NOVEMBER 6, 2013
“NO MAP THERE, nor guide / Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,” writes Walt Whitman in “Darest Thou Now O Soul.” Maps are historical jigsaws. They are parchments in flux, time-stamped with a series of patterns that attempt to fill in, delineate, and add perspective to our lives. Maps are also a source of knowledge: where were the active ports, which countries ruled when, how did our knowledge of science influence the kinds of boats we designed to navigate the open ocean?
Whitman defined American poetry by self-publishing Leaves of Grass in 1855, a time when the map of the American Union and Confederacy was violently shifting. An indulgent raconteur, alternately shrill or celebratory, known for his expansive catalogs, varieties of diction, syntactical ease and wizardry, Whitman is a good counterpoint for the poet Lindsay Hill’s debut novel Sea of Hooks. Maps, as a theme and prop, figure throughout the book. Hill’s story trades in secrets and discovery, all done in a Whitmanesque combination of poetic prose and storytelling — but too often without the necessary subtlety. His protagonist, like Whitman, is very much an individualist striking out on his own.
Sea of Hooks is a coming-of-age story about a turbulent, secretive boy marred by trauma and loss. Christopher Westall, a boy in mid-century San Francisco, is the son of a severely depressed and anxious mother and a disinterested father. He appears to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but has a talent of imagination and a mind “well beyond his years,” tutors say; he struggles to read and feels his brain is broken. (“He would slide from the well-marked roadway of the page to the fields on either side where a kind of fragmented movie was in progress all the time.”) His secret, interior life brims with vivid ideas that ricochet off whatever he encounters, but his public life is solitary.
The novel begins with his mother’s suicide in 1974, when Christopher is 22, and then swerves all over the place chronologically. Five weeks after his mother’s death, Christopher escapes to the Kingdom of Bhutan with some scholars, pilgrims, and a professor who garbles on about things; the characters in this section never fully develop. We hear about their mundane visits to monasteries and get pummeled by opaque, significant-sounding references to Tibetan treasures. This excursion parallels the more compelling central story in the book, which tracks the traumas of Christopher’s childhood: a pathologically agitated mother (Evelyn), a drunk father (Westy), a rape by a tutor (Carl) at age 12, and a drug-addled grandmother (Lydia). He has no friends at all, and cannot spell. Instead he befriends debris:
And Christopher called his collection of debris “The Messengers,” and he found them on curbs and on sidewalks and in gutters and they weren’t just papers but bottle tops and foil from cigarette packs and bits of glass and wood and wire and bolts and he kept them in his pockets until he understood what they were saying and then he kept them in a special drawer and he kept them with care because to him they were treasures.
These pieces of paper are puzzle pieces, secrets maps of other people’s discarded worlds. They are marked with lipstick and pencil, they tell of meeting times, and include tiny maps of streets or conceptual memories and longings. Christopher also believes “knife-people” live under his bed, “sharpening themselves against each other like hands washing.”
Christopher is a compellingly drawn, sympathetic character who you hope will find some peace. His childhood captivates. The format, though, is a bit of a puzzle. Each paragraph starts with an all-caps heading, making the novel effectively a series of prose poems. Problematically, the language jets from exacting to fragmentary, the narrative from time period to time period, and the result is disorienting. Some paragraphs chronicle Christopher’s life, others his obsessions, and others include heavy-handed aphorisms or clues. The best paragraphs detail scenes with his parents and other characters. The most consistently vivid writing takes place in series of war letters from “Westy” to his father. It’s flummoxing why they’re titled this way, given that Westy is Christopher’s father. Are these letters manufactured to create an alternate persona, a vision of the father Christopher could have had — one who reveled in his wartime masculinity and who had suspenseful, sea battled days and a physical engagement with the world? This is one of the book’s unresolved secrets. During World War II, Westy was a “signalman on a liberty ship, running the torpedo-infested waters of the North Atlantic.” We never find out whether these are genuine letters from Westy to Evelyn, or if they’re made-up letters. Either way, the letters are brimming with verve and excitement:
She was hit in the engine room, which is at the stern on tankers. There was a huge ball of fire, followed by stream and water, which came from her stack — those poor devils in the engine room never had a chance. We went to battle stations at once and the escort were dropping depth charges, “ash cans” we call them, all over the place.
You never know what’s true while reading, but that’s part of the point. Hill isn’t subtle; the significant people in Christopher’s life (Evelyn, Dr. Thorn, and Shebee) all have a connection to maps, after all.
