FEBRUARY 18, 2021
STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING a moment and think about eyeballs — how improbable and miraculous they are. Even Charles Darwin found it “absurd to the highest degree” that something so complex could be the product of natural selection. Structurally and biologically, these things are bonkers: retina, pupil, optic nerve, lens — what the hell?
And biology’s the least of it. As a highly visual species, we humans have turned these balls of jelly into our primary portal between the inner and outer worlds. For those of us with the sense of sight, these little spheres are our major means of connecting with the world; of determining what surrounds us — and, by extension, our own place in it. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the eyeball would become such a prized site in mythology and literature. From Oedipus Rex to King Lear, Bataille’s eyeballs in vaginas to Denis Johnson’s hunting knife in the eyeball, writers have plucked eyes out, reinserted them, slashed them, and infused them with infinite meaning along the way.
Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron features an impressive three eye-pluckings. The novel opens with the titular myth: the legend of the rain heron. A black storm washes through a farming region, submerging it like a biblical flood. Afterward, one farmer is found in a tree, half-dead. In the first of the novel’s many arresting visuals, a vast heron emerges from the flood beside her — emerging not as flesh and blood from water but as like from like, water from water. This is the rain heron, literally a heron made of rain, and it gifts this previously struggling farmer with rains and great fortune, bringing plenty to her fields, which she, in turn, shares with her community.
But after years of this good fortune, a neighboring farmer’s son grows jealous and sets out to kill the heron. Here come our first plucked eyes: plucked from this boy’s head by the heron during their fateful meeting. Afterward, the heron leaves the region, and a terrible season of heat descends. Now nobody can grow anything, least of all the farmer who had enjoyed such prosperity. Before long, she’s found dead on her property, having died from an infected burn inflicted by a shovel baked in the unholy heat.
This seed myth opens the book and forms its core. Several layers of story fold around it, like nesting dolls. There’s the story of Zoe, a teenager who lives in a freezing port city far in the south of this unnamed, Southern Hemisphere country — a city of white-sand beaches and hills made of gray-pink granite. The people of this city — including Zoe’s aunt, who raised her — make their money through a local secret: the harvesting of a precious squid ink, a magical intensifier that makes food more delicious and color more vibrant among other uses.
Here, as in our seed myth, tragedy strikes when a human (in this case a man from the north, an outsider in the port city) tries to interfere with and appropriate the powers of a legendary animal. When the locals won’t share the secret method of harvesting squid ink, the northerner goes to great and ultimately disastrous lengths to find it.
The novel’s outermost and predominant narrative nesting doll echoes this dynamic, again charting the disastrous consequences of human attempts to seize and control mythical creatures. It also returns us to the story of the rain heron. The nation has been destabilized by broken weather patterns, and the soldiers of a military coup stalk the country, pillaging and striking terror into the people. Arnott sweeps aside the details of the coup to focus on a single military operation: a mission to steal the rain heron headed by a Lieutenant Harker, whom readers have met before in another layer of narrative.
Harker and her soldiers desecrate a pristine mountain and torture a woman who lives on it, seeking information about the rain heron — much as the northerner harangued the townspeople for the secret of the squid ink, though with military force and entitlement in place of the northerner’s desperation. When the soldiers troop, heavy-booted, into the heron’s mountaintop hideaway, we get our third eye-plucking of the novel.
So, what do these pluckings mean? What must we make of the state of eyelessness in the world Arnott has created?
In the simplest interpretation, Arnott echoes famous eye-pluckings past, suggesting, like Sophocles and Shakespeare, that sight might preclude vision and blindness lead a person to deeper truth. In keeping with this reading, losing her eye is a turning point for Harker, ushering in a sort of ego death, followed by a slow, painful rebirth into a more meaningful mode of being.
But the plucking is also pointedly about the present day. When the heron takes the soldier’s eye, she doesn’t, in fact, lose vision in it — not immediately or entirely. “The bird didn’t just take my eye,” she says, “it ate it. Down the river of its throat my stolen sight coursed, and as it was squeezed and swallowed I witnessed the eye’s path, a darkening current, the high stars growing fainter through the closing beak, until it settled in the bob of a lightless lake, and I saw no more.”
The eye-plucking, then, is a moment of breaching the human body — of popping the myth, so prevalent in our day, of the sovereign, separate individual. “To experience the softest part of your exterior being stabbed and ruined is to know how vulnerable you really are,” the soldier later says. If the bounds of the body can be ruptured and the sense of sight persist, where do consciousness and perception originate? The stories we’ve been telling about the world, and the position we’ve assigned ourselves as the only sentient beings in it, must be nonsense.
In this sense, The Rain Heron’s eye-plucking isn’t in conversation with great eye-pluckings of literature past so much as with the orientation of human eyeballs in general, which, on the whole, have been swiveling inward since at least the dawn of psychoanalysis more than a century ago. Many of the Western literary giants of the last century — most famously Woolf and Proust — represent the genius extremities of a species growing ever more adept at charting the intricacies, complexity, and paradoxes of the inner landscape. The novel form has lent itself particularly well to such inner explorations, rising as it did out of humanism and individualism. Unlike the poetry, theater, and folk tales that came before, the novel provides an opportunity to display, in painstaking detail, the life course — including the interior life — of an ordinary human or humans, and indeed to cast that particular life as the universe’s central intrigue. And this even before Freud and co. set us seeking our personal complexes and traumas.
By contrast, The Rain Heron is a novel almost entirely without interiority. Characters’ thoughts and emotions are conveyed externally — they might frown, speak softly, stretch pointedly, maybe throw a punch, but don’t expect to learn about the thought or feeling that accompanied the behavior.
