Wednesday, January 18, 2017
‘The Sunken Cathedral,’ a cli-fi novel by Kate Walbert
Kate Walbert’s new cli-fi novel, her fourth, begins and ends amid high winds and storm surge, a lethal deluge that the book’s characters — post-9/11, post-Sandy New Yorkers — endure with nervous resignation.
Walbert is in her element. She’s an anatomist of disaster, or, more precisely, of its psychic toll, of the myriad subtle ways calamities — natural, man-made, self-inflicted — reverberate through lives and across generations. Her style is understated, elegiac, her perspective oblique. In her books, war and social crisis typically lurk just off the page; what she’s after is quieter, more elusive stuff: the collateral damage of haunted minds and thwarted ambition. Her characters, you might say, are afflicted by history.
Most of those characters are women. Sidelined from battlefields, classrooms or careers — from history’s center stage — they suffer from the past in ways both devastating and unacknowledged. “A Short History of Women” (2009) traced the varied effects, on five female descendants over the course of a century, of a British suffragette’s death by self-starvation for the cause. (“She had given her life so that women might, quite simply, do something,” explains her granddaughter, who, bewildered to find herself in late middle age seething with frustrated purpose, undertakes a lonely protest of her own against the Iraq war.) “Our Kind” (2004), a series of linked stories written in the first-person plural, depicted — with a consideration rare in literature — a group of aging suburban ladies, whose decorous lives belie an inner turbulence, their poignant memories commingling with, and sometimes overpowering, present experience.
That book earned Walbert a National Book Award nomination. But to my mind, her masterpiece remains her first novel, “The Gardens of Kyoto” (2001), an intricately plotted, thrillingly imagined narrative, in which a woman recounts, to the daughter she was obliged to give away at birth and whom she has never met, her abiding love for a cousin killed at Iwo Jima and her affair, years later, with a shellshocked Army lieutenant just back from Korea. Despite its wrenching content, the book is suffused with a hushed, dreamlike beauty, unfolding not in chronological fashion — Walbert’s novels never do — but as a succession of seemingly disjointed scenes, like the Japanese gardens in a book the narrator inherits from her dead cousin. “You can’t even walk in these gardens because they’re more like paintings,” the cousin explains in a letter. “You view them from a distance . . . their fragments in relation.”
This logic applies with perhaps greater force to Walbert’s new novel, “The Sunken Cathedral,” a curious book in which the semblance of plot serves mostly as a container for images. Here, too, she uses a fractured technique, shifting among multiple narrators and between past and present, but returning more often than not to Marie, an elderly widow who lives in a Chelsea brownstone, and to Elizabeth, a poet with writer’s block who is Marie’s upstairs tenant. Early on, Marie enrolls in an art class, which, though strictly for amateurs, yields some metaphorically freighted work. In particular, there’s “Life Underwater,” a series of paintings by Helen, an art historian, in which the city’s landmarks appear submerged, surrounded by fish: “Here St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a homeless man floating up, rising toward the surface, unfurled from his shabby blanket like a figure out of Magritte.”
“Did this have to do with global warming?” Marie wonders. “The rising sea level? A foot before the end of the next decade!” It’s a reasonable inference. “The Sunken Cathedral” is awash in apocalyptic imagery, from the hurricane that bookends the narrative to the premonitions of disaster that preoccupy its inhabitants. The art teacher, an aging beatnik named Sid Morris, crosses off each day on his calendar before noon (“To what end? Marie thinks. The end?”) and keeps a packed suitcase beside his chair (“in the unlikely event of an emergency”), while local schools and law enforcement conduct “What If” drills: “What If an earthquake were to knock out the power grid? What If an outbreak of avian flu occurred during a blizzard?”
Those particular What Ifs are conjured by the director of the school Elizabeth’s son attends, a woman who promotes sexual education in pre-K (“Innocence is Ignorance”); oversees “Survival” sessions in which students are taught how to scream when accosted by a terrorist; and enlists parents to patrol Bleecker Street in orange vests with walkie-talkies, on the lookout for potential pedophiles. Elizabeth, whose son suffers from “hypergrandia,” among other worrisome “learning challenges” requiring the intervention of a hypnotist and a psychic along with a night stand’s stack of self-help books, questions none of it.
Walbert evidently intends this as satire — the elevation of anxiety to social policy invites such treatment — but on the page it reads like caricature. Tonally, it’s jarring, at odds with the book’s somber thrust and its sensitive portrayal of lived (as opposed to imagined) calamity. Elizabeth, it turns out, harbors a tragedy in her past, as do Sid and the school director. (“There is often a tragedy,” the director astutely observes.) So, inevitably, does Marie: a childhood in occupied France; the arrest of her parents and siblings; a risky escape alone to the woods at night.
Like a surprising amount of the book’s material, Marie’s story, comprising perhaps the finest passages here, is embedded in a footnote, in this case to a scene in which she sits in her kitchen drinking wine with Sid. In nearly every chapter, asterisks in the text direct the reader to the bottom of the page, where, in a slightly smaller font, flashbacks, elaborations and asides, some spilling over several pages, are posed. In one, a policeman we’ve met a few pages earlier succumbs to a violent death. In others, we encounter characters we never see again. It’s an odd, even irritating, device, but Walbert, admirable for her willingness to experiment, is trying to tell — or show — us something. It’s as though she has sought to give visual form to the fragmented nature of our existence, suspended between past and present, memories and associations forever intruding on fresh experience.
It’s in a footnote that Helen tells us that her “Life Underwater” paintings are inspired by Claude Debussy’s piano prelude “La Cathédrale Engloutie” (“The Sunken Cathedral”), based on a Breton legend about a drowned city. A classic work of musical impressionism, the piece aspires to instill in its listeners the myth’s tenebrous mood and imagery. Walbert’s portrait of a city on edge was conceived in a similar spirit. As Marie puts it, reflecting on her efforts with brush and paint in art class: “She was trying to make something of the way life felt.”
By Kate Walbert
Posted by DANIELBLOOM at 6:34 PM