Deep Purple
Mayra Montero
Ecco, 2003, ISBN 0066214203, 192 Pages, Hardcover $22.95. [Browse/Purchase]

The Book of Dead Birds
Gayle Brandeis
HarperCollins, 2003, ISBN 0060528036, 256 Pages, Hardcover $23.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Blair Mahoney

While there are many disparate elements to these two recently published novels from HarperCollins, both have the distinction of being the recipients of relatively obscure literary prizes. Mayra Montero’s novel, Deep Purple (originally published in Spanish as Púrpura profunda), gained her the “Sonrisa Vertical” award for erotic fiction; and Brandeis’ novel, The Book of Dead Birds, was the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver.
There is a profusion of awards in the current literary marketplace, many of them little known. In terms of publicity, there are only a few that attract the attention of the general public. These are the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has the advantage of the Nobel “brand” and association with the inevitable controversy over the winner of its sibling award for “Peace”; the Pulitzer Prize, which is awarded in the largest market for English-language literature and also has well-established brand recognition; and England’s Man Booker Prize (known usually, no doubt to the distress of its new sponsor, just as the “Booker”), which generates an extraordinary amount of international coverage – even in the United States, whose writers are just about the only ones in the world not eligible.
Smaller awards such as the Sonrisa Vertical and the Bellwether Prize may never get the attention of the general media, but they do serve a useful function. Of course, there’s the prize money – always welcome to a struggling author – but more importantly, they provide an imprimatur of quality, marking the work as an outstanding representative of a particular type. The Book of Dead Birds won the Bellwether Prize before publication, so is able to advertise the fact on its dustcover, along with an approving quote from Barbara King solver attesting to the lyricism and intelligence of the book. For those unfamiliar with the prize, the flap informs the browsing book-buyer that the Bellwether is awarded to a work that “displays social responsibility,” indicating something of Brandeis’ subject matter.
The prize won by Mayra Montero’s Deep Purple, however, is well outside the bounds of “social responsibility.” The Sonrisa Vertical (its amusing name means “Vertical Smile”) is a Spanish international prize for erotic fiction, won by Montero after the initial publication of Púrpura profunda in 2000. However, the prize is not advertised on the dustcover of the novel, which prefers to quote praise for her earlier works from the “quality press,” including the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. This strategy of not mentioning an award may be a move by the publishers to avoid any taint of a “lesser genre” – particularly erotic fiction – and instead promote the intellectual and literary qualities of the work. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time an author was slightly embarrassed about an endorsement; witness Jonathan Franzen’s famous reaction to his selection in Oprah’s Book Club.
Despite any possible attempts to downplay the erotic nature of Deep Purple, the novel is suffused with sex. It is the story of a San Juan music critic, Agustín Cabán, who attempts to fill the void of his retirement by writing his memoirs – in reality, an account of his numerous affairs, carried out with the very musicians he reviewed for his newspaper. Like Don Giovanni’s list, his census forms a United Nations of erotic conquests, and includes Antiguan violinist Virginia Tuten, Australian pianist Clint Verret, celeste player Alejandrina Sanromá, and the German/Portuguese violinist Manuela Suggia, who “played with hatred, with a merciless way of dominating the instrument, the music, and herself.”
As in The Book of Dead Birds, the process of writing itself is foregrounded, and we get the tale of writing the tale. The metafictional aspects of the novel are somewhat reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s narrative technique in Midnight’s Children, wherein the narrator is subject to constant interruptions by an auditor (standing in for the reader in some respects) as he struggles to compose the book we are reading. But whereas in Midnight’s Children, Padma constantly criticizes Saleem for his erratic and digressive narrative, our critic here – Agustín’s former editor Sebastián – attempts to shift the direction of the narrative by imploring Agustín to elaborate on his homosexual encounters:

“Tell me about Clint Verret.” Sebastián leaned over my shoulder to look at the computer screen. There was my piece, the continuation of my mad history with Virginia Tuten. “Or didn’t anything happen with Verret?”
“I can’t go jumping from one story to the other,” I replied.
“Just Verret’s. Do me that little favor: write his story, and that way you’ll take a break from the violinist.”

Later in the novel there are further attempts by Sebastián to influence Agustín’s story:

Sebastián announced that he would go back to his desk and let me write.
“Just one thing,” he added. “How does that little number on the celeste end?”
I looked him up and down. He finally had succeeded in irritating me.
“What do you mean how does it end? It’s ended. Didn’t you realize that? Some things end happily.”
“You’re right. Now you need to tell me how it ended with Verret. I hope it had a sad ending; that’s the kind of story I like.”

When we do arrive at the ending of Deep Purple it is neither sad nor happy. As Agustín sums up the process he went through in writing his memoirs, he feels a resigned sense of ambivalence. His memoirs are a defensive structure, intended to shore up the account of his life against the entropy of death:

“None of these stories is worth anything on its own,” I protested sweetly, as if comforting a child. “There has to be a thread, Sebastián, something that goes from one skin to the other, without anyone’s knowing it, of course. In the end, you’re the only one who should see the stitch.”
“And you’ve just seen it...”
He tried to be ironic, but I really was saying good-bye.
“I’ve been seeing it for a while. Ever since I began to write. And now you’ve seen it too. It isn’t worth pretending: one dies twice. Or rather, our first death has to be organized in our own way, with our memories and our odds and ends, setting aside a single moment that’s the key to everything. And when we have that, the other death can’t touch us.”

