Tuesday, December 14, 2004
c. Jymi Bolden
I have been thinking about Karen Novak a lot these past few weeks. Not because the two of us are friends, and, as friends are wont to do, we think often of those we love, but because once again, as one of Karen's novels is about to be released, I find myself wondering how she does it--how does Karen somehow tap into some underground spring of knowledge that comes to the surface in the news only after Karen's work is complete and in press. As if she is prescient, or one of those
animals that picks up on the shifting of the earth long before the rest of us find ourselves caught in the earthquake. In this case, it's the photographs. I assume you know the ones I'm talking about: the ones where ordinary men and women stare at us, grinning, ecstatic, proud, direct from hell's trophy room, and give us the thumb's up as they pose with what they've bagged, humiliated, destroyed. And they sent these pictures back to their friends and relatives like
postcards--"having a great time. wish you were here." There was another time in our country's history when such postcards were mailed, when human beings posed with their victims, unrecognizable in their butchered humanity, and again, as before, the torturers felt no shame, only glee at what they had done. It is that time, that time before, that The Wilderness explores.
Looking at the photos now from Abu Ghraib one is struck by how blind
the torturers are to what they've really done. And it is that type of
willful not seeing that is a theme that runs through Karen's books.
Because the first thing that Karen questions is whether it is voluntary
blindness or a trick of the eye that keeps us as human beings stuck in darkness.
Karen's characters illuminate their own blind spots for us the readers while they remain unable to bring them into autofocus. As with all of us who choose to remain conscious in a world where we might better long for the sweet release of oblivion, Karen's characters circle around
their own blind spots as a person might do who is trying to see her own spine by looking over her shoulder. You know it's there and visible to others, but you have to accept that it's part of who
you are and forever out of sight.
Whether it's detailing the slow erosion of a marriage until that one day when both partners awake at the bottom of the ravine, or following the frantic road of a mother's desire to love her child, or telling the tender story of a daughter's desire to protect her father to the point of doing him grave harm, Karen's willingness to allow her characters to be flawed without needing to fix them is the revelation of one of the facets of Karen's gift. If her characters receive epiphanies, they are not the epiphanies that bring about happy endings, they are, instead, those moments that Rilke, in letter #8, said, "are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing." Karen allows those moments to retain their silence, and does not grant to her characters the easy epiphanies of instant gratification. Knowledge, like life, is slow and comes only on its own terms.
And yet, as flawed as Karen's characters are, they are radiant. The Japanese have a philosophy called wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that insists that things are not beautiful in spite of their flaws, but rather, because of them. There is great beauty in the chipped jug, the asymmetric bowl. Karen's world is inhabited by wabi-sabi, and she is its mistress, leading us by the hand, making us look at those imperfections, to really see them, and in seeing them, noticing just what fucking glorious creatures we really are.