Instead, Arnott turns his own eyeballs outward, producing a dazzlingly visual novel. The moments of harvesting ink are some of the novel’s most visually striking: rainbows of color pulse through squid rendered pliant by the blood they’ve drunk as part of the secret sacrifice of the harvest until they squirt their glorious fountains of blue-black ink. Then there’s the heron’s mountaintop lair, a “natural amphitheatre with a wide gap that opened onto a clean view of sky and stars.” The ground here is carpeted with “a thick, verdant moss” that glows in the night, and a small, still tarn reflects the moon, the cliffs, the moss, and the sky. The heron sits at the top of a tree — like a normal heron, but “too big, too blue, too alien.” “Huge and silent, it was running its long beak through its pale cerulean plumage.”
These are among the most arresting visuals in a novel whose mode of narrative propulsion is to move from one striking image to the next. But let’s be clear: the lack of interiority, the outward orientation of Arnott’s eyeballs, doesn’t equate to shallowness here. These aren’t special effects, the spectacle of the screen, or images for the pure sake of optical impact. This is the visuality of myth, in which images are important not for their beauty or grandeur but for their resonance, their power to encapsulate deep truths more fully and potently than any amount of exposition ever could. Case in point: The eyeball swallowed by the rain heron, which condenses a thunderous storm of ideas about consciousness, oneness, storytelling, and meaning-making into a little ball of jelly in a bird’s gullet.
Of course, this isn’t untrodden ground. Myth and contemporary literature are no strangers. Madeline Miller, Anne Carson, and Margaret Atwood have all farmed the fertile ground of classic mythology, and the great mythologizers of “genre” fiction — Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and more — might well be remembered as the Homers and Virgils of our time, the writers who most powerfully and imaginatively captured the elemental quality of existing in the world today, Western Canon be damned.
Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Arnott’s book swims in a swelling stream: that of literary writers drawing on mythological techniques and indeed creating new mythologies that reimagine the human relationship with the living world around us. Paul Kingsnorth’s Buckmaster Trilogy is the most obvious comparison, but we see the technique too in, for instance, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible.
It’s easy to understand why writers might now be turning their eyes outward, away from the inner landscape, and returning to myth, with its focus on the great forces beyond. The old myths evoke a time before the human relationship with Earth tilted so horrifically out of balance. They’re distilled wisdom from ages when people knew how to revere and attend to things other than themselves.
But there’s more to it than that. In the words of the mythologist Martin Shaw, “The Earth thinks in myth, talks to us in myth.” The old myths and folk tales emerged over time, echoing through countless mouths and villages and, crucially, adapting to each new place. And each time they adapted, they absorbed something of the Earth as it was in that particular village or hamlet or mountainside. They were whispered by the Earth into the human collective unconscious.
So: Humans don’t own myth or folk tale. These stories don’t live inside us; they’re not at our disposal, like, say, anecdotes from our childhoods, or even great literature that pertains only to the human. No: We live inside them. These stories are sentient and wise, and they command respect. If we want to absorb some of their wisdom — if we want to enter into their world — then, to use Shaw’s language, we must court the stories.
This slow, anonymous genesis, this echoing of a folk tale around the earth, is a far cry from the life course of any story published today. Even the most searing of new stories, new mythologies, only now emerges through a great force of individual will and, later, publicity. To finish a book and navigate the publishing industry requires a propulsive force of ego no less real for not coming naturally to many authors. Then there’s the fate of the story once it’s published. To be picked over by fellow writers with too many degrees and too many unpublished manuscripts in their own drawers, trying to build up their own propulsive force of ego by proving how clever they are to themselves or their peers (my eyeballs swiveled first and foremost inward here, fellow critics) — this is no fate for a myth. A myth is irreducible; it says what it says. Start picking it apart with your postgrad sensibility and assigning it static meanings, and it’s already danced clean out of your hands.
So where does that leave a novel like The Rain Heron? It’s a powerful story, beautifully rendered. “We need new stories” goes one of the refrains of our day, and if it is indeed new stories that we need, I’d wager this is one of them.
But is that really what we need? Can any new story, published under these circumstances, begin to approach the resonance of the old myths that echoed straight from the Earth itself? Can we ever do mythology justice when we approach it in the spirit of our broken day? Or is “we need new stories” just an excuse for us writers to keep doing what we’ve always done?
If these seem unfair questions to lob at an author doing his earnest best in the conditions of his day, know that Arnott himself seems to pose these very questions. Through each of his nesting narratives, there echoes a central consideration: What happens when modern humans at our most base and diminished confront mythical creatures? Will we recognize their greatness? Can we be trusted not to harm them? Or will we try to pillage them for our own ends, and in so doing, strip them of their power?
In other words: Are we too debased today to show up at mythology’s door, looking for help? Are we like the northerner, showing up at the port city, hungry for magical ink, killing mythical creatures for their powers and finding their ink sacs dried out by the death we’ve inflicted, the portals to mythic resonance closed to us because we come only wanting to take?
Perhaps not, in Arnott’s estimation. The Rain Heron is ultimately a story of redemption. Unlike the northerner, our protagonist does sacrifice something (albeit unwillingly) to her mythic creature. Losing her eyeball frees her to behold and find meaning in the forces bigger than herself that bind the world.
Maybe it’s not new stories we need so much as new eyeballs, or the willingness to sacrifice our eyes and our ears and all the ways we’ve made sense of the world until now — to offer them up in courtship of the stories that might save us. The Rain Heron is a new story about learning to heed the old stories — but heeding them will require sacrifice, reciprocity, and humility. Can a novel published today, in today’s publishing landscape and today’s world, spur that kind of reverence? It’s a tall order, and in the end, down to the reader as much as the writer. What are we prepared to give, and give up?