Monday, November 30, 2009

Tod Edgerton, review: Harmon's "Quinnehtukqut"

Michael Tod Edgerton

Review of:

by Joshua Harmon
Starcherone Books, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0-9788811-2-2

“The tracks of my feet lead in circles.”

It can be traced, trailed, tracked, but never precisely determined: the point where place and identity meet. They are as intimately linked and co-extensive as the sides of a Moëbius strip; the point where one begins and the other ends cannot be located, although the shift is registered bodily. You might feel that you have a firm grasp of how one informs the other, but find that it cannot be articulated in any satisfying way. Joshua Harmon’s first novel, Quinnehtukqut, leads us in circles over just such a shifting topology and leaves us spinning and giddy.

One of Harmon’s key strategies is to undermine his own reliability as a narrator, to fragment his narration like memory and history. Here identity is so many floes of Antarctic sea ice, and the vast terrain of that which lies inaccessible beneath the currents haunts every page and gives the book a richness around which its surface whorls. The powerful and unsentimental affective force of this novel lies in the palpability of absence, loss, and mystery it places at the center of its skillfully drawn figures. It inflects the very sentences and paragraphs themselves as much as it does the larger formal strategies. Like the lyrical prose of a Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, William H. Gass, or Carole Maso, Harmon’s writing is sensual both with the melancholic clarity of this absence and the rich-dark loam of a presence—the rhythm of this present moment, this body, this place—that hums through the language to (in)form its music. Quinnehtukqut is a gorgeous, intelligent, and extensively researched historical novel that far transcends the limits of any such generic designation (at least as the book-selling market tends to think of it today).

In the first of its four chapters, Harmon provides a cubist portrait of a small New Hampshire farming community along the Connecticut River. Legends circumambulate around a visitor of uncertain origins, a mythic persona that may or may not bear the mark of any real history. In the next chapter a man in Boston lies on his deathbed, caught in a whirlpool of memories of his lover and the Antarctic expedition he left her to join. Some of these memories are authentic, but more and more are imagined as the dementia that has taken hold of him begins to blur such distinctions. The titular middle section of the novel recounts a couple of generations’ worth of the town’s history. Long before the stranger of legend arrives, a family moves into the valley and builds a lodge on the lake, and through the anamorphic lens of their sidelines we learn yet more about the ever-shifting center of the community. In the final chapter, two literally parallel episodes show us one woman in her sixties who packs up her lifelong home and another who returns after decades to see it a final time before the valley is purposefully flooded to protect the surrounding region itself from flooding.

Coursing through the novel like a ghost, always at its heart and simultaneously at its periphery, is the character and the mystery that is Martha. Not the “real” Martha to whom the book is dedicated, but a Martha Hennessy who, like Jimmy, comes breezing by us, a mere whisper over the hills, half heard. “All my life I have been moving toward something I can’t see the shape of. At night I can feel it out beyond wherever I am waiting for me or even speaking my name Jimmy in a whisper no one else can hear.” Jimmy will become a key figure in Martha’s early life, and Quinnehtukqut opens with “The Legend of Jimmy Frye.” Martha in fact makes only a few brief appearances in these first seventy-odd pages, and we do not yet know how central to the novel her character will have been by the end.

According to one report, Jimmy arrives at the end of the summer in 1918 to this valley in northern New Hampshire, but no one really knows where he came from. His silent nods and terse answers to personal questions signal to the townspeople that he does not want to be asked. Such a dearth of information generates all kinds of gossip about his origins and nature. He boards at the widow Godfrey’s house, along with a retired school principal, and some wonder why she would take in such a man, such a sinner, such a man about whom it is said

“[t]hat he could summon the North Wind by speaking certain words over a fire of fir-cones.…That he had killed a man for each year that he had lived; that if ever a year passed when he did not take another’s life he would surely die. That he had fathered many children by different women, so that his seed would never be erased from the earth; that they walk untold miles not knowing the yearning in their own hearts.”

These stories created in lieu of fact take on larger-than-life proportions after his departure, and the townspeople wonder if he even really ever left or whether he may not be out there, deep in the woods in a shack, hoarding or still hunting the gold which they have concluded he came to find in the surrounding hills.

One of the many possibilities the novel entertains is that Jimmy leaves for Boston, and that the young Martha, who adamantly “will be no farmer’s wife,” leaves soon thereafter to meet up with him. Harmon indeed entertains many possibilities in this novel and confirms very little, though certainly more than it appears on the first read (a second read is almost a necessity for this book; a third waits with its own distinct pleasures). For instance, is the information we get from the journals of “Vince Bouchard,” Jimmy’s prospecting partner whom he passes off as French-Canadian, to be taken as objective truth, his diary as a trustworthy record? It tells us very little, but would seem to corroborate the stories of Jimmy’s prospecting for gold and his relationship with Martha: “Jimmy seems happy tonight singing of riches and a Pretty Girl.” We can presume that this is Vince’s diary only because he tells us that Jimmy exhorts him to keep quiet if he doesn’t know any French, and a Vincent Bouchard is elsewhere introduced as a Frenchman who speaks no English. We often, in fact, must piece together from clues, sometimes found many pages later, who is speaking in any of the almost modular paragraphs we find floating over the pages of Quinnehtukqut and after which we find ourselves hungrily running. Even when we read passages that seem to be in Jimmy’s own voice, and feel that we have finally encountered him directly, even as we think we have locked eyes with him—he is gone, dispelled by contradictory or fantastical claims.

