May 2014

Edward Stephens


During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, the 1983 debut novel by Joan Chase, is in print again. The new NYRB Classics edition features a fine introduction, by poet Meghan