Fuzzy Remembrances of Things Past
Literary novels tend to come in two structures: the train and the mosaic. Trains start at the beginning and relate a series of events which work more or less chronologically to bring the character, and the reader, to the conclusion. Dickens works this way, as does John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, the (unknown) Beowulf poet and JK Rowling. In fact, most stories of any type work this way, literary or not.
The mosaic story is a little different. In them, events are presented out of chronological order, sometimes with little or no explanation or context. An episode is revealed here, a conversation there, a gesture somewhere else. Events are repeated from different points of view or sometimes left out altogether, and it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks and create a coherent whole. Connections might be suggested, but are rarely shown in direct cause-and-effect fashion. The works of Joan Didion might fall into this category, or Mario Vargas Llosa, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. (Many of the films of Steven Soderbergh fit the bill, as well.) Although often less immediately accessible than their more conventionally-structured bretheren, mosaic novels can leave a longer-lasting impression, as they are to a degree constructed (or reconstructed) with more active involvement from the reader.
Gina Apostol’s Gun Dealers’ Daughter is very much a mosaic. It’s a hazy fever-dream of a novel, a story in which the confusion of the narrator spills into the storyline itself, leaving the reader as disoriented as the protagonist. Given the serious thematic issues here, both political and personal, this confusion might be expected to result in a reading experience that’s more frustrating than satisfying. Happily, though, Apostol manages to keep her readers engaged, for the most part, by imbuing her story with significant event, as well as sentence-level interest.
As with many mosaic novels, a simple reiteration of the plot reduces the story to something unappealingly simplistic. A Filipina college student, a daughter of privilege, becomes involved with a group of would-be revolutionaries under the Marcos regime. They commit petty acts of rebellion before working their way toward a much larger, more significant event. Consequences from this range from the obvious to the unexpected.
As storylines go, this is pretty simple. If it were presented in a straightforward linear fashion, the plot elements might appear predictable, as small acts of vandalism grow to something more dangerous. The way that the author fragments the material, however, makes the most of the inherent suspense in this situation. The book begins with the narrator, Sol, in exile following the climactic events—events that we will not see until the end of the book. Sol’s elliptical, pun-filled and pithy recollections manage to suggest much while explaining very little, keeping the reader’s curiosity piqued as snippets in information are revealed a bit at a time.
The facts of Sol’s background are clear enough: she is the daughter of wealthy parents whose money comes primarily from arms contracts. Their complicity in keeping the Philippines a vassal of both the United States and its hand-picked henchmen provides an ongoing undercurrent of tension, but it is Sol’s oblique commentary that commands the reader’s attention. She is prone to such statements as, “At the clinic, my problem was finding the right angularity of things,” and “Worse was my recurring, miserable dysgraphia, a slip-sliding dementia of letters, an almost untenable mental pit.”
Such expression does little to illuminate the story in any conventional way, but it soon becomes apparent that Sol’s confused state of mind is as much the point of the novel as any particular set of events. Also notable is the sly humor evident throughout. “General Tom was a large-nosed man with an iron lung, or plaster heart—I never got that right.” Elsewhere, striking visual images dominate, as when drunk party guests fall into a swimming pool: “The two men floated in the warm water, like large fowls dipped for plucking. I watched their beautiful sequined clothes rise like bedraggled wings; their slender calves acted like ballast before they went under.”
Although politics is a presence throughout the novel, it’s a strangely vague politics. A quiet undercurrent of anti-imperialism runs throughout the story—okay, it’s hard to argue much with that—but apart from a kind of free-floating sullenness directed at the Marcos regime and the American military that bankrolls it, there is not a gret deal of specificity attached to either the oppressors or the young protagonists who oppose them. The narrator’s dreamy disorientation serves to render this thematic strand in watery half-tones, as it does so many other elements in the book.
Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide whether this oblique, dreamlike presentation is as effective as it could be. Certainly, Sol’s unique voice defines the telling of this story, and leaves an indelible impression. This is no small thing. A clearer sense of events might make the plot a bit more accessible, but at the cost of some of this intriguing novel’s striking moodiness.
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