Margaret Wrinkle’s debut novel comes better packaged than built, but package and build come, curiously, with slick black-and-white photos of rustic scenes—a barn door with a chain latch, a clapboard house, etc.—opposite the title pages of its seven parts. Is this in case we’re unfamiliar with rural Southern living? Even this reminder reminds that some of us need reminding that we live far removed from the War of 1812 and its after-years. A 19th-century mood can’t be an easy thing to set, even with no distractions.
This debut novel by Alabama-based Wrinkle begins with an unforgettable tableau—a prologue that tells of the protagonist’s slave face bearing the brand of the runaway R on one side and the scar from a hammer blow on the other. We absorb the compelling gist of a story—that this slave, Wash (short for Washington), lives as a breeding stud, populating a nation of Washes (each with “wide brows like wings”) that slave owners sell off for good money.
The book also begins with a hint that something somewhere isn’t plumb in this sentimental telling.
The trouble starts early. Apparently, the story’s narrators have congregated in a nondescript room, dark as forgotten time, where they provide our story piecemeal à la As I Lay Dying—but more self-consciously woven, transitioning one voice to the next, because, well, they’re in the same room, perhaps an auditorium, listening politely to each other and taking turns at the mic. The narrators adopt each other’s metaphors, share similar concerns and histories, use the very same narrative techniques.
Like Faulkner’s novel, Wash predominantly rotates between first-person accounts integral to three main storylines:
• Wash’s secret love, Pallas, also a slave and healer in their Tennessee community.
• Wash’s master, Richardson, a veteran and POW from both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Then our author adds a new wrinkle: a third-person omniscient narrator.
This voice zooms in so close to characters, those previously mentioned as well as others, that for all intents and purposes it proves nothing more than a series of veiled first-persons—a catch-all that trades the consistency of the carefully delineated point-of-view sections for convenience.
The trouble with this third-person point-of-view, written in conversational present tense? It reads more as hearsay than history, particularly when the narrator interjects personalized commentary.
When Rufus, a slave and blacksmith who mentors young Wash, tells his hot-tempered female companion that “she best be careful where she lets her mind go because it remembers and holds the tracks of every step,” the narrator follows with what Wrinkle must believe is a necessary aside: “And he’s right.” But necessary … why? Is it to allay concerns that the reader may doubt the profundity of Rufus’ belief … or, a more damning possibility, the integrity of the omniscient narrator’s paraphrase?
This reductionist approach to storytelling appears to imply, despite the Freudian slip of the aside, that summary and paraphrase reign supreme in every way possible, at the expense of well-set, well-described scenes and … well … storytelling.
Is knowing superior to wondering? Does truism beat nuance? Whatever else, Wrinkle’s approach diminishes suspense, makes every voice generic and takes away verisimilitude.
Pallas (short for Pallas Athena, a “child who died and was reborn,” so she knows what she’s talking about) sums things up: “I didn’t have a story…No story…Just my memories and how I felt about things.”
Of course, she speaks for all characters, even Wash. He believes he has a story, but guards it at all costs. Ultimately the narrators of Wash only have fragmented, heavily summarized memories and feelings to share, not stories at all.
To what point? Wrinkle seems determined to have us believe that knowledge lies within our capacity to remember in the ideal spiritual form of the abstract (Plato) and that it is innately noble (Rousseau). Proof: The least noble among our characters, the slaveholders themselves, prove in the end to be victims of upbringing, of financial distress. They admit guilt and discover kindness after a cleansing of memory. Here’s the “wash” of the title—a truth wash.
I’ll offer a closer examination of why I find fault with Margaret Wrinkle’s approach to storytelling. Understand that I fully share Wash’s sentiment: “What I say is if we’re gonna speak freely then lets us speak.”
1. Narrators self-consciously address the narration itself. Wash says, “See, I know how they do. White folks like to stay in those books.” The self-conscious gaze noted by “see,” the “I” watching the “me,” illustrates analytical performance, a bookish proof of Wash’s trustworthy vision. His awareness of his story as a story causes Wash to lose historicity—he becomes a post-modern character untethered to time, despite the author’s careful efforts to render the 19th century authentically.
2. Narrators complete each other’s stories, memories, and thoughts, often seamlessly in response to one another. Consider in Part Two how Thompson, Richardson’s friend and fellow slaveholder, and Thompson’s embittered son, Eli, converse without conversing directly. Eli concludes a section critical of his father’s easy handling of slaves: “That was the day when I first saw him trying to act like he knew.” In the opening line of the following section, Thompson grasps the theme baton of knowing and retorts: “What my seven year old Eli didn’t know….”