Hill has an exacting narrative hand when he wants to — just like Whitman — and a strong sense of pacing within scenes. Moments of caring stick: after Christopher receives a series of ceramic dogs from his grandmother, Evelyn asks a neighbor if Christopher could feed their dog. She sends Christopher to school with sandwiches so beautifully wrapped they look like gifts; she shows him how to remove a water ring from a table. On a map she pulls out from her beloved cherry desk, Evelyn describes how she followed her sister’s “Grand Tour” from the Eiffel Tower to the pyramids. She tells Christopher about a secret drawer; not surprisingly, the drawer (sigh, Evelyn) was empty.
We never really get to the bottom of Evelyn’s secrets, though they involve a curious and wonderful woman named Shebee, with “mocha skin, sharp alert dark eyes, and a high voice that sparkled with easy laughter,” who took care of Christopher. “Widely known and admired in Chinatown,” she always ate for free there; on their visits, Christopher loved seeing birds hanging from hooks by their necks dripping grease and fish swimming in tanks. A former opium addict and a maid in a brothel, Shebee smuggled religious refugees out of Communist China; she and her husband were part of an underground railroad (a map of freedom) for immigrants. She’s gutsy and she’s kind and she even has a physical map:
It was a jumble of symbols, tiny writings, arrows, suns, moons, stars, doorways, passageways, and compass-points. She told Christopher that she had many people to watch over and the map helped her keep track of them, like a calendar or clock or like a train schedule.
But the person who cares most about Christopher, and who ultimately guides him out of his pain and silence, is Mr. Thorn, a cartographer. Christopher spends his happiest days helping Thorn fix up his house: “The doors were never locked; there were no particular schedules or procedures to attend to; the carpets were worn and warm; there was a globe and a huge book of maps on the table in the hall.” Thorn is a man who makes sense of things, who compares unseen planetary influences to the behind-the-scenes hunger, expectations, memories, and loss that influence people.
They go to Laundry’s Pie Shop and talk about destiny and Socrates. Thorn lets Christopher carry his tools when he goes on a repair job. Christopher asks him if all the places on maps really exist, and he replies by giving him two stamps from Bhutan. They drive to Calistoga to see a “Mystery Magnet House” in a petrified forest, a “crooked little house, built on a slope, where nothing inside was right, where the compass did not point north, and you could sort of walk up the somewhat slanted walls.” Christopher sees the shattered trunks of trees on the ground, and feels the whole of human history in them. It’s Thorn who makes life whole when everything and everyone else is broken. Christopher eventually spills the beans about Carl. “What’s so good about being safe?” Thorn asks smartly, and tells him to breathe in the chaos.
Christopher’s real experiences stand in high contrast to the incantatory, stream-of-consciousness sections, in italics, that takes up a good 30 percent of the book. The more the narrative veers off into aphorisms and fragments, the more it sags. The fragments reflect Christopher’s interior monologue. And test your patience. It’s a shame, because if Hill stepped back with a mapmaker’s perspective, he might have edited out the italics and given readers a chance to explore the tacit spaces of madness and confusion that would have been better intimated at with well-paced silences. Instead, we get this:
To hammer against the ice again and again to write to God in the calligraphy of cracks, and chips and rupture, the web of cracks — a letter to God in God’s own handwriting that God can’t help but read and understand — that the web of cracks is a letter to God — even if there is no God, it is still a letter to God in God’s own hand, in God’s own script, in the hand of God, in the letters God uses, like strewn pine needs, ragged clouds and the ragged edges of coasts — even if there is no God, even if these are not really writing, it is still a letter to God in God’s own hand, like the curl and collapse of waves.
It is difficult, unless you’re a fan of prayer or automatic writing, not to sigh and put the book down. Hill literally transcribes every thought, every sensation. Hill appears to be trafficking in an interior, modernist style, not unlike Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Nearly a century after the fact, is a hard trick to pull off. Part of the problem with the italicized sections is how the run-on experimental modernist shape, the sense that anything goes, the subconscious incantatory style, all impart a sensibility that a book can be anything. But a genre-bending novel needs shape too.
Whitman, while a useful counterpoint for how an elevated style and expansive catalogues can also have rhythmic constraint and play. Here’s Whitman in part three of Song of Myself:
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well
entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
The diction dazzles, a mystery stands clear, and the uncertainty associated with thinking finds a home in the lines. That jives with the jazzy way Whitman crescendos to “electrical” before pausing expertly to contemplate mystery.
