Honest. Beautiful. Unique.
Sigrid Nunez’s Feather on the Breath of God is the closest thing I’ve found to a perfect novel. I suspect I will read this book several times, reverse engineer it, and try to divine its secrets.
Some of the elements are easy to recognize. The book emphasizes fallible memory, fragmentation, free association, and montage–styles that resist attempts to totalize meaning. In my experience, many great novels walk that fine line between meaning and disorder. The writer teases meanings and coherence while presenting an impossible array of loose threads.
Above all, a great novel should be honest. This novel often feels like pure honesty.
One aspect of the novel in particular stands out. In each of the four sections of her book, the author brings in authoritative voices: musicians, writers, therapists; Hank Williams, Freud, T.S. Eliot, but also a female therapist.
Each of these voices holds out some promise that the narrator/author can find an authoritative meaning that brings order to her world. These voices punctuate the four sections of her book where she struggles to understand her Chinese Panamanian father, her German mother, come to terms with her life as a ballet dancer, and find meaning in adulthood. However, where these voices are supposed to provide order and meaning, they mostly end up intensifying her sense of fragmentation and longing.
The first section of the novel, involves the narrator in a search for meaning in her memories of her father. Her father is a mystery to her. As a man of Chinese descent who grew up in Panama and moved to the US, he works hard jobs and long hours for his family but is emotionally distant from them. He is a man mysteriously devoid of connections–memories, photos, and relatives. The narrator’s mother, Christa, tells her that her father used to like the country-folk singer Hank Williams: “Yes, of course I remember. It was Hank Williams. He played those records over and over. Hillbilly music. I thought I’d go mad” (p. 27). The thought of her father, a Chinese immigrant with limited understanding of the English language, finding joy in “Hillbilly music” makes for a sentimental but effective ending to the section. The section closes with a list of Hank Williams songs: “Here are the names of some Hank Williams songs” the narrator says:
“Honky Tonkin’. Ramblin’ Man. Hey, Good Lookin’. Lovesick Blues. Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do. Your Cheatin’ Heart. (I heard that) Lonesome Whistle. Why Don’t You Mind You Own Business. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. The Blues Come Around. Cold, Cold Heart. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You.” (p. 28)
The list is the last word on her father in the first section. As a reader, one would expect the song titles to reveal something important about the narrator’s father, something perhaps that was overlooked in the chapter. The list never fulfills this expectation. Instead, it accomplishes the opposite. The narrator presents the list haphazardly, without attempting to explain why she has listed these songs and not others, or why she has put them in this order, or even found them important enough to list. Rather than explain a man whose life has been a mystery to her, the titles only serve to deepen the contradictions and incoherence of her fragmented memory/representation of him. There seems to be a desperate nature to her listing of the song titles, a stretching for wholeness or completeness that does not exist.
The second part of the novel deals withthe narrator’s troubled relationship with her mother, Christa. Christa is in many ways the opposite of the father, a confident authoritative figure who is proud of her German roots. The narrator’s relationship with her mother, though very different than her relationship with her father, is no less conflicted. The narrator questions her loveless marriage, her nostalgia for Germany, and her perpetual cultural limbo. The section ends with a saying by Freud: “Freud says the most important event in a man’s life is the death of his father” (94). This time authoritative figures is Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, but also a theorist known for his fixation with the phallus and its many meanings. His statement is quickly qualified by the next phrase to come: “Oh, Mother” (94), which ends the second part. What are we to make of the narrator’s response “Oh, Mother”? Is it a rebuttal of Freud? As readers we are left to ponder what is missing, what remains loose and unruly–and Freud’s own shortcomings to bring meaning to the world.
One key to answering these questions can be found in her interaction with the world of ballet in part three. Within the confined world of the dance hall the author/narrator is able to find contentment she has never experienced before. And while the act can be seen as a way of transcending the problems of the real world, it can also be seen as a decision to leave a confusing and contradictory world for one that is more concise and ordered—a world that has a structure and an end: “When I first heard that there existed a book called Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, I thought it had to be about this: singleness of mind, of passion, of purpose; one love, one reason for being.” (p. 116). With the “singleness” she experiences in ballet, what she loses is the fragmentation of her life outside of the dance hall. Instead of her hybrid racial identity, she exists simply as a will in pursuit of artistic and bodily perfection.
The logic of the dancehall momentarily pushes problematic elements, such as race, gender, and poverty to the margins. Her obsession–which demands so much from her body and spirit–only recognizes one principle: “Work as hard as you can. Make it beautiful.” (116; italics in the original). However, once she is outside the dancehall, questions about gender and society emerge again: “But why don’t men go on point? And why does the woman in Serenade have to die?” (116).
The third part finishes again with the words of another person, this time T.S. Eliot. “I want to get down something T.S. Eliot said: Human beings are capable of passions that human experience can never live up to” (118). Again, we see the presence of an outside voice, and again, that voice is a male (first Hank Williams, then Freud, and now T.S. Eliot). However, this time the quotation does not seem entirely disconnected or sarcastic. T.S. Eliot’s meditation on the tragic nature of life seems to frame not only the section, but the entire novel. The narrator’s father grasping at air as his last act can be seen as a physical manifestation of Eliot’s sentiment, as can the narrator/author’s own romance with a troubled Russian immigrant, or even the author/narrator’s own wish to be a ballerina.
However, this quote seems at best a haphazard characterization of her experience, and we see from the context of the scene that the narrator/author is reaching desperately for an explanation: “I will sit there all through the night, I will smoke all the cigarettes, and in the morning I will cross the courtyard to answer questions about the tragic sense of life” (118). Night, the smoking of many cigarettes, and the final answering after these acts signify the very real tragedy of understanding traumatic experience: mainly, the impossibility of making pain meaningful.
In the fourth and last part of the book, the authoritative voice is at last a female. The authoritative voice comes toward the end, but is not the final word as are other statements throughout the novel. Her female therapist says:
“A background like that, no wonder you’re here. You don’t know who you are!” Then she added, more to herself than to me: “Still, there must have been something good back there: It must have come from the father.”” (178).
The statement does not take the form of an explanation, but rather, a judgment of her past. This judgment helps build an animosity toward the therapist which later delegitimizes her very valid questions about her motivation for dating a troubled Russian immigrant. Because of her past experiences with experts, authorities, and other subjects who are “supposed to know” the narrator/author has given up on the possibility that an authority will ever provide satisfactory answers. By this time, the reader has either consciously or unconsciously come to realize that the understanding the narrator/author desires is not a kind of theoretical structuring or rationalization of her experience, but rather, empathy, identification, and validation.
What are we to make of these authoritative voices? Do they simply point to the failings of authority and power? Are they simply ironic markers for a journey with too many unruly elements? Whether it is Hank Williams, Freud, T.S. Eliot, or the female therapist, in each case there is an honest search for answers. As the narrator/authors says, “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing” (93).
Like great novel should, its many fragments add up to something more–something that both suggests completeness and that resists authoritative explanations. It resists the comforting words of experts, authorities, and others who are supposed to have the answers. Instead of an authoritative explanation, what we are left with is honest memories, pure emotion, and the therapeutic act of expression.