3. Narrators share a generic voice. War vet Thompson and young rascal Eli both view their shared events in matching philosophical terms. Verisimilitude begins to crumble. Another example? Wash recounts how close to death he came after the hammer blow: “All I remember is everybody standing ringed round me in a quiet circle.” Why vaguely “everybody”? You guessed it—Wash knows that the omniscient narrator already explained in the previous section who surrounded his near-lifeless body, as he remembers the omniscient narrator’s word choice: “the faces ringing the circle.”
4. Narrators share metaphors and motifs, progressively more complex than mere diction. Easily the most common motif among narrators? The gaze. The subjugating gaze of white owners upon slaves or of a slave giving undesired attention to another slave (Wash and Pallas). The wondrous gaze (again between Wash and Pallas). The defiant gaze (as Wash often offers Richardson). The indifferent, analytical gaze (usually Richardson upon Wash and his letterbooks). The mystical, mind-controlling gaze (shamanic Mena upon Richardson). The self-conscious gaze upon the self and one’s story (which at times includes, especially for Wash, a lament of the non-gaze, when others fail to notice or carefully look).
5. Narrators approach storytelling in exactly the same worst way, regardless of personality, life experience, age, gender, or ethnicity. (It’s the reason above all else I write this review without mitigating my frustration—frankly, I never want to read another novel like it.) Every narrator summarizes and paraphrases ad nauseam, robbing us of first-hand life. The information comes so heavily filtered, imperialistically, I trust none of it.
To illustrate the extent of the oddness and ineffectiveness, if not contrariness, of the summary exposition, consider how Wash describes his talkative mother, Mena, a West African: “Wanted me to know whatever I needed to know, and since she had no idea what all that might be, she told me everything she could think of…Sometimes all I got was the rhythm and the shape of the story, the rise and fall of her voice and the shapes she made in the air with her hands.” On a line-by-line basis, the writing here is lovely, but why deny the reader greater beauty—Mena’s actual spoken voice, her rhythm we can hear, those precise shapes?
6. Narrators confuse time and place with anachronistic words and phrases. Speaking of his mother, Wash says, “What she showed me was, you had to intend. Keep your mind in mind. Guard it and watch it and get it what it needs. Can’t just go along like you sightseeing cause these sights round here will steal your mind right from you.” In addition to “sightseeing,” the author gives us: “grab bag,” “humble pie,” “top dollar,” “screwed” (as in cheated), “clicked” (as in a sudden insight) and “drown on dry land.” (I’m typically thrilled by any reference to my favorite bluesman, Albert King, but the allusion seems too precious for earnest Wash).
Wash’s eloquence on psychology and metaphysics troubles me more than his anachronisms, because I doubt his confident articulation could be the by-product of illiteracy and slavery. Hurt feelings and physical torture can’t be the sole results. In the absence of psychological damage, we’re given a summarized anecdote of the time Wash once struck a mare in her nose. But even that, his worst moment, is nobly undercut: “Wash regretting it before his blow even landed.” In fact, the author compensates for the mistake; like Rocky Balboa, Wash learns to find substitutes: “feed bags or folded blankets or sometimes the wall.”
Wash, the noble savage. More noble than savage, maybe more godly than human. Listen to him poetically recount an amorous moment with Pallas: “But once I wrap my hands around her middle, my thumbs touching over where she breathes in but light, my fingers nearly meeting in back but light, and her looking over my shoulder at the stars cupping down round us but light, once I get my hands on her to where I can feel her breathing in and out, opening and closing my grip but light, that’s it.” (Exquisite writing … but at what cost?)
Wouldn’t verisimilitude dictate surprise? Flaws and plot turns unsettle us into self-examination? You’ll only find predictable nobility here, because whether characters are slaves or slaveholders, wise or rascally, they all eventually become noble by their innate goodness.
In point, Richardson confesses the error of his slave trade just before his death: “I was so determined to believe what I’d been taught, that I had dominion.” We readers hear the confession. His slaves do not. That’s the crux of interiority, of monologue; unless you can utter the words, who can prove you mean them?
Not that Richardson doesn’t read the words into the mic … he does. I recall hearing him, but the pitch-black auditorium betrays no one. That late in the book, just before death, everyone but the omniscient narrator could’ve already gone home. His death, they would know, would die another death in summary anyway, like Thompson’s death, and Mena’s, and Wash’s. So much forbidden for anyone to see or experience.
I didn’t want to stay to witness the novel’s anticlimactic collapse either. In the final pages, I would discover a needless leap 10 years into the future so that the omniscient narrator can paraphrase Pallas’s final epiphany, a truism for the ages—that we’re all in this together.
It’s worded a little better than that, but you get the gist.
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, with fiction and poetry forthcoming in 2013 in 2 Bridges Review and RHINO Poetry, respectively. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, he currently resides in Denton, Texas.