The thread that goes from one skin to another in Deep Purple is the equivalence of pen and penis, with writing portrayed as a specifically male generative act. In this, it is again similar to Rushdie’s novel; but whereas the comically impotent Saleem laments his inability to adequately convey his tale, Agustín is almost ludicrously oversexed, and hints that one volume is not enough for his abundance of stories. The “maleness” of the writing act is undercut, however, by the reader’s extra-textual awareness that the author is female, and is engaging in an act of literary transvestism.
Writing may be linked with sex from the first sentence of the novel (“I cling to this brief piece of writing as if it were a woman’s body”), but the chief focus of Agustín’s amatory endeavors is music, which results in a fetishistic perception of his lovers and their instruments:

I would set only one condition: music had to be involved. A person has his whims; the fetishism of lips that have become muscular because they press against a mouthpiece, or the fetishism of thighs that accustomed to surrounding a cello, are always full of fiery intuition.

Agustín demands that violinists play naked in front of him, likens a soloist’s bedroom to a temple, and becomes more and more abject throughout the novel, descending into various humiliations at the hands of Virginia and Manuela in particular. Although he attempts to master his desires, ultimately he can only imprison them on the page by the act of writing.
Edith Grossman, translator of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and, most recently, a new edition of Don Quixote, has translated all of Montero’s novels, and she brilliantly conveys the uneasy and unsettling tone of Deep Purple. The novel is in some ways a departure from the “magical realism” and otherworldliness of Montero’s earlier works such as Palm of Darkness and The Red of his Shadow, both of which are set in Haiti and are immersed in the world of voodoo (or vaudou, or vodoun, depending on how it is rendered). But the erotic current running through Deep Purple has its origin in these novels, while their sense of violence has only become submerged, bubbling under the surface of Agustín’s sexual encounters.

Where Montero’s central character was unable to contain his sexual urges, Brandeis’ protagonist is characterized by her repression – something that she’s paradoxically acquired from her mother, despite her mother’s career as a prostitute. The repressed daughter is named Ava Sing Lo, and she provides a handy analysis of how she came to be so named:

My mother named me Ava because she liked how the English letters looked – the big A a beak pointed upward, the v a sharp slash of wings, the small a round and flat as a parrot’s eye. She chose the name even before she knew it had anything to do with birds – the letters spoke to her with their own hollow bones. Her family name was Song, but she chose Sing for us because – and this may be more my interpretation than hers – it sounded more active, like something that is happening, something alive in the throat, not something that has already been written down, sung a million times. I’m afraid I haven’t lived up to that part of my name yet.
The “Lo,” which I know I’ve lived up to (or, should I say, lived down to) comes from my mother’s mishearing of the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She had seen an American movie where a man in prison sang that song, and she thought he was saying “sing low,” his voice was so low, so gravely and dark.

Ava is the offspring of Hye-yang (or Helen), a Korean woman forced into prostitution on an American army base before being “rescued” by a young white American soldier. After marrying her and taking her to California, her new husband quickly abandons Hye-yang after she gives birth to a black daughter.
We enter the narrative after Ava has graduated from college. Reading about the plight of thousands of birds poisoned by agricultural run-off, she decides to head from her home in San Diego to the Salton Sea in order to lend her assistance. This first-person present narrative forms the bulk of the novel, as Ava meets the other environmental activists working there (in particular the love-interest Darryl) and the slightly peculiar inhabitants of the nearby town of Bombay Beach, where she rents a room. Interspersed with these chapters is an account of her mother’s life from the time when Hye-yang leaves her village looking for a new life, through her time as a prostitute and her journey to America.
Like Deep Purple, The Book of Dead Birds is concerned with the literary act of composition itself. Ava is writing a book (“my own under-the-bed book”) based on personal experience, but in this case she is writing about her mother’s history as well as her own life. As in Montero’s novel there is a connection between music and the process of literary composition, with Ava’s mother only able to tell her story through the medium of song:

Everything you sing, I remember, I write down – frantic notes and scribbles I hope I can flesh out on these pages, even if it scorches my own flesh in the process, even if the words have to claw their way out.

Books proliferate in this novel, as you might expect from the title. These books-within-the-book are differentiated through a range of different typefaces to separate the “now” of the novel being narrated in the first person by Ava; Hye-yang’s story, narrated in the third person (and what we come to understand is Ava’s account of her mother’s past, gleaned from her revelations in song); italicized excerpts from “Helen Sing Lo’s Book of Dead Birds,” which chronicles all of the pet birds her daughter has inadvertently killed (and which she struggles to atone for through her efforts at the Salton Sea); and various other excerpts from bird-related material such as Audubon’s Birds of America and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
The Book of Dead Birds is indeed lyrical and imaginative as Barbara Kingsolver attests on the dustcover, but it is a first novel and therefore understandably not as assured as Montero’s Deep Purple. The depiction of Ava’s excessive naïveté grates at times, and an intrusive sub-plot about a Salton Sea killer seems tacked-on and somewhat at odds with the main story. Ultimately, both books provide fascinating examples of female novelists writing “the other”: Montero writing as a libidinous man, and Brandeis writing as a Korean/African American. In each case the process of creation is exposed as the narrators document their struggle to get their stories across.

Blair Mahoney
30 January 2004

Additional Information

Better Sex Writing Please, We’re Spanish! – 29 January 2004, The Guardian. Giles Tremlett on the Sonrisa Vertical, the “Vertical Smile” award for Spanish-language erotic fiction.

Bellwether Prize – The homepage for Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, given “in support of a literature for social change.”

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.