This review takes the form of three colloquies between two readers who seek to understand the multiple meanings of this enormously rich novel.
I. Scenes and Adventures
You finished Remedia.
Terrific novel—characters, places, drama, linguistic acrobatics, mystery. But I would’ve read it just to get to that great ending.
Very elegiac. The whole book resonates in it. Made me think of those last minutes of Mahler’s Ninth.
I need to talk about this book.
Sure. We can start with Joyce’s subtitle, a picaresque, a rogue on the road adventure story, though his narrator isn’t really a rogue. There are lots of picaresques, but you have to think about Don Quixote.
OK, plenty of adventures alright, like Cervantes—in New York, Ireland, France, San Francisco, Iowa, the Utah desert. But our guy’s not on horseback.
No. His Rosinante takes various forms—ship, air, auto, and maybe the most memorable a brew of psychedelics that transports him halfway across the continent to an Amish colony in Iowa.
Wild. What about a sidekick like Quixote’s Sancho Panza?
The Goshute Indian Tokoa, though he doesn’t meet him at first. A very engaging vulgarian, worldly wise like Sancho but also given to mystery.
What about Quixote’s dreamboat, Dulcinea?
Ha! That’s a very funny question because our narrator’s Dulcinea is an earthy, foul-mouthed often lascivious Irish woman named Medb, Gaelic for intoxicating, here especially sexually intoxicating. Unlike Dulcinea, Medb is very real, even when she joins the desert sisterhood, which we’ll need to talk a lot about later. Meanwhile, our narrator had another lover, Laterna Magika, who’ll be very important when we talk about mission.
OK. But what about Quixote’s renunciation and return to sanity just before he dies? I don’t see that here exactly. But then I don’t have a complete grasp of the novel.
I’m not sure you’re supposed to. Not because there are loose ends narratively. Most of that gets tied up by the end. It’s because our narrator doesn’t venture forth to rid the world of miscreants, giants, witches, etc., like the Don. His is a very different, even more difficult mission. And he meets extraordinary people and witnesses extraordinary events that complicate his mission.
What is the mission exactly?
That’s the last big thing we’ll talk about. But next week the desert sisterhood. OK?
II. The Desert Sisterhood
The desert sisterhood. Will it embarrass you to talk to a woman about vaginal images?
No way. Once I accompanied a female colleague to a gallery to view Judy Chicago’s marvelous Star Cunt Series.
Really. What did you two talk about?
My companion was a Sybil. She prophesied: In the next century there will arise a second great writer, last name Joyce, who will dramatize these images in an unforgettable fiction. Your turn.
OK, we have three accounts of the sisterhood—the narrator’s, the photo spread in the German magazine Bild, and Magika’s multimedia show. I figure the Bild piece is just prurient sensationalism, but even it catches something of the power of the sister’s sculpted Sheela na gigs, which are way more primitive and scary to men than Judy Chicago’s beautiful versions. As for Magika’s show, just juiced up romanticization except that it creates some marvelous riffs, like “. . . turning the desert sky and stars into a sea of floating mirrors, as much like mouths as eyes, soft warm orifices shaped like the Sheela na gigs, through which swam sleek shining creatures . . .” Get it? As for the narrator’s version, he’s always searching, seeking. Here’s his description of the nuns’ cells: “There was the unmistakable scent of women’s bodies throughout the long shed of the convent, powdery, herbal bloody.”
OK, normally when you triangulate you nail the thing you’re looking for. But have we?
Remember the root of the sisterhood was not vaginal insistence but the search for a primordial silence that would overwhelm the horrible noises of the male world: “. . . the silence of some centered sense of being other than who you were.” So the sisterhood is as much sonic as vaginal, though both speak of prodigious depths.
Amazing conception. What went wrong?
To over simplify, the sisters started making their own noise, which led them from almost silent chanting to a bacchanalian screed. Magika’s show catches that lamentable transformation. Further, they succumb to expansionism and move outward into new territory.
Why these fatal mistakes?
Great question. Something to do with the unavoidable interpenetration of female and male, which challenges the very meaning of those words and gives special significance to the Amish patriarch and to the transsexual admitted to their group. Also something to do with the irreconcilable purity of silent being and our inescapable being in this noisy world. There’s much more we could cite and admire, but I think we’ve gone about as far as we can. It’s a distinctive mark of high modernism and now even more so in postmodernism that questions of meaning don’t get answered; they multiply.
Next and last, the narrator’s mission.
III. The Quest
Now the narrator’s quest.
Yes, it has to do with portals.
Portals, doors, windows, hatches, caves. There’re dozens of them.
Right. And the narrator sets the theme in first sentence: “I first saw one of the doors when I walked with my mother, my hand in hers, as a child of no more than three . . .”
Immediately the quest begins, to find the right portal.
What is the right portal?
I’ll tell you what it’s not, because there are false leads. It’s not an exit that just leads to the entrance to another stage. It’s not a mirror that just gives back what is already there. It’s not a grave, because that’s the end, not an entrance. It’s not a door that leads to another door, or a scrim peeled back only to reveal another layer, because that’s endless regression.
What about a camera’s eye? That’s on the cover.
Close. You can alter the camera’s image in a dark room, but ultimately it’s opaque, its depth illusory. A different, seminal instance involving the camera’s eye is the missing frame of the film in which the narrator appears as a homeless man. “That lost moment of slippage took on for me the form of longing, leaving me briefly overwhelmed by a vertiginous feeling of loss . . .”
This gets scary. I marked this. “Sometimes I think that the doors are the light of everything and that they only sometimes expand in ways that you can discern their apertures.” Makes me wonder if there can ever be the right portal. Where would it take you anyway?
In this book we don’t get to go through the right portal. To what? The Beatific Vision, Samadhi, Nirvana, the face of Allah?
Why don’t we?
I think because our narrator is thoroughly postmodern. He can never find the right portal and so he suffers the metaphysical angst typical of our age. Look. We have seen metaphysical angst dramatized with terrifying intensity in writers like Kafka and Beckett. But I have never in any other work seen that anguish expressed in so many forms and with such powerful insistence. It’s the essence of this novel.
I don’t think so. I believe that the fidelity of the novel to the idea of the right portal constitutes a tautological proof of its existence. Anything that deeply lodged in the mind and expressed with such power and beauty must by the persistent enigma of its absence guarantee its presence. So the elegiac ending we have both so admired comes not from the ontological absence of the right portal but from the realization that we cannot enter it in this life.
Tough, but Amen.
-Eugene K. Garber, author of The House of Nordquist, 2018