We are not always even able to identify the speaker of a given paragraph, but he or she rather remains as evanescent as Jimmy, whose very name, it turns out, is likely made up. The paragraph captioned “THE TRUE STORY OF JIMMY FRYE” tells us little more than the fact that the unnamed speaker is “not sure if his name is Jimmy Frye,” since the strange visitor never actually told him his name, “but everyone else called him Jimmy, and Frye is a good name, as good as any, so we will call him that now.”

Like “Jimmy Frye,” the book’s title resonates with the absence it charts.

“Quinnehtukqut,” “Quonecktacut,” and “Quinatucquet” are only a few versions of the Abenaki name for the river which the English, unable to repeat precisely the Native American word, standardized as “Connecticut”. Like an unfamiliar combination of sounds, tickling our ears and confounding our tongue, Jimmy Frye slips away into the woods just as we think we have him firmly in our grasp, leaving us with only “the yearning in [our] own hearts.”

Continuing in a similar mode, “Toward the Interior” jumps forward to the 1970’s, the most recent period in the novel, when a man presumably with Alzheimer’s drifts between his past and the present. He is visited by a younger man, who comes and sits for long periods. “He says his name is Donald, David, Daniel, unless this is my name. Do you remember? he asks.” Renee, the nurse in Havenwood Manor, the long-term care facility in which he now lives, repeatedly tells him that his own name is Samuel, along with what day it is. “Today is Tuesday, October second, 1979” (85). Some days Samuel hears different years. “Today is Tuesday, October second, 1928. Home is back there now. Yesterday was the last day.” What is it that a name, a date, a face would lock down?

This is the visitor’s story as well as Samuel’s. All his life he has dreamed of meeting him. When Samuel left to join the Byrd expedition to Antarctica, his lover, Martha, did not know that he was leaving, and did not yet know that she was pregnant. “She told me once, long ago, that I was your final gift to her, as if you knew you would be leaving and wanted me to keep her from loneliness. […] Of course you never knew. Though some nights as I tried to sleep I wondered if somehow you had guessed, if that was why you left.” The young man came thinking he could reclaim something that was his, something of himself that he had lost before birth. “My name is Daniel, the man says.” Perhaps Daniel only wants to know why his father had left his mother, why they were not the happy, complete family he feels they should have been. “What could I have told Martha, then or ever?” Samuel wonders. “What can a sound do to change what has been?” Daniel asks him if he remembers his name. “I wanted to find you for her, the man says. Now it doesn’t matter.” Whatever a name or face momentarily pins, it cannot be locked down.

The titular chapter is formally the most traditional, divided into three numbered sections and following a linear mode of narrative progression, though it makes good use of flashback. The first section takes place in 1920 and the third in 1925 (the second spans 1893 to 1947) and these together provide us with perhaps the most intimate portrait of Martha in the whole novel. Martha and her mother work at the lodge for the Curriers while her father is fighting in WWI, and they return when he dies shortly after his arrival from the battle front. This section is the first time we see Martha at any length, the first full view we get of this young woman who is determined to escape her farming life, and of whom, up to this point, we have only managed glances.

After returning from war, her father takes her out into the woods to learn its trails; someone has to receive this knowledge, and she is his only child. In the woods we find one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel interspersed throughout this last section of the “Quinnehtukqut” chapter. “Let me tell you a story, she would write.” In the woods, Martha and her father morph into a king and a princess, his sole heir, whose stepmother would have her taken out into the woods and killed. This fable is seamlessly woven into the rest of the narrative, with not so much as a paragraph break to prepare for the shift. This is characteristic of the novel’s paratactic strategies, and its wondrous effect is to expose as blurry the distinction of myth and history which, threaded through as it is with cultural fantasy, we far too simply term “fact,” too vaguely call “reality.”

The interweaving of conversations, thoughts, and journals, of fictional episodes and material from historical sources, also serves to delay and thereby intensify the quiet emotional flashes of such scenes as the one in which Tom tells Martha that he knew she would reject him and didn’t know why he ever proposed, and which is interspersed with dialogue of her mother denouncing her foolishness over leaving (presumably not so long after this conversation with Tom) and telling her never to return if she does leave.

Meanwhile, we wait with anticipation, as we have the whole time, for Jimmy Frye’s reappearance and the affirmation of his existence, for his first true appearance, then, without the obfuscations of conjecture and myth, but our hopes are disappointed. There is no definitive validation of this prospector, vagabond, tramp; we are given no bedrock fact to support the legend, let alone his actual contours and colors, his scent and sentience, only a whisper lost in the upper branches of the kingdom of the woods.

