by Wesley Stace (Little, Brown)
Sussex-born songwriter Wesley Stace dubbed himself John Wesley Harding, after the Bob Dylan album, in the late 1980s and has since gone on to great things as a Yankified purveyor of folk rock. But for his first full novel, Misfortune, he's returned to his given name, and the result is veddy British indeed--so bedecked with Victorian frills and frippery that it seems at first a throwback, in love with the sound of its own posh, seductive voice.
His 1997 song "The Ballad of Miss Fortune" provided the bare plot sketch for this gothic folly of a story, which begins when an unwanted baby destined for the rubbish heap is rescued in the dead of night by a preternaturally thin-blooded and foppish lord and spirited away to the ancestral manse, a sprawling estate of decadence and pale tradition that's like Bleak House by way of Gormenghast. Full of dusty secrets and barely buried scandals and forgotten rooms and lushly neglected grounds, it's the sort of place that anyone who grew up reading The Secret Garden or "The Chronicles of Narnia" will recognize as paradise for children--the archetypal forming ground for overimaginative young minds.
To this point Stace's writing is so casually virtuosic that it's breathtaking when the novel abruptly switches to the first-person voice of the foundling who, though born a boy, is being raised by Lord Geoffroy Loveall as his daughter and heir, "Rose." She even points out the switch, mocking herself for using a fake omniscient voice to tell the story of her birth, and just like everything else in this novel, Stace overworks the joke until it screams, which is itself part of the joke.
"I should apologize for not revealing myself in the first volume, which I chose not to tell in my own voice," says Rose. "I didn't think my own voice would be persuasive enough, so I opted for the old-fashioned narrator, The All-Seeing One or, let's call him, God. . . . I have an entirely different style from God. I only deal in the truth, that is, the truth as I witnessed it. If I had written the foregoing part in my own voice, I would have been covering, waiting for what I knew and making up the rest: there would have been a few arias but whole scenes of recitative and a good deal of rhubarb." And so forth and so on.
Stace's style is so densely and exaggeratedly literary I was grateful for the character of Anonyma Wood, the keeper of the library at Love Hall and, after a marriage of convenience, the lady of the house. A devotee of an obscure feminist gnostic poet, she's well versed enough in magical, alchemical heresies to cheerfully accept Geoffroy's delusion that Rose is a girl. Her devotion to books and acceptance of literary reality as truth is what frees the reader--and Stace--to revel in improbable characters and delirious prose with a minimum of eye rolling. Writing like this is a guilty pleasure, but you never for one moment forget you are in a story being told by a stylist with a keen sense of the grotesque. (At times I was reminded of another novel by a songwriter, Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel, in which an Australian took on the American rural penny dreadful with even more cartoonish glee.)
Anonyma, passionate but calculating, and willing to accept a sham marriage if it will grant her the one thing she desires most--the library--is welcome refreshment after several early chapters in the company of the wan Lord Geoffroy, a dandy so withdrawn and effete it's a wonder he asserts himself enough to breathe. Traumatized by the early death of his beloved younger sister Dolores, he devotes himself to her memory and communes with her spirit through a collection of dollhouses that re-create their grim manor as it was when she lived. (The incestuous and necrophilic overtones of this are thankfully not harped upon, only underlined repeatedly.) On some level he clearly believes Rose, the future Lady Loveall, to be the reincarnation of his doomed Dolores--which is why he never once acknowledges that his adopted daughter is, in fact, a son.
Stace's pacing is dead-on for most of the book: as Rose-the-narrator grows stronger while speaking of her parents and her early life, she starts to sing of what lies ahead, dragging the reader along with promises of greater wonders yet to come. "I have traveled around the world," she teases. "I have kissed the eyelids of a sailor from Greece. I have taken shillings and torn tickets. I have lost loved ones in war. I have finally been persuaded to stop using the phrase 'cast a sheep's eye at' when I mean 'direct a romantic glance toward': however, I think the language is worse off for the absence of this phrase (and that it will have a resurgence). I have read every book in Anonyma's library."
The story is shot through with references to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Anonyma reads to Rose and which Rose, unsurprisingly, takes to heart. "Metamorphoses" is also the title of the section in which Rose's childhood idyll begins to crumble with puberty, the sad lingering death of Geoffroy, and the increasing inability of literature to protect her from sweat, facial hair, and grotesqueries like the groping uncle who discovers her secret and drops dead on the spot. All the obvious Freudianisms here are played for comedy and tragedy at once, and magnified by Rose's failure to discover her true identity until she is a horny teenager. With the arrival of a DeMille-size cast of covetous and loathsome relatives, the plot grows increasingly picaresque and fanciful and Rose becomes ever more cynical and defiant until, in the emotional climax of the story, the invocations of Metamorphoses and the gnostic allusions to magical hermaphroditism and veiled identities prove not to be literary fripperies at all, but rather the keys to Rose's journey.
In a dramatic, lovely scene about two-thirds along, Rose finally achieves spiritual and erotic self-acceptance. The remaining third is a fun read, but it's a little anticlimactic, as Stace works doggedly to tie up a host of loose ends. That he manages to do so while also maintaining a mostly coherent story about Rose's reunion with his family of the heart, a motley crew who on some level share the struggle of surviving as individuals in a world split by gender and class, is impressive, and only a little headache-inducing considering the size of the cast.
For me, though, it was really all downhill after an interlude in Turkey, near the spring where in myth Ovid's Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis were joined into one being, both male and female. The book's most haunting section, it begins with the daughter of an English expat listening to the feverish ramblings of the half-conscious Rose and ends with an abortive suicide, as Rose tries awkwardly to unite his own dual natures in Ovid's magical waters. It made my head spin: I felt plunked down into the middle of a sort of transgender Ulysses with illustrations by Edward Gorey.
Rose's pilgrimage is both hallucinatory and visionary, nightmarish and welcoming, and Stace works to reflect that with everything in his arsenal, as gods and demigods and haunting memories become entangled with Rose's real rescuers, one of whom is a long-lost childhood friend. It's only here that you realize that, despite the purple prose that has gone before, he's been holding back and is capable of much more. These passages stand out dramatically amid the rest of this ornate novel of manners and manhood, yet their considerable weight is supported by the lighter thread that surrounds them.
Stace might have been able to tell his story in a more workaday language and setting, but a central part of his point, and Rose's, is that gender and class may create groups within society but in the realm of the individual there's no such thing as ordinary consciousness, nor an ordinary person: not one character in this book appears anything other than at once extremely singular and oddly archetypal. That's a notion so sober and worthwhile that it's worth every curlicue and flail to get there.
When: Wed 4/13, 7:30 PM
Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted
More: John Wesley Harding plays 4/13 at the Hideout; see Section 3.