Now here’s Hill in “The Gale from the Thongdrol” (a Tibetan scroll):
Now the wind from the Thongdrol was a gale: Song of the lost mountain — Song of the man whose hands turned to money — Song of masks — Song of being hurled through a tunnel of fire — Song of needles — Song of not being able to stand —
Hill sings on for another 50 “Songs” punctuated by em dashes. These drive-by fragments feel indulgent, and just plain tiresome. Let’s go back to Whitman, a master of “songs” and whose entire Leaves of Grass is a catalog. This is from “Song of the Broad-Axe.”
The shape of the sly settee, and the adulterous unwholesome
The shape of the gambling-board with its devilish winnings and
The shape of the step-ladder for the convicted and sentenced
murderer, the murderer with haggard face and pinion’d arms,
The sheriff at hand with his deputies, the silent and white-lipp’d
crowd, the dangling of the rope.
Any Whitman catalog is both incantatory and narrative. His signature elations are full of cosmic and real-world curiosity. Hill, when billowing on, refuses to organize or catalog his thoughts in a way that’s meaningful. And that excessiveness undermines the magnificence of the ways in which Christopher filters trauma, and interrupts the way the story unfolds.
But Hill does have a talent for a Joycean-style interior monologue. First, here’s Joyce masterfully describing Stephen Dedalus thinking:
He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.
Christopher at his (very occasional) best is not shabby in comparison:
It was shortly after the trip to the Petrified Forest that Christopher told his mother that their lives were so short and small as to be next to nothing. Evelyn was in her apron, putting some plates away, and her entire response was to say that some people saw it and some people didn’t, just as there were people who saw deeply into beauty and people who lived only with décor. And in that instant, Christopher saw that — even with all her idiosyncrasies, maddening quirks and arbitrary rules — they shared something beyond the flat cardboard enactments of routine — something that glistened at its edges — and he saw that they belonged to each other the way that diagonals do.
If only Hill excised the stream-of-consciousness italicized sections and stuck to musings like these, he’d be in good company. It’s a gorgeously sweet moment among the parade of traumas.
Could he have approached Bhutan in the way Stephen Dedalus describes Dublin?
The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened again in him the unrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes. And amid this new bustling life he might have fancied himself in another Marseilles but that he missed the bright sky and the sum-warmed trellises of the wineshops. A vague dissatisfaction grew up within him as he looked on the quays and on the river and on the lowering skies and yet he continued to wander up and down day after day as if he really sought someone that eluded him.
Instead we get a pretty travelogue:
The footpath to Tarpoling was arduous, rising nearly vertically out of the Bumthang Valley into forests of spruce and fir, bristling with cones, clamorous birds and gray langur monkeys. Streams and waterfalls were tumbling from the summits with some of the rushing waters used to turn prayer-wheels in the torrents.
There’s no wondering or realizations in it. Not much happens in Bhutan. We find out that the professor meditates, that meditation is hard, and there’s a Buddhist book called Wonder Ocean that seems to be behind everything. None of it makes a flap of sense and most of it smacks of porous, escapist mountain-top spirituality.
“Tarpoling” finally provides the denouement. On a topographical map, Christopher sees the Santamling monastery, but discovers that it burned down. He takes off into the forest. Dorji, a tourist guide, follows him, they find Samtamling’s ruins, and they have tea with a monk. Finally Christopher wonders, “Had anything ever really happened in his life? Had anything, other than fleeing, ever happened?” (Seems like plenty happened to me.) He conflates Samtamling’s fire with another from his past, and decides a “Therma” (a teaching or revelation) is hidden in water. So off Christopher goes into a lake, attempting to get to the bottom of it and of himself. More incantatory italics, and he reemerges naked. A kind monk warms him, a dog sits beside him, and he tears up over people he loved. Here’s our rather anticlimactic redemptive moment:
The dawn was cold. The monk was sprinkling clippings into the fire and the acrid smell filled the chill air. Christopher drew a deep breath, exhaled, leaned back, and let his full weight fall on the monk’s front.
You could hardly call this character development. If Hill had simply stuck to one thread, the one in San Francisco, the story would have real polish. What resonates, nonetheless, is Christopher’s strange, troubled, and frankly beautiful mind. This passage shines:
THE UPSIDE DOWN DIAGONAL WORLD
The day would come when Christopher would see that the upside down diagonal world lay just beneath the carpentry of routines — that it cold open under you at any time — and the carpentry starts to fall apart faster than you can hammer, and you reach a point where you throw the hammer down and you want to pull the boards away yourself; you want to tear your way into the upside down diagonal world and leave the world laid out in lines behind. It’s not a choice like the choice to go to the store, or the choice to become a lawyer. You are looking for something to use to tear the floorboards up, and the only tool left lying around is huge and hard and blunt and hard to use sparingly: the only tool left lying around is madness.