absent. The motif of the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel, but the thing unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character. Our hero, Harrison Shepherd, is an accidental onlooker to history buffeted by other people's plans and passions. As he tells a friend late in the novel, "What we end up calling history is a kind of knife, slicing down through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge. But most people won't even stand close to the blade. I'm one of those. [I] don't bend anything."

The passive Harrison was born in the U.S. to a dim American father and a firecracker of a Mexican mother who is eternally on the prowl for a richer husband. In 1929, when Harrison is 12 years old, his mother snags a big Mexican landowner, and she takes her son to live on her lover's estate. Adrift, Harrison spends his days swimming and learning how to cook from the kitchen staff. When he runs into the artist Frida Kahlo at the local market, Harrison goes home with her and puts his dough-rolling skills to use by mixing plaster for Kahlo's husband, the muralist Diego Rivera.

Eventually, Lev "Leon" Trotsky moves into the household, and Harrison becomes his secretary as well as a witness to Trotsky's assassination by one of Stalin's agents. Later, as a young adult living back in the States, Harrison is targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his past association with revolutionaries. Throughout all the artistic, political and erotic turmoil swirling through the Kahlo-Rivera household, Harrison has kept a diary, which is published posthumously and composes the novel we're reading.

Kingsolver's aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of history, the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key players. As Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, "Greatness is very boring." The politically incorrect truth is, however, that ordinariness oftentimes is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so retiring that it's very hard to stay for extended periods in his company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point of view isn't all that illuminating. Neither are the actual newspaper accounts of Trotsky's assassination and the Red Scare that Kingsolver includes here — accounts that break the, by now, not-so-startling news that "official history" contains lies.

When masters of post-modern historical fiction like E.L. Doctorow or Don DeLillo or even, arguably, Toni Morrison shake up received narratives about the past, it's with the intention of making readers see something fresh, something larger — even mythic — in familiar events. Kingsolver falls short of that ambition and, instead, ends on an old-fashioned sentimental note, inviting readers to feel affection for the Zelig-like Harrison and a life not quite lived.

I admit it: I'm mystified. To me, The Lacuna is an all too appropriate title for a novel that feels altogether vacant.

Excerpt: 'The Lacuna'

The Lacuna: A Novel
By Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover, 528 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $26.99

Part 1: Mexico, 1929 - 1931

Isla Pixol, Mexico, 1929

In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.

The boy and his mother believed it was saucer-eyed devils screaming in those trees, fighting over the territorial right to consume human flesh. The first year after moving to Mexico to stay at Enrique's house, they woke up terrified at every day's dawn to the howling. Sometimes she ran down the tiled hallway to her son's bedroom, appearing in the doorway with her hair loose, her feet like iced fish in the bed, pulling the crocheted bedspread tight as a web around the two of them, listening.

It should have been like a storybook here. That is what she'd promised him, back in the cold little bedroom in Virginia North America: if they ran away to Mexico with Enrique she could be the bride of a wealthy man and her son would be the young squire, in a hacienda surrounded by pineapple fields. The island would be encircled with a shiny band of sea like a wedding ring, and somewhere on the mainland was its gem, the oil fields where Enrique made his fortune.

But the storybook was The Prisoner of Zenda. He was not a young squire, and his mother after many months was still no bride. Enrique was their captor, surveying their terror with a cool eye while eating his breakfast. "That howling is the aullaros," he would say, as he pulled the white napkin out of its silver ring into his silver-ringed fingers, placing it on his lap and slicing into his breakfast with a fork and knife. "They howl at one another to settle out their territories, before they begin a day of hunting for food."

Their food might be us, mother and son agreed, when they huddled together inside the spiderweb of bedspread, listening to a rising tide of toothsome roars. You had better write all this in your notebook, she said, the story of what happened to us in Mexico. So when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know where we went. She said to start this way: In the beginning were the aullaros, crying for our blood.

Enrique had lived his whole life in that hacienda, ever since his father built it and flogged the indios into planting his pineapple fields. He had been raised to understand the usefulness of fear. So it was nearly a year before he told them the truth: the howling is only monkeys. He didn't even look across the table when he said it, only at the important eggs on his plate. He hid a scornful smile under his mustache, which is not a good hiding place. "Every ignorant Indian in the village knows what they are. You would too, if you went out in the morning instead of hiding in bed like a pair of sloths."

It was true: the creatures were long-tailed monkeys, eating leaves. How could such a howling come from a thing so honestly ordinary? But it did. The boy crept outdoors early and learned to spot them, high in the veil of branches against white sky. Hunched, woolly bodies balanced on swaying limbs, their tails reaching out to stroke the branches like guitar strings. Sometimes the mother monkeys cradled little babes, born to precarious altitudes, clinging for their lives.

So there weren't any tree demons. And Enrique was not really a wicked king, he was only a man. He looked like the tiny man on top of a wedding cake: the same round head with parted, shiny hair, the same small mustache. But the boy's mother was not the tiny bride, and of course there is no place on that cake for a child.

