August 2012

Christopher Merkel


Gun Dealers' Daughter by Gina Apostol

Spoiler alert. Or, then again... But it happens, anyway, near the end. Once she's already given us her story, her doctor gives it to the gun dealers' daughter: "Your story is a poison pill -- do you understand that? And you keep eating it up -- your toxic trauma... But you can see where the tragedy lies... a paradox at the heart of our human mystery perhaps... Words are all we have to save us, but at the same time, they are not enough to make us whole."

Or, perhaps, maybe that paradox of the human mystery isn't so much of a mystery, and so it spoils nothing of the story, might go completely without saying. And at this point, whether or not the story we've been given is whole, and for what it has or hasn't been worth (to the gun dealers' daughter, to her doctor, or to the rest of us reading), that story is almost done. And perhaps, so close now to the end, the doctor reveals nothing, neither to the hopeful reader nor to his patient (to whom the doctor has probably repeated that same recommendation as many times as the gun dealers' daughter has repeated her story). "Repetition: the site of trauma. Repetition is the site of trauma, the doctors repeat."

And those, the repetitions, belong to Sol, the gun dealers' daughter of Gun Dealers' Daughter. "Sol for solipsism," as a friend and coconspirator taunts her during one scene of the story she tells. And Gina Apostol wouldn't have her character disagree. Neither she nor Sol (short for Soledad: solitude, loneliness) make any pretense to the solidity of Sol's relationship with external reality. Sol's story, the story of the gun dealers' daughter, a wealthy teenage Filipino whom we find in love and involved in the proletarian movement against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, is a constant exercise in re-remembering and re(ac)counting. Tellings are untold: "Such things happen. Yes, right. Correct, erase, dismember." And so Sol composes her confession, years later in New York, far away from her days as a revolutionary in Manila, circling around the trauma that she's been repeating for all of those interceding years. A confession. She attempts to order her mind with the order of her sentences and paragraphs. And so her story emerges, but the haze looms.

It can be difficult to talk about style. Or, it can, at least, be difficult sometimes to have to read about it. Often, within a work (or a body of work), there are a variety of voices, narrative modes. And that these should be described alongside each other in juxtaposition is no stylistic failure. However, we are often presented with litanies of descriptors, and although they might all of them be effectively descriptive of the author or the book that they've been provided to describe, in trying to say everything (and praiseworthy or not), those catalogues of a writer's range can be simply confusing, effectively saying nothing at all. So no potentially confusing list for describing the range of Gina Apostol's talent. Rather, suffice it to say that her style in Gun Dealers' Daughter is, simply, confused. An emergent story surrounded by a looming haze. Of words. A perfectly muddled picture of the picture that Sol, muddling, is trying to paint for herself. "Scrofulous"? "Jejune"? "And yet it was soothing. On the other hand. A lulling, desperate state, but comforting... a morbid, feculent pleasure, the drowsy miasma of languor: there's that sensual garb, this state of malaise," Apostol offers up a fine list of descriptors on her own, "but who am I," indeed, "to speak of comparisons?"

The miasma and the chiasma and a traumatized woman -- "scholar of histrionics," her mother blunders -- attempting to use words (those words) to escape them. The poison pill. That toxic trauma. And beyond Sol's personal struggle, as her story emerges, the persistence of a larger, historical trauma also takes shape through the fog. Gun Dealers' Daughter is as much indictment as confession. Sol's investigation of her personal responsibility (as the privileged gun dealers' daughter) to the course of her country's history is also a more general opportunity for history, and American readers in particular, to account for the lingering effects of the edifice of imperialism and the unpleasant but convenient tendency of first world democracy to prop up third world dictatorship.

In Apostol's book, the dictator himself is relegated to a symbolically significant background while the chiefs of the American military presence in the Philippines take center stage. As the fiction of authors like Horatio Castellanos Moya has done for the recent political history of Central and Southern America, Gina Apostol has, with Gun Dealers' Daughter, helped to flesh out a chapter of twentieth century history (including a part of American history) that has often been slanted or suppressed by the powers of vested interest, especially in the United States. (The book also concisely marks the highlights of local resistance to American influence in the Philippines since the late nineteenth century, and -- what's more -- Apostol writes the city of Manila as a beautiful metaphor for the collective psyche of both her character and the collective experience of the Philippines under dictatorship.) Apostol's literary talent aside, she delivers a welcomely audacious American debut.

But that recognition alone isn't enough for salvation; confessions, as the good doctor reminds us, are ultimately just words. Incomplete. Confused and messy. Tragically beautiful. But they're what we're given, and quite strikingly in the case of Gun Dealers' Daughter. Paradoxical human mystery, mysterious or not. And we keep eating it up, whole -- but, of course, not whole -- and the whole thing, maybe, completely spoiled.  

Gun Dealers' Daughter by Gina Apostol
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393062946
304 pages