Allen Fulghum Reviews New Novels from John Elizabeth Stintzi and Deni Ellis Béchard for EVENT 49/2
Allen Fulghum Reviews:
Deni Ellis Béchard, A Song from Faraway, Goose Lane Editions, 2020
John Elizabeth Stintzi, Vanishing Monuments, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
While both novels plunge boldly into issues of nation, gender, art, language, illness, life and death, Deni Ellis Béchard’s A Song from Faraway and John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Vanishing Monuments are fundamentally centred on the connections between one’s family, one’s past and one’s identity. Readers are now used to the idea that identity is unstable and contingent, and neither Béchard nor Stintzi satisfies themselves simply by concluding that the fixed self is a myth. That is their starting point, and over the course of their novels they consider the questions we face once we accept this essential instability. In which ways, they ask, do we make ourselves, and in which ways do the circumstances of our birth make us? If there are parts of us, handed down from our forebears, that can never be excised, how are we meant to shape ourselves around them? And how are we meant to position ourselves in relation to the past if our understanding of it is changing along with us?
A disarmingly slim text, A Song from Faraway reveals itself to be an expansive family saga tracing back and forth over centuries and continents. The novel begins in present-day Vancouver and follows unexpected familial connections through a vast array of eras, locales and events. These include 19th- and 20th-century French Canada; Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921; rural Colorado in 1959; the Iraq War, the Vietnam War, the First and Second World Wars, the Second Boer War, the American Civil War; and finally Mexico during the Revolution, where the narrative comes full circle, showing us how changeable identity really is, and how unknowable the past.
Vanishing Monuments asks similar questions about kinship and the construction of the self with an almost diametrically opposite approach. Stintzi dives deep into the mind of a lone protagonist, Alani Baum, who, despite having run away from their mother’s house 27 years earlier, finds themselves living there again, seemingly unable to escape. While Stintzi, like Béchard, plays with the slippage of time and space, they explore their protagonist’s past as it is enclosed within their present self, which is shaped by their current situation.
The impetus to discover, to unearth and understand, propels Béchard’s fluid transitions between perspectives, protagonists, times and places. Beginning with half brothers Hugh and Andrew Estrada’s questioning how they might be related to a text by a mysterious writer, Rafael Maria Estrada, Béchard deftly parcels out connections and revelations, allowing his audience the pleasure of working out for themselves exactly how these dozens of disparate characters influence each other. Stintzi’s Alani Baum, meanwhile, is driven by a traumatized desire to run away, to avoid revelation: they are always driving past their destination, avoiding phone calls, deleting voicemails without listening to them, trying to put off for as long as possible the inevitable return to the pain of their past.
Hugh Estrada—inspired by Rafael Maria Estrada’s tale of a young man who ‘reinvents himself repeatedly as he seeks an ideal not motivated by personal gain, fear, or animal desire,’ but ‘the power of profound belief’—spends his youth travelling the world, moving through various identities and relationships, before enlisting in the US military following 9/11. Andrew, who narrates the first section of the novel, reflects that Hugh seems never to achieve the change he seeks: ‘I thought of all the times he’d visited, always different, as if he’d come to see me simply so I could affirm him. But I couldn’t recall having been faced with anything other than affectations, the burly husks of obsolete archetypes.’ Though Hugh disappears from view after the second section of the novel, Béchard leads us backward into history and shows us how his constant redefinitions were prefigured by the lives of his ancestors, whose conscious self-fashioning alters them less than the unasked-for effects of the human cruelty to which they are subjected, and which they perpetrate themselves.
Alani Baum proves an interesting parallel to Béchard’s changeable characters, moving uncertainly between past and present, masculine and feminine, Winnipeg and Minneapolis, English and their mother tongue of German, their mother’s house itself and their psychological reproduction of it as a ‘memory palace.’ They use Ovid’s Metamorphoses to try to make sense of themselves, elaborating on well-known myths with their own idiosyncratic metaphors: ‘Some aspect of ourselves runs from a lion encountered in a place where no lion should be, while another aspect always bleeds out under a tree.’ These musings on the Metamorphoses make up one of three threads that Stintzi weaves through the central narrative, which follows Alani’s first and final return to their mother’s house; the other two are Alani’s retelling of their past, and their psychological exploration of their memory palace. Vanishing Monuments is a novel of the mind; even Alani’s troubles with embodiment are played out largely within thought and memory, dramatized by visualizations of their past selves’ pain and pleasure.
Readers who prefer the quick pace that keeps A Song from Faraway moving from one story to the next might find themselves impatient with the passages of psychological exploration that are built into the structure of Vanishing Monuments. Conversely, readers who prefer to delve into the depths of a character’s psychology might be frustrated by Béchard’s tendency to sketch characters into the narrative only so much as is necessary to fit them into the ensemble. While many of Béchard’s characters are defined brilliantly in the small space they are given, his willingness to let certain characters exist as mechanisms for the protagonists’ development is most disappointing when it seems to reinforce the inequalities that the novel attempts to lay bare. The second chapter, for instance, begins with an Iraqi student named Amir reaching out to the chapter’s central character, Francis Sheridan, on behalf of his family, who are keen to have a trove of artifacts authenticated by an art historian. Amir and his family, however, seem to exist primarily to get Francis to Kurdistan so that he can search for answers about the child his father conceived with a Kurdish woman during his time in the CIA, and when the chapter ends, the reader has little more sense of who Amir and his family are than they did at the beginning. Similarly, the intriguing character of Henry Clay, an early 20th-century Native American scholar, seems to function ultimately as a device to afford Francis’s ancestor Nolan Sheridan, a traumatized First World War veteran and the son of a soldier who was decorated for his participation in the Wounded Knee Massacre, a cathartic conclusion to his arc. Much of A Song from Faraway is concerned with the struggles of white North American men to reckon with their own legacies of destruction, and Béchard explores these legacies with care and nuance; however, readers searching for the perspectives of those who have suffered at the hands of people like the Sheridans might find themselves wishing they could have read more about Amir and Henry Clay than Francis and Nolan.
Another focus of A Song from Faraway is the love of men for women: Nolan Sheridan, recounting his past to his son, describes a man who had gone to find the woman he loved, and says that ‘if it’s not yet clear to you, it soon will be: There’s not much original about men.’ Again and again throughout the novel, men long for women who are in some way, physically or emotionally, unattainable. In a novel filled with so many different characters leading so many different lives in so many different times and places, there is a notable absence of any suggestion that love might exist in some form other than the familial and the heterosexual. This is especially salient when A Song from Faraway is read alongside Vanishing Monuments, in which queerness enjoys the privilege of being, for once, the unmarked default. Vanishing Monuments is especially commendable in its treatment of Alani’s non-binary gender, which might have been presented as a tragic effect of their childhood instability and/or the defining element of their being, but instead is thoughtfully rendered as one facet of a kaleidoscopically shifting human life. Stintzi’s commitment to queerness extends past character and into form, as they use the intersections of space and time inherent to the device of the memory palace as a blueprint for the novel’s structure. The events of the present-day narrative do trace a familiar arc, and that familiarity occasionally verges on predictability, sapping some of the power and urgency from climactic moments. But the originality of Alani’s character, the tender attentiveness to language and the experimentation with structure come together to make a strong debut novel.
These are novels that never settle for the path of least resistance; they boast delightfully complex language, form and structure, and they leave space for the reader to continue contemplating the questions they raise. Both Béchard and Stintzi are worth following, and as a debut novelist, Stintzi promises a brilliant career to come.