Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Sex-Singer Chokes: John Hawkes's THE BLOOD ORANGES

Having abandoned books on which I was getting no traction, I turned to John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges—which may seem like a perverse choice, given Hawkes's famous insistence that plot, character, setting, and theme are elements he'd like to eradicate. Setting, in fact, is central for every Hawkes novel I've read, as is character, as is theme; plots tend to be pointillistically constructed, but they're still plots. (So much for relying on the writer to describe his own work, a problem I point out in my AP Literature class.)

In the mythical (Mediterranean?) town of Ilyria, Cyril, our "sex-singer" narrator, and wife Fiona construct an erotic eight-hander with another couple (who, somewhat inconveniently, have three daughters). The novel begins after everything has collapsed: the other man, Hugh, is dead, Fiona has run off with the other couple's daughters, and Cyril lives platonically with a native woman while trying to win back the affections of the traumatized Catherine, Hugh's wife. Though little happens—and, a problem for the climax, when things do happen, Hawkes has a way of writing around them, a kind of Stealth Bomber form of writing that bends light around the very object on which you're trying to focus—the prose does have a propulsive energy, partly because that's how Hawkes always writes, but partly because Cyril is so fully of positive (and broadly directed) sexual energy. Over the course of the book, we see how the couples navigate the complicated relationship, and, towards the end, we're shown, the one scene hard upon the other, the crucial moment when Hugh finally commits himself to a relationship with Fiona and the moment when Hugh's body is discovered.

Hawkes causes problems for himself, though I wasn't aware fully of the interpretive problems until I read "Who Put the Blood in the Oranges," an essay by Bertrand Gervais and Anick Bergeron. First, my own thinking prior to reading that essay: Hawkes's description of how Hugh dies is awkwardly done, though that's in large measure to, again, the standard Hawkes approach to anything you'd like to see more clearly. However, I felt clear about what Hawkes meant to say about the character's death. However, Hawkes undercuts the elements of the plot that seem pretty clear because of how he's structured the novel and because the narrator is Cyril. Though Cyril disclaims responsibility for Hugh's death, Hawkes's placement of the scene in which Cyril convinces Hugh to commit sexually to Cyril's wife makes that a hard argument to swallow. Also, given Cyril's evident narcissism and his need to see everything as part of some "tapestry" of sexual joy forces the reader to question Cyril's insistence that Hugh's death is an accident, the result of Hugh's masturbatory practices.

Still, I'm okay with that tension. The novel's seeming ambiguity as to how the events should be interpreted is no more surprising or problematic than the ambiguity we often run into when having to push past the insistences of a first-person narrator. I think that Hawkes wants us to trust Cyril and, too, wants us to find Cyril's moral code meaningful and coherent, even if it runs utterly counter to our own. But it's also easy to see that Cyril is imposing his code on others, and that the novel's disastrous setting and dark imagery indicate that, in fact, Cyril's way of life is ultimately destructive and self-serving.

The essay by Gervais and Bergeron takes the view that Hawkes has contaminated readers' and reviewers' understanding of the novel; evidently (if their facts are right), reviewers and readers missed the accidental nature of Hugh's death and thought it was a suicide, a suicide in response to Hugh's having to live like Cyril—missed, that is, until Hawkes, in interviews, explained the death scene, after which everyone saw the novel differently. Whether everyone really misread the novel initially, I don't know; I certainly can't be the first person who understood what Hawkes was getting at. However, Hawkes's approach to the death is vague as well as flawed in its details, and given that the method of death would be, for many readers, obscure, it's easy to see how people would end up concluding that Hugh's death is intentional. The essay's argument regarding how the author's "non-death" and actual interference in the reading of his text has led people to rethink the novel is, I think, not the crucial problem; rather, it's that the novel is flawed, and the writer's mistakes make it difficult for any reader to get even the literal events right.

I enjoyed the novel, but Cyril does wear out his welcome, and Hawkes's refusal to let the character slip into doubt gives us a guy with whom it's hard to sympathize. The novel could certainly be tighter, and many scenes feel redundant, especially since the back-and-forth chronology resists narrative momentum.

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