Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Catherynne M. Valente, author of the acclaimed novel The Labyrinth, as well as Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, Apocrypha, and Oracles, all published by Prime Books. Catherynne recently sold a four-book series of fairy tales to Bantam/Dell.
Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal
a guest review by Catherynne M. Valente
In this postmodern world of meta-narrative and fractured plotlines, books-within-books and fictional footnotes, it's rare to find a book that holds to convention which such white-knuckle ferocity as Susann Cokal's second novel, Breath and Bones.
I'd like to say it's brave, radical simplicity, a return to solid, un-pretentious literature, but I can't.
In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was once, very briefly, a student of Ms. Cokal's at Cal Poly SLO. I went into this book with solid expectations, and was astounded at every turn by the sheer audacity of the awfulness laid out in the pages of Breath and Bones.
The protagonist, with predictable "flaming red hair," "sapphire eyes," and "ruby lips" (all phrases which I humbly submit should be officially excised from the Allowable Novel Phrases as a Triumvirate of Evil) is Famke, a Danish beauty who dutifully follows the storyline we have come to expect from such women: she is raised in a convent where she discovers her first quotidian twinges of sexuality with the other girls, so that her story will have an edgy spark of lesbianism. However, with equal typicality, she finds that Sapphism essentially unsatisfying. (I mean, we all know that a penis is necessary for that "shimmering feeling Down There," don't we? I wish I were kidding. That's a direct quote, complete with Capitalization.) A good girl at heart, she is called "wild" by the nuns for no particular reason other than her good looks and a particularly melodramatic scene involving exploding soap (again, not kidding. In hindsight, I believe the exploding soap was actually foreshadowing) and forced into a life of one partner after the other in the exotic Old West--where she hits, the jacket promises, all the major landmarks: gold mines, Mormons, California spa towns, and brothels--after her heartless Pre-Raphaelite lover, Albert, leaves her with nothing after using her as a model for his masterpiece. Of course, his letter telling her he loves her and wants her back arrives just as she's left for America to look for him...does this sound familiar? It should--you can find it on Lifetime any day of the week.
This is a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre.
The problem is, Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person. She is careless in the sense of Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan--in her selfish pursuit of the man who left her, she ruins the lives of countless people, even causes the death of a few, and actually vandalizes her lover's paintings in a very precious attempt to "improve" them. She has no ambition but to be a model for this man, and the endless pages of her masturbatory daydreaming about how wonderful it will be to take care of him and hold still for all eternity are truly nauseating. But everyone, everyone falls in love with her, because she is just the most beautiful thing that ever lived. They fall in love with her at first sight, and they search the world for her until they die. She doesn't even have to say a word. When she is reduced to prostitution, her john is happy just to look at her, and asks for no more. This is facile, flaccid storytelling that even fairy tales would decry. Breath and Bones is full of such precious and convenient scenes, scenes which verge on salacious material, but just cannot take the leap. In fact, the story opens with a group of people who have had her body embalmed so that they can all look at it as much as they like--there was the seed of a truly disturbing and fascinating story, there. It's too bad Cokal was more interested in creating this high-class Mary Sue without an ounce of Daisy Buchanan's strength of character.
Yet, while this cliched romance-novel set up is adhered to with loyalty verging on religion, it has an essentially conservative bent. Famke does not really enjoy sex and engages in it with anyone other than Albert only with reluctance. Her first orgasms are practically forced via 19th century vibrating machines. In by far the novel's most disgusting and disturbing turn, Famke cannot even cease referring to her genitals as "Down There" and sex as "that shimmering feeling Down There" when she has had sex with many men and the previously mentioned machine. This bizarre infantilization is part of what turns Breath and Bones into the exploits of a vapid fool traipsing about the Old West with all the entitlement of Paris Hilton, her obsession and bad behavior rewarded time and time again, simply because she is beautiful. Yet we are given no reason to assume this is satire, no knowing narrator to tell us we are walking through Vanity Fair, that we are meant to believe Famke is rotten--on the contrary, over and over she is shown in an almost saintly light, right down to her over-dramatic, martyred end, which, by the way, involves a very large explosion that packs all the subtlety of, well, any large explosion. Famke is the whole of this novel, and while Cokal may want us to believe her Danish lass a Becky Sharp, she falls far short of the mark, and leaves the story rudderless.
Breath and Bones is truly, shockingly bad. Nothing about it struck the right note, and much of it was nonsensical--for example, like any self-respecting romantic heroine, Famke is consumptive. Though she has TB from a very young age, an advanced enough case to vomit up blood quite frequently, she miraculously fails to infect her entire boat full of immigrants, anyone on Ellis Island, on successive trains, or in successive brothels. She has Hollywood TB, you see, where it simply makes you attractively weak and pale but isn't an infectious disease that ravaged half the world. Considering that Cokal's last novel, Mirabilis, concerned a miraculous, perpetually-lactating woman who never experienced nipple-chafe or back problems, I wonder if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all. Even laying this, and the rest of the ridiculous plot, aside, the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks, replete with punishable clichés and punishing us with a grown woman's voice that sounds like a 13-year-old diarist bemoaning her True Love Lost. It falls prey to that most cloying of realist traps: the novel about someone Having Sex in Exotic Locales, or Exotic Sex in Repressive and Boring Locales, which sums up just about half of 20th century literature. Cokal does nothing to raise her above the throng.
I recall Cokal instructing us on one of the few days I spent in her class before shuffling my schedule, telling us that writing isn't fun, it's work, and if we're having fun, we're not professionals. I didn't care for the sentiment then, but now I think she was right. Her writing isn't fun, it's work, and working through 350 pages of brain-clawing cliche and the faux-wise ruminations of the lovechild of Miss Hilton and Betty Boop was just too much for this reviewer to stomach.