Marcom, Micheline Aharonian (2008), The Mirror in the Well, Dalkey Archive.
A few months ago, I reviewed a slim little book on this blog, Menis Koumandareas’ Koula. It’s an austerely told tale of a middle-aged woman’s attempt to break free from the corset of her society by engaging in an affair with a younger man. The affair is doomed, and Koula returns into the rank and file of her society. The telling of the story somewhat reflects this, in that it is highly traditional, dry, almost prim. Another tale about “unhusbandly cock” (quote from the book) is told in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel The Mirror in the Well, which is somewhat longer than Koula, in terms of pages, but is also vastly more expansive in the way it treats its subject. It’s both simple and highly complex, it’s both a delightful, ecstatic postmodern fun-house and a tiresome “clever feminist novel”. One thing is clear: Marcom is a good, no, a very good writer. With that burden of ideas, a lesser writer would have collapsed midway, or produced a thoroughly dull exercise in dutiful thinking. The Mirror in the Well stays the course and even, towards the end, ups the ante, as the novel launches into a crescendo of voices and ideas that, in the final chapter, quietly implodes. Is it a good book? I don’t know.
As I look through the book now, I notice that it depends on my mood whether the good or the bad elements dominate my impression. See, the novel could be right up my alley. I love passionate, exciting books that are also clever and full of ideas. On these counts, the novel delivers. It tells us the story of a married woman’s sexual awakening, in a way that impressed me immensely. In contrast to the solution many writers choose, of letting the social expressions of the affair, like changed behavior, or inward expressions, like longing, desire (in a rather abstract way), jealousy etc. tell the story. In those books, the invariably erratic behavior of the cheating housewife points to her mixed up inner life, and various metaphors, hints, and even one or two chaste depictions of the sexual act are all that we are provided with when it comes to deeper descriptions or examinations of the woman’s motivations, of what it is exactly that ‘sexual awakening’ signifies. Make no mistake, I am not panning these books, there are many of them that are well worth reading or even masterpieces. I was, however, glad to see Marcom take a different tactic.
From the second page, we are not just talking about “a blurred picture of Eros”, we receive detailed descriptions of the sexual act and of the importance of that act. What we see is a woman’s first experience of cunnilingus, as she gets “her cunt licked and sucked”. The importance of having the man lie in front of her, prostrate, eating her, because “she doesn’t want to fuck”, but that act is far from an ersatz fuck; on the contrary, her lover’s mouth upon “her nether mouth” enables her to enjoy herself, opens up new vistas for her. It liberates her, or rather: it opens up a path to liberation for her. As she sways to and fro between her lover(s) and her husband, between different kinds of love, the fact that her lover will perform cunnilingus on her, and her husband will not, is an important and, in the end, decisive difference. On the contrary, as we learn in an aside, when they still had sex, she had to suck him off and have anal sex with him. Marital sex, we’re told, was all about him and not about her at all. Her lover, however, displays a great capacity for serving her needs, putting her wants and desires before, presumably, his.
All of this is not hid between flowerbeds of description and metaphor; although Marcom’s landscapes and other exteriors are highly sexualized, her depictions of the sexual act are descriptive, plain, detailed and highly explicit. We do not just read that he eats her, we are also told, in detail, how. Metaphors, when they are used at all, do not serve to illustrate the act, but to add other elements to the explicit descriptions already in place, such as is the case when the woman, dangling her cunt in front of his face, imagines her labia hanging down, “slapping” his face like the “hull of a ship”.
There are two things this image evokes, in the context of the novel. One, her shame as far as her own body is concerned. At that point, she has come a long way, from being “ashamed of her desires, her stink” to enjoying the “scent of her cunt” later in the book, so much, indeed, that, at one point, she rubs it under her nose for it to keep her company in the daytime. But her unease with the flesh never goes away. To Marcom’s credit, too, her lovers are never beautiful fashion magazine models, into which many writers are wont to turn objects of desire in their books. Instead, Marcom almost revels in the folds of the flesh, in the fat of bellies, in smelly breath, in piss and cum. For her female protagonist, it’s less a question of reveling than a constant struggle. Her acceptance of others’ flesh is, as with most of us, tied to her acceptance of her own flesh, this, however, is subject to constant changes. Whenever she feels guilty, when society digs its claws deeper in her psyche, she develops a revulsion for bodies, she even dries up, so that, at times, she ends up with a “desiccate and moral cunt”.
