Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal

Who here remembers Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? You know, the computer game from the ’80s that spun off into an early ’90s TV show featuring the totally rad house band Rockapella? I do, I do! And I can honestly say that this game and its TV-show sister laid the groundwork for all of my geographical knowledge.

I mention it because Susann Cokal’s second novel, Breath and Bones, brought all of that globe-trotting detective work rushing back. But while the computer game’s Carmen has the whole world at her feet, Cokal bases her novel primarily in 19th century America. The queen of crime gets replaced by a decidedly noncriminal British painter named Albert Castle, and the gumshoe detective is now Castle’s former model and lover, Famke Summerfugl (aliases Ursula Summerfield and Dante Castle), who sniffs out various clues to Albert’s whereabouts and always seems to miss him by a hair.

The plot may sound flimsy — whee, a superhot girl chases after her ex-lover — but within it lies a historical richness that is Cokal’s greatest strength, and which she used just as well in her first novel, Mirabilis. Just when you start yawning at Famke’s relentless wild good chase, Cokal snaps you back with Mormons capitalizing on the Chinese silkworm, or with the era’s now-bizarre-seeming treatments for tuberculosis, of which Famke is a victim. Cokal draws a many-layered America, full of polygamists, wide-eyed immigrants, yellow journalists, and prostitutes, all of whom are tantalized into the push West by the promised double whammy of adventure and wealth. It was an exciting time to be in America in all of its gritty splendor, and Cokal depicts it with authority and obvious pleasure. For that, I forgive her the book’s overlong narrative.

What I have a harder time forgiving is the hotness factor. Cokal’s Famke is a naïve Swedish orphan who has grown up a sexually bold PYT in Denmark in the 1880s. An exotically pale redhead who stops men dead in their tracks and at one point has four dudes tailing her, Famke is eightch-oh-tee hot. As she makes her way across America, she is constantly privileged by her beauty — her flaming red hair and tragically pale, tuberculan skin. Must beauty and tragedy always be linked?

But this doesn’t do Cokal’s novel, or her protagonist, justice. Famke is resourceful and fearless, if a little vain. By setting up this character as a flawed, tragic, and as such, extremely sympathetic, figure (and oh, what a figure she has!), Cokal sets up the reader to recognize with dislike all those who seek to control her. And there are many, mostly men, who cannot get enough of Famke. Not for Famke’s character, mind you, but for her peerless beauty. If she didn’t know how to take advantage of her looks, she would be trapped by them. Still, aware of her vulnerability as a woman, and as a pretty woman at that, she ends up cross-dressing for much of her journey.

There is an intriguing feminist statement contained in this post-feminist reimagining of 19th century America. During Famke’s short life, she is literally mythologized in Albert’s paintings, many of which are recreations of mythical scenes. Willfully, she becomes both muse and myth. Halfway in, however, the roles reverse and Famke, dressed as a man, becomes not just the objectified but the objectifier, reworking for pocket money the paintings left behind by Albert as he visited boomtown after boomtown. As she takes up the artist role, however, Famke paints herself (as a woman). In so doing, Famke becomes her own muse.

This motif is reinforced by the “treatment” for tuberculosis that her doctor and admirer — who privately thinks of Famke as “Ophelia” — prescribes: numerous masturbation sessions with the aid of what must be the precursor to the modern vibrator. (“It is another means of flushing,” he tell her.) How Famke loves this wonder of medical innovations.

Which brings me to the irksome wink-wink nature of some of Cokal’s inside jokes with the reader. Cokal’s style is, overall, charming and wonderfully engaging. Few literary pyrotechnics here, and the story is better for it. But, come on, can we just say it? Crotch. Groin. Cunt. There, some alternatives for the “Down There” that Cokal too liberally employs throughout the novel, most often when Famke smirks at the art world’s denial that women grow hair “Down There” (tee hee), instead depicting naked women with fictitious Brazilian waxes. Quite right, my dear Famke. But as she indicts the art world’s denial of pubes, shouldn’t Famke indict herself for using a euphemism for said pubes? You can’t have it both ways.

Cokal frames her novel with a related prologue and epilogue twenty-odd years beyond the time period of the narrative. From the first five pages, the reader knows that Famke ends up dead, her young body preserved by a posse of admiring men in an upright glass coffin full of alcohol or something. (I’m giving nothing away.) After playing the role of immortals in myth, Famke achieves her own sort of immortality. Even as she redefined the notions of myth and muse while inhabiting them in life, she ends up with her image ultimately, and literally, assembled and preserved by men. Through not-so-subtle dialogue and a description of the preserved corpse, Cokal ensures that these men are seen as fools, and we are left with an image of a pretty dead thing caged behind glass. Is this not fucked-up?, Cokal seems to ask, then answers: Yes. Yes, it is.