While reading The Ravickians, I kept comparing Ravicka to New York City. Part of what makes New York such an impressive city is the way it swells with people each day (tourists, businesspeople, etc.), providing the city a vitality that would not exist without the constant influx of visitors. These people provide life for the architecture, filling the offices of skyscrapers, cramming on a boat on their way to see the Statue of Liberty, or waiting for the next train at the subway. This lack of vitality seems to be the problem, since it’s not the decrease in people that the narrator is concerned with, but the constant number of residents. “‘Is it very bad?’ He asks me about the news, though he knows the answer as well as anyone does. ‘Nothing has changed so much, Bezul'” (81). The fact that it is unchanging is “very bad.” The static population signifies a lack of life, just as a static line on a heart monitor does. It doesn’t seem that the architecture in this book is changing, but it does seem like the architecture is dying, having been rendered obsolete. I always imagine the people arriving in New York in the morning to represent the city taking a deep breath, its lungs (the architecture) filling up with oxygen (people), and exhaling at the end of the day.
This novel, much more than the others we have read this semester, seems interested in the expression of language and, more broadly, communication. The narrator is a linguist and is inherently concerned with these concepts, but the inclusion of these themes resonates beyond the narrator. Language is working, as far as I could tell, in three main ways:
1. Body language. The novel, particularly toward the beginning, spends a great deal of time explaining movement. I originally thought this was separate from language, but as I read further, it became clear that they are one and the same. On page 31, the narrator remembers that the salsa dancer had said, “‘You can’t do this without movement,’ and at the time I believed she was coaching me… But now I wonder if she was referring to life in this city.” Life here, though, does depend upon movement, since their communication relies just as heavily upon movement as it does what is spoken. Later on in the novel, the narrator says, “in high Ravickian form he began to gesticulate dramatically, to ‘hide the story in the dance,’ as they say there” (76-77). Movement complicates, obscures, and mystifies language, but this is done so purposefully. These two are deeply intertwined, and so the statement “You can’t do this without movement” holds true.
2. The art of hello. There are an absurd number of greetings in this novel. Characters say “hello” over and over, and in some instances are reintroduced moments after they have already met. In the conversation between the narrator and Dar when they first meet, pages 43-44, they say some sort of greeting to each other seven times. In another instance, the narrator states, “I could say ‘hello’ fifteen times to the same person and every time she would say ‘hello’ back” (112). I am not sure of the significance of this in the novel, but because it is so present and repetitive, it must have some importance to the novel.
3. Performance of language. We have spent lots of time discussing the nature of performance this semester, but our discussions have mostly been based on gender performance. While there is some of that in this novel (the narrator’s gender is remarkably ambiguous with only a few moments of clarity), most of what is performed is language. If the goal of movement is to “hide the story in the dance,” then both the dance (the body language) and the story (the verbal language) are performances. The one communicating is doing the performing, and the one receiving the communication is the audience, or interpreter. This leaves me with several questions: Does this type of performance relate to gender performance? Are they in some ways related? What is the novel trying to say about performance?
What strikes me most while I’m reading In the House are not the other-worldly, surreal moments, but the moments that stay true to the world as we know it. I find that because the vegetables in the wife’s garden cannot grow because she forgot to sing worms into existence to make the soil fruitful is more fascinating than the fact that the wife can sing things into existence. This world Bell has created depends upon the aspects of the world he changes, as well as the aspects in which these things remain the same.
The best moment of this that I can find is on page 229, when the husband, upon seeing his wife again in the deep house says, “all I wanted in return was for her to speak some part of what I had come so far to hear: my own name returned, perhaps, or else an accusation, best followed by the terms of my eventual forgiveness.” This moment really threw me off. Forgiveness seems to be much too normal of an expectation given these extraordinary circumstances. My reaction to this moment was to postulate how she would even forgive him. What would she say? How is someone forgiven after they’ve done everything that the husband has done? Most bluntly, why would she forgive him?