When Enrique wanted to ridicule him after that, he didn't even need to mention devils, he only rolled his eyes up at the trees. "The devil here is a boy with too much imagination," he usually said. That was like a mathematics problem, it gave the boy a headache because he couldn't work out which was the wrong part of the equation: being a Boy, or being Imaginative. Enrique felt a successful man needed no imagination at all.


Here is another way to begin the story, and this one is also true.

The rule of fishes is the same as the rule of people: if the shark comes, they will all escape, and leave you to be eaten. They share a single jumpy heart that drives them to move all together, running away from danger just before it arrives. Somehow they know.

Underneath the ocean is a world without people. The sea-roof rocks overhead as you drift among the purple trees of the coral forest, surrounded by a heavenly body of light made of shining fishes. The sun comes down through the water like flaming arrows, touching the scaly bodies and setting every fin to flame. A thousand fishes make the school, but they always move together: one great, bright, brittle altogetherness.

It's a perfect world down there, except for the one of them who can't breathe water. He holds his nose, dangling from the silver ceiling like a great ugly puppet. Little hairs cover his arms like grass. He is pale, lit up by watery light on prickled boy skin, not the scaled slick silver merman he wants to be. The fish dart all around him and he feels lonely. He knows it is stupid to feel lonely because he isn't a fish, but he does. And yet he stays there anyway, trapped in the below-life, wishing he could dwell in their city with that bright, liquid life flowing all around him. The glittering school pulls in at one side and pushes out the other, a crowd of specks moving in and out like one great breathing creature. When a shadow comes along, the mass of fish darts instantly to its own center, imploding into a dense, safe core, and leaving the boy outside.

How can they know to save themselves, and leave him to be eaten? They have their own God, a puppet master who rules their one-fish mind, holding a thread attached to every heart in their crowded world. All the hearts but one.

The boy discovered the world of the fishes after Leandro gave him a diving goggle. Leandro, the cook, took pity on the flutie boy from America who had nothing to do all day but poke around in the cliffs along the beach, pretending to hunt for something. The goggle had glass lenses, and was made with gum rubber and most of the parts of an airman's goggle. Leandro said his brother used it when he was alive. He showed how to spit in it before putting it on, so it wouldn't go foggy.

"Andele. Go on now, get in the water," he said. "You will be surprised."

The pale-skinned boy stood shivering in water up to his waist, thinking these were the most awful words in any language: You will be surprised. The moment when everything is about to change. When Mother was leaving Father (loudly, glasses crashing against the wall), taking the child to Mexico, and nothing to do but stand in the corridor of the cold little house, waiting to be told. The exchanges were never good: taking a train, a father and then no father. Don Enrique from the consulate in Washington, then Enrique in Mother's bedroom. Everything changes now, while you stand shivering in shivering in the corridor waiting to slip through one world into the next.

And now, at the end of everything, this:standing waist-deep in the ocean wearing the diving goggle, with Leandro watching. A pack of village boys had come along too, their dark arms swinging, carrying the long knives they used for collecting oysters. White sand caked the sides of their feet like pale moccasins. They stopped to watch, all the swinging arms stopped, frozen in place, waiting. There was nothing left for him to do but take a breath and dive into that blue place.

And oh God there it was, the promise delivered, a world. Fishes mad with color, striped and dotted, golden bodies, blue heads. Societies of fish, a public, suspended in its watery world, poking pointed noses into coral. They pecked at the pair of hairy tree trunks, his legs, these edifices that were nothing to them but more landscape. The boy got a bit of a stiffy, he was that afraid, and that happy. No more empty-headed bobbing in the sea, after this. No more believing in an ocean with nothing inside but blue water.

He refused to come out of the sea all day, until the colors began to go dark. Luckily his mother and Enrique had enough to drink, sitting on the terrace with the men from America turning the air blue with their cigars, discussing the assassination of Obregon, wondering who would now stop the land reforms before the indios took everything. If not for so much mezcal and lime, his mother might have grown bored with the man-talk, and thought to wonder whether her son had drowned.

It was only Leandro who wondered. The next morning when the boy walked out to the kitchen pavilion to watch breakfast cooking, Leandro said, "Picaro, you'll pay. A man has to pay for every crime." Leandro had worried all afternoon that the goggle he brought to this house had become an instrument of death. The punishment was waking up with a sun-broilt spot the size of a tortilla, hot as fire. When the criminal pulled up his nightshirt to show the seared skin on his back, Leandro laughed. He was brown as coconuts, and hadn't thought of sun burn. But for once he didn't say usted pagara, in the formal language of servants to masters. He said tu pagaras, you will pay, in the language of friends.

The criminal was unrepentant: "You gave me the goggle, so it's your fault." And went back into the sea again for most of that day, and burnt his back as crisp as fat rinds in a kettle. Leandro had to rub lard on it that night, saying "Picaro, rascal boy, why do you do such stupid things?" No seas malo, he said, the familiar "you," language of friends, or lovers, or adults to children. There is no knowing which.

From The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsovler. Published by Harper Collins. Copyright 2009 by Barbara Kingsolver. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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