Excerpt from reading journal:
Nadia Bozak is the reason that I have copies of the three books in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy on my shelves. Books that I never planned to read, but I came across the idea that the works were somehow connected with her novels Orphan Love and El Niño. And, so, the TBR grew.
And to begin with, if indeed there is a beginning to this process, I have a copy of El Niño because of its relationship to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
This is how it happens: one book leads to another, and so on and so on. I copied a page from Aislinn Hunter’s A Peepshow with Views of the Interior because El Niño was already in my stack when I read this bit:
“Books communicate. This is one of their functions. They move ideas from one consciousness to another. But the reader is never passive in this. They can stop reading and look up. They can, as a friend once did with Coetzee’s Disgrace, become enraged at a turn of events and throw the book into a lake. In this way reading is sometimes an act of creation. What the author presents and what we glean from it forming a new kind of knowledge.”
Within this Continuity of Books (if you haven’t read Julio Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks”, in Blow-up and Other Stories, it’s terrific), I imagined Nadia Bozak as that friend, her copy of Disgrace the same edition as mine, a trade paperback its spine like-new but pages yellowed, dodging the flies above a Northern Lake before ker-splatting, hovering on the surface for just a moment before sinking.
I imagine her clicking her pen against her cheekbone, that moment of impact before scribbling a few images and ideas in a notebook, thoughts which would fester into not only a novel but a cycle of books whose stories have slipped from their writers’ consciousnesses into her own. The guts of Orphan Love and El Niño are indeed acts of creation, a new kind of knowledge, raw and visceral.
“Woke up wet and in dirt and in a world that smelled so ripe, like rain. And it reeked of home that way, that soaking cold soil, worse than any kind of old piss or nicotine fingers. Iron on tongue, the taste of hate on the brain, in the buds. Like this, then, I opened my eyes and saw that I was still deep inside the northern bush, so cold and wet and always with that stink like fresh bloody birth. So here was me, just Bozak, like I thought I’d always wanted, though for so long I’d imagined being alone would also mean being with Slava O’Right. But alone I was. That was how it worked out, me running off into the bush like some kind of mad trapper.”
These worlds, Northern Ontario in Orphan Love and the southwestern desert in El Niño, are ripe and fresh with stink. The sensory details are evocative and soaked with the ethos of predator and prey. I feel a little like a wingless reader, pursued by a writer whose story I want to escape but am compelled to continue reading.
“Her side is numb where the texture of the earth has been stamped into her furless flesh. The hill and valley are as quiet and still as she; any bits of life have been consumed by the bald birds waiting above her. Inside the great grey cactus, baby birds — now orphaned — cheep-cheep, pecking at each other. The strongest of them will bite its brothers and sisters until they are gone and then itself tumble, wingless, from the nest.”
The borders in these stories are liquid and shifting, and even the name of the Oro Desert El Niño offers another border, an ‘r’ surrounded by ‘o’s in this imagined place. And, yet, as surprisingly loose as the borders seem to be, characters are increasingly confined as plots unfold, conflicted and under attack. With or without parental ties, characters are adrift and searching, caught in a maze.
“The wall was closing in. It was really going to plug up the border’s ratholes, burn out its nests of boys, forcing them to find a way out of the south by some other channel, route, or maze, of which little boys with not enough to eat can always find many. Juan said again that it was coming time to quit while they were ahead.”
The elements in Nadia Bozak’s writing are characters in their own right, and they insist on their own borders. Readers suffer a barrage of strikes, forced to absorb the onslaught from the sidelines (through two characters in the first novel and three characters in the second).
“Rain had the world by the throat, forcing it to choke down its cold and raw goodness, driving ponds and rivers to fill and flow, swelling lakes until they burst their ancient seams. And the world, it just stood there and took it.”
The effect is overwhelming, simultaneously overload and deprivation. These are not comfortable stories to read. Not only are the settings extreme and inhospitable, the characters strained and struggling, but structurally, the reader stretches back and forth between times (and voices, in El Niño).
“Like Marianne, the Tribal is dried out and wrinkled. It’s the same car she drove down to Matchstick some ten years before and together they have grown old here. Honey folds herself inside the squat driver’s seat, pushed back as far as it will go. She and Marianne are way too tall for women; Keith considers them both a little too thin. But down here Marianne became that tough kind of skinny, held together with sinew and unsnappable bone.”
There, in the joins between sinew and unsnappable bone, readers are twisted and pressed. So much of what happens is horrid and relentlessly demanding. Orphan Love is exhausting, my shoulders and back all-a-throb from the paddling through the backwaters of Northern Ontario and ugliness of the world. And El Niño is infuriating (the anger I remember feeling at the end of Disgrace seems pale in comparison) , to the point that I might have tossed it into a lake if one was within throwing distance.
But here’s the thing: the second book truly upset me. Aspects of El Niño make me want to beg Nadia Bozak for a rewrite. I want to ask her why she had to tell the story that way. The ‘why’ pleading and accusatory. But I know it’s a fruitless question. She wrote the story because these are true stories, such is the world we inhabit. Maybe she hated writing the parts of the story that I hated reading. I imagine her throwing down her pen at the end writing the last chapter like I threw down the book when I finished reading.
In the context of that story, in the process of pleading for something other, I am desperate for change, desperate to make the story different.
When books take readers to places that hurt, readers can stop reading and look up.
They can become enraged. And that desire for a new story is a catalyst for change.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.