“You must take her into the forest, the new queen told him, and there you must leave her. They walked into the woods. The clouds suggested snow. Dirt, dirt worn smooth, the twigs ironlike, the spruce bark and frozen pitch, the pattern of fallen needles, orange. All cold. Still. Lake a swept field of snowy ice. Drifted. In two years’ time, he said. And he, kneeling beside her. I won’t be gone long. I’ll write as often as I can. A letter describing the river and a round orange moon. I am sure she has it still tucked in a drawer. We walked those woods. Come with me, he said. I am certain of you. Four years I’ve waited. Martha turned the knob and stepped from the kitchen into the dooryard. Yellowed grass.”

Martha will wait no longer, will not heed her mother’s exhortations, and will leave for Boston, meet Samuel, have a child, and not return for twenty years. By this point we know that this is as much or more Martha’s drama as Jimmy’s or the Curriers’, that it belongs not only to them, furthermore, but also to this town of Pittsburg, New Hampshire, and perhaps even to the America of a certain crucial point in its history, of a certain way of life and community organization that industrialization would pave over.

The final act presents the most formally innovative chapter of the novel, the elegantly titled “Farmhouse in a Fold of Fields.” This chapter is the most formally ambitious in the novel. Based loosely on John Ashbery’s bicolumnar poem, “Litany,” we get two narratives simultaneously, or with as much simultaneity as the printed page and human eye can together provide, each running across the top or bottom of sets of couplet paragraph-stanzas, painstakingly designed to reach from margin to margin at every turn, as in this short excerpt:

“he and his wife saw in their garden in Maine—or her mother her- / her mother’s words. Now that she has returned, she cannot remember

self, twenty years old, leaving that foggy coast for a place which had / why for so long she has wanted to; nor, except to prove to her mother

been recognized as part of the United States for only thirty years, / how little she knew her own daughter, why she wanted to stay away.”

Like the structure of subjectivity, this form is split, polyvocal and “other” to itself. The running lines of Roman and italic type each constitutes a separate narrative unit diachronically, while at any given point the couplets together form a strange pact that also gives the whole a certain formal unity over and against its narrative bifurcation.

These narratives are very much the two sides of the proverbial coin, set spinning in the air by Harmon’s dexterous hand (it will not land, it won’t be “called,” heads or tails, and fate sealed). One woman only hesitantly comes back to the village for a few days and the other doggedly refuses to leave. The parallel lines are particularly rich when the narratives themselves happen to parallel or echo one another at seemingly arbitrary points, as in the passage above when thoughts of mothers resonate with one another, and with such parallels as Linnie’s mother, who leaves home as a young woman, just as Martha does.

In Roman type, the narrative running the first line of these couplets centers on Miss Linnie Abbott, a shotgun-toting, fence-climbing woman in her sixties who never married or had children. Since her mother’s death, she has lived alone in the same house her father built, the house in which she was born and in which she is determined, like her parents, to die, the house that she will not see destroyed, eminent domain be damned. She will instead use the government’s compensation to have it moved to a hill above the valley in which she has lived her whole life, the valley that will be flooded by the Connecticut River as part of the Murphy Dam project to prevent the larger region from ever again being vulnerable to the kind of flooding to which the 1938 hurricane (which we learn earlier damaged Idlewild Lodge) subjected it. As throughout, Harmon here sets our eye askew to reveal more than a direct gaze could render.

The second, italicized story is Martha’s, twenty-one years after her departure. Although unnamed, there can be only one “she” whose presence could activate the perspective from which we see, after a long absence, the landscape, the houses, the people sitting outside Baldwin’s store, even before enough details are given to make it obvious. She wants to see it one last time before it is flooded, and we get glimpses here of what life in the intervening two decades has brought for her. Reading it gives us a hint at her willfully estranged relationship with her mother, whom she feels failed her, and her feeling that she in turn has failed her son, who roams the country on his own search for something he feels he is missing. The sweep of the novel here fully impacts us, the restlessness and want of life that is so often pinned on a parent or some lost love, the restlessness that sets us roaming across landscapes and cityscapes, across pages, canvasses, and stages, and that produces great works of art, if such a designation any longer holds any purchase for us. If it does, then Quinnehtukqut may very well be such a work.

Quinnehtukqut is an incredibly moving and intelligent book, formally innovative and expertly crafted. It enacts for us the instability and ultimate mystery at the heart of individual identity and collective history alike, showing the extent to which myth or fantasy is always an element. It’s the kind of book that makes other writers want to go immediately to their favorite writing spot with pen or computer and write, to find the words that approach telling what can’t be said, to try, themselves, to produce something someone might find astonishing. “There were many things I never told Martha, many things I never told a soul.” We can only hope that Joshua Harmon keeps telling us stories for many years to come.

Michael Tod Edgerton has won the Boston Review and Five Fingers Review poetry contests and has had his poetry published in such other journals as Denver Quarterly, Eoagh, New American Writing, New Orleans Review, Skanky Possum, and Word For/Word. His other articles and reviews have appeared in 3am Magazine, Electronic Poetry Review, Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation, and Mesechabe: A Journal of Sur(region)alism. He holds an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

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