The desire to be forgiven remains, but the ability to earn forgiveness is taken away. Perhaps the visit to the deep house (or underworld, as we’ve been discussing in class) is his attempt to prove himself worthy of her forgiveness, and that is why he seems to expect it once they are reunited. But it seems like the real and the unreal cannot coexist, at least not all the time.
In class, we have been discussing the role the unconscious plays in our understanding of the “deep house.” It is a place of darkness, memory, and repression, an actualization of Freud’s theorizations of the unconscious, or the “id” of the self. In Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams, which I read in ENG 271, he argues that dreams are the manifestation of our unconscious and that they reveal important things about the past in meaningful and symbolic ways. Although I am not Freud’s number one fan, I do think this concept is at work in the novel. There are three pieces to dream analysis: content from the previous day, content from childhood (or in this case, more generally the past), and somatic, or bodily, content. In the deep house, the narrator experiences all of these things; it is a mingling of the past, the present, and the somatic. Each room is a memory, something specific and significant that informs the reader of the narrator’s internal state on a much deeper level (literally). Each of the four main elements seems to have a deepness about them, possibly representing the dark unconscious that lies within us and all things. Dreams afford the dreamer the ability to confront the issues of their past indirectly (i.e. while they are asleep rather than awake), and in this same way the narrator is able to indirectly confront his past. The present content, in this way, is the search for his wife, the knowledge of the bear, etc. He takes all of these things with him in his journey to the deep house (and outside of the deep house, when it seems like his exploration of the deep lake and deep woods also involves delving into the unconscious), and they inform his experience. Lastly, the fingerling is the somatic, the constant physical reminder of what is on his mind. Freud claims that the incorporation of the somatic can indicate important messages to the dreamer. The fingerling making the husband unable to walk does this in a simple, yet effective, way. It is a manifestation of his fears, causing a sort of fear-based paralysis. Additionally, its constant presence and the pain that it causes seems to symbolize an internal conflict (again, literally) with who he is and the choices he has made.
These scenes surrounding the deep house reflect a strange passing of time, something that is inconsistent with reality. They take on a dream-like quality, which is why I feel the Freudian analysis is relevant.
“I guess I must have closed my eyes. Because I didn’t see the book hit my face. But I heard it hit, if you can imagine. It made a sound against my face. I can’t describe the sound it made. But imagine, if you can, the sound” (61).
This passage, from the story “Underthings,” connects to what we’ve been talking about in class and to Barthes’ “Inexpressible Love.” The narrators of these stories consistently resort to clarifying their meaning, or rather expanding upon their original meaning. This moment in “Underthings,” though, does this quite differently and in an important way. Rather than calling upon herself to conjure up an image/idea/concept for the reader, the narrator is asking the reader to imagine. “Imagine, if you can, the sound.” She is indicating that there is a gap between what can be imagined and what can be expressed, particularly with words. Some experiences cannot be given meaning with words, then. When the narrator in “Cowboys” declares, “There is no intentional metaphor in this story” (28), we discussed the possibility that she’s ensuring nothing in this story (or, potentially, any of the stories). When the narrator asks the reader to “imagine, if you can, the sound,” she is refraining from forcing metaphors or false meaning upon her readers. If language will not do the experience justice, then she will call upon the reader to fill this gap.
This connects to Barthes’ ideas in “Inexpressible Love”:
“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive subversion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it)” (99).
Some attempts at expression of what is almost inexpressible (in Barthes’ example, love) will not be genuine. Words may assign too much meaning to an event, feeling, moment, or sound, causing a distortion that does not stay true to the intention or purpose of the thing. In the same way, language can strip away meaning. As a personal example, I often write about experiences I’ve had. There are some, though, that I just can’t seem to put into words without distorting them so much that the meaning on the page is fundamentally different than the meaning I feel. How is the narrator going to explain what the sound of the book hitting her face was? It sounds like the sound of a book hitting a face, and that’s as thoroughly as she can explain it. I do not believe this idea of language being always too much or too little, but there are certain things – perhaps the things that are most personal – that just can’t be put into words.
