Review by Alan DeNiro
Its hard to pull off allegorical fiction, especially when theres a polemical edge to the allegories. In the five stories of this collection, the ideas themselves are given tactility and heft. The protagonists mostly women negotiate these ideas as in a darkened room, fumbling for the light switch. The problem is and Duchamp effectively dramatizes this as all of our problem is that there may or may not be a light switch in the first place. The power might be out, the switch might have been yanked out, who knows.
Dancing at the Edge sets these issues into motion most lyrically. <ugh> Emma Persimmon has always been able to see an Edge on, well, the edge of her sight. Even as a small child she has a curious relationship with it: Suddenly able to crawl, she raced to enter it only to discover that touching it made it recede (or even banish altogether). Being able to see what others cant, her life stays unhinged until she meets a striking woman, Violet, who can also see the Edge. She, however, calls it a Seam, and unfurls for Emma the intricacies of a transgressive world that nearly everyone also can see but chooses to ignore, in favor of mundanities. This shift from Edge to Seam is an example of what makes Duchamps stories so appealing the allegories are at times messy, at least in the minds of the protagonists, and there is rarely a one size fits all solution.
Unfortunately, the story that follows, The Gift, is the one unsuccessful story in the collection. Set in the far flung future world of Blue Downs, it involves Florentine, a travel writer, who is returning to the staid, elegant, and unbelievably wealthy world in which she first cut her journalistic and sensory teeth. She then falls in love with a young singer who is caught into the web of complex gender relations on the planet, which both smothers artists and makes art possible in the first place. Although there are many intriguing ideas floating about, The Gift is the one story in which the allegory and the characters work against each other, rather than nourish each other. Florentine, frankly, is boring in her nearly all-knowing ways, and her problems are boring on an Updikean scale.
The collection dives back into the thick of things with The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi. The story feels a little like an H.D. poem set into motion. It might be that her stories gain their tensions when the women are castoffs, down on their luck, ill-considered geniuses, or all of the above. In 1626 Florence, this is certainly the case for Isabetta Cavazzi. As in her contribution to Leviathan 3, the spectacular Fools Tale, Ducham excels at weaving the documentary tone with fabulism. There is an interplay between the hardness of truth (or at least fictional appearance of the truth), and the softness of relevatory or gnostic occurences. However, these are hardly literal demarcations, and the writing feels very aware of the precariousness of these 1st person voices of authority. The Apprenticeship gives Isabetta the chance to explain how she matures (albeit fitfully) in a world in which sanctity and witchcraft might very well be the same spriritual commodities. Which is easy to pull off in a contemporary setting; less so in a hermetic, stifling culture, but Duchamp pulls it off brilliantly.
The tiniest story in the collection, Lord Enochs Revels, follows, but it is a striking change of pace and mood from the rest of the rather sprawling pieces. Win flows from fountains and time passes slowly in the party in and around Enochs castle. Well, kind of. The story itself shudders to a quick halt, and our sensibilities are interrupted. Different tasks call for different tools; Lord Enochs Revels put into high relief the techniques of the other stories, proving they are far more than roccoco ornamentation.
None moreso than The Heloise Archive, the keystone of the book. Obstenibly a series of epistles between 12th century Abelard and Heloise, theologian and abbess respect ively, we are prsented with a curious, slightly off-kilter opening, with explanatory footnotes throughout. Through correspondence, we discover that the two have become lovers, and Heloise has born his child. A testing of the parameters of patriarchy ensues in the graceful, fierce voice that is in many of these stories.
Then things start getting a little nutty. Heloise is visited by Nuntia, an angel (who is not truly an angel, we are duly told), who reveals to Heloise quite a bit about the wrongheaded assumptions propogated by the Church hierarchy. Heloise is enlisted to essentially turn the world upside down not only with women in the church, but women in society as a whole. The story then moves to the brink of collapsing under the weight of its own allegory, but miraculously pulls it off, in an understated ending that puts all the components into place and sets them flying in motion. Its a remarkable achievement to turn edges into seams at the turn of a few words, and Duchamp does this throughout the collection. Loves Body, Dancing in Time creates curious little ornithopters of story and sets them free, allowing feminisms speculations to come into play.
10 August 2004
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