The other thing that the ship imagery evokes, is myth, in this case especially the tales surrounding and including the Odyssey and especially the complex relationships between wives and the returning husbands therein, the two most pertinent examples probably being Agamemnon and Odysseus. Myth can be hampering in books like this: feminist novels tend to contain a horribly tedious, well-meaning but ultimately hokey web of mythical stories that emphasize the Feminine, which, in terribly essentialist manner is taken to mean the creative principle, as opposed to the destructive, male principle, etc. etc. etc.. We all know the drill. This book, too, is a spendthrift where spiritual or mythical references are concerned, we even get a creation story which, for me, is the low point of the book. There’s just no way to employ these myths gainfully, or at least in a way that doesn’t suck completely (if there is, I haven’t yet encountered it). And, in The Mirror in the Well, it’s all over the place. The least obtrusive but ubiquitous way that it surfaces is in the way that, from a certain point on, the woman starts to refer to herself and her lover: as Gods. Although this, too, is somewhat hokey, it’s also the only reason why the myth-making doesn’t completely ruin the book:
See, at the end of the day, the novel is, in the (by now) traditional postmodern manner, about telling stories. From the first, the reader is on his toes, as far as narrative techniques are concerned, because of the way that references and address swivels around. For 4/5ths of the novel, the lover is referred to as “you”, except in phrases that have the woman as subject, where he turns into a “he” or “the lover”. The woman, too, has changing names. Sometimes she’s “the woman”, sometimes “the girl”. As these descriptions change towards the end of the book, we learn that it has to do with self-possession and control, which, by what feels like a very cheap meta-fictional ‘conceit’ (very chichi), is revealed at the end to include narrative control, which is all I’m prepared to divulge at this point. Yes, this strenuous cleverness is another weakness of the book, but the two weaknesses, myth and meta-fiction, provide support for each other, because they illuminate aspects that would not be clear otherwise. On the one hand, myth is not just a story that we tell ourselves, in the case of the woman, the power relations inherent in religious tradition are put to good use to illustrate the importance of cunnilingus in this novel, by showing, explicitly, how the telling of this story and its content are intertwined, which then lends a heightened significance to the meta-fictional devices.
In closing, I want to remark, however briefly, upon the writing. Marcom uses an extremely simple style, in the sense that I had the impression that she used a strongly limited vocabulary, evading any synonyms to words previously used. Thus, words resurface so often that they create a kind of music, really. This effect is amplified by the idiosyncratic punctuation, which does not primarily follow rules of grammar, but rather breathing patterns. Like a good poet, Marcom controls the speed with which the reader reads certain paragraphs or phrases. The resulting musical pattern is so close to ecclesiastic music, that I was not surprised to see poems from the Sufi tradition quoted in the book and quotes from, among others, the great Martin Buber, precede the novel. In connection with the celebration of her cunt and the spirituality, this can appear tacky to some readers. I enjoyed it, because it provides the novel with an almost manic energy.
Sure, this novel is not for everyone, but it’s certainly worth reading, if you can stomach the tackiness. Marcom fills her short novel with so much: class, race (I have remarked upon neither, but they are wildly important, too) and gender; her approach to sexuality is remarkable in that it’s neither prude nor cheaply pornographic, and her energy can be riveting. Sometimes, though, I can see myself hating the novel, because its faults do carry a certain weight, in my eyes. Yet, whatever the (de)merits of the book Marcom is clearly an excellent writer. Her reluctance to resort to easy solutions is praise- and noteworthy. That, in the end, in The Mirror in the Well, liberation may come at the cost of freedom, is perhaps the most remarkable, but not the only consequence of Marcom’s work as a thinker.