One of the most prevalent themes in these first four stories (and most relevant to our previous class discussions) is that of gender as performance. One moment stuck out to me in particular:
And as I stepped out of the car I was suddenly some very small thing, by which I mean I was suddenly a woman to this guy, absorbing these names reserved for women, standing there in the downpour, reduced to something snail small and just as tightly coiled. (8)
This passage reflects the performative qualities of gender, but more importantly, it comments on how gender is just as much determined by how one is perceived by others as it is by performance. In this story (and in the others as well), the main character/narrator’s gender is ambiguous, and this passage is the moment where it becomes clear that she is in fact a woman. It’s not her performance that indicates to the reader whether she is male or female, but it is the way this man treats her and thinks of her that enlightens us. She feels, with his eyes on her, that she becomes “some very small thing,” not just to him but to herself. She feels her own transformation, and she moves from ambiguity to clarity – she becomes a woman.
Gender is accompanied, then, by things outside of oneself, things outside of the performative realm. The “names reserved for women” that she absorbs, the negative ones, are assigned to her – there is a lack of choice involved. Later in the story, she absorbs the positive “names reserved for women, certain other names I’d been called before and would be called again” (9) – also without choice. Regardless of positive or negative connotations, these names reduce her – like “something snail small and just as tightly coiled.” Words associated with a gender say nothing about the person, and they limit the person, in this case a woman, to the (oversimplified) qualities of that gender.
She becomes “suddenly a woman to this guy,” and her ambiguity is gone, and her desire to be a guy is unattainable. Because this guy sees her as a woman, she is a woman. According to this passage (and these stories in general), it seems that gender reduces and ambiguity enhances.
Zvominir, not a central focus of our discussions thus far, seems to stand out quite a bit in this last section. As Jenn points out, once Morgan leaves, the focus shifts to the other characters and we can see all of them a bit more completely. Zvominir is significant, I believe, because he is one of the only characters (if not the only one) who actively loves. There is love between Morgan and his swans, but once the RedBlacks kill his pets, that love transforms into hatred and revenge. Mrs. Giggs loved Charlie, as we understand in greater detail from chapter 54, but now that he is gone, her love morphs into self-loathing and overprotection. Neither Jane nor Katherine really love Morgan — they may want to (particularly Katherine), but he keeps that from happening. Jane wants Morgan’s love (or at least dedication) because a) he is the father of her unborn child, and b) he is the figurehead for her anarchic movement. Katherine, it seems, wants to love him. “If she were to be in love, she needed to be more than just a body to her lover” (253). She is dedicated to him and pursuant, but he hasn’t given her anything more than his body for her to be in love with.
Zvominir, on the other hand, proves his love for Morgan transcends all the bad things between them. Despite getting his girlfriend pregnant, killing Tom, consorting with the gypsies, persistently provoking the RedBlacks, and disregarding his father’s wishes, Morgan is never denied his father’s love. He searches for his son in the tunnels every night, sends him bird messages, and can’t even concentrate on his de-birding duties. He is overcome by grief, but he never lets his grief become more powerful than his love. “Zvominir roamed the tunnels every night, crawling through the hole in Morgan’s room to search the caverns, a bent and broken man who couldn’t sleep, who cried into the darkness, and blamed himself for failing as a father” (323). The moment that most reveals his love, however, is when he and Jane, Ezekiel, and Jim are having dinner together and Jane tells him how great a cook Morgan is. Morgan, earlier in the novel (on a page I can’t seem to find at the moment) wishes that he could show his dad how well he can cook, so he would be proud of him. Zvominir’s reaction to learning of his son’s abilities are touching: “He started crying. I hardly knew my son, he said, and now he’s gone. He felt ashamed of sobbing, and yet he couldn’t stop; tears poured out on their own, as if a pipe had burst somewhere” (327). Morgan craves his father’s approval (because he is always restraining his artistic expression with the birds), and only once he is gone is he able to attain it. This love is unique to Zvominir’s character. He is depicted as a meek and timid character, but he is the only one who can love unconditionally.