Monday, November 23, 2015

Marianne Apostolides’ Voluptuous Pleasure

Marianne Apostolides’ Voluptuous Pleasure is an exceptionally strong collection of non-fiction pieces.  The subtitle “The Truth about the Writing Life” is cleverly connected to the last piece “You”. The final words are “….we let you take our memories, these tiny moments that swell to fill our selves.  These moments that, when exposed to light, become naked and ugly.  Shameful.  Yes: you pulled this from our bodies.  We have all been sullied in the process.”

Is this the truth of the writing life? Is it is akin to stripping a body of some vital parts?  If so, it is a harsh  conception of storytelling. For Apostolides, writing is almost like murder: in order to tell the story, the writer must, in a sense, kill the story.  The vibrant element of memory alive and fluid is solidified in the act of writing – and stripped of its power and mutability. For Apostolides, writing of the past is necessary to save it from oblivion, but she is keenly aware of the limits of her art.

This problem primarily revolves around the murder of Apostolides’ grandfather in World War Two era Greece; in fact, it is nearly a manic concern in this collection, as the author tells the story repeatedly (it is also the focus of Apostolides’ novel The Lucky Child) in various guises.  Telling, re-telling, and telling of the impossibility to tell it, while all the while telling it becomes, is her artistic axis.  It is a story, but the uncertainty around its details is like a cloud of dread that will shatter the story into pieces:  We are told “[t]here are no scenes; there is no narrative – beginning and end, cause and effect, climax and denouement.  There are, instead, details.”

For Apostolides, the body is a somewhat more accurate storyteller than words on the page. In the piece “Like a Cat,” the body becomes a vehicle to convey truths.  But the body can also be a false messenger.  In the wonderful “Two Dialogues” we get this:  the narrator’s father has suppressed his desire for revenge of his father’s death, and paid a heavy toll: “In order to resist his appetite for blood, my father created tight binding rules about exercise and consumption, mistrusting the body’s physical impulse.”  Then the narrator responds “I saw his compulsive resistance and demanded my own logic, namely, ten years of anorexia/bulimia.  I was a girl who weighed eighty pounds, her muscle eaten from within, feeding on its own organs since meat wasn’t given from without; a daughter who swallowed the palpable silence around my father’s past; a woman who finally asked: “Tell me about Greece.  Tell me what happened there.” Bodies are plundered, even eaten from within, like the memories torn from bodies –– shamefully ripped from those bodies. 

There is in Apostolides’ work a struggle between the positive and negative poles of two strong attractions: storytelling and its impossibility.  Apostolides’ is a masterful storyteller, using vivid language and images to convey a world of exterior and interior struggle.  The body too is a stage for storytelling.  But struggle is here as well: the body can dance, and reach a state of transcendence, can become a wordless form of storytelling, but it also lies: it suppresses and starves us, and is the vessel where we hide our secrets; we hide our shameful memories inside us until they can no longer even be told as a story.  Only bits of detail to reconstruct remain.

These dichotomies drive the author forward.  The stress between telling and concealing appear to be a marvelous place for Apostolides to do her work; a fruitful place, even if it is fraught with danger.  But the reader gets to enjoy the results of this author’s strong, evocative drive to struggle to produce what she considers impossible.  Seldom has a self-conceived “failure” been such a success.  These pieces illustrate that despite the limitations of writing, in the strong hands of a writer such as Apostolides, limitations can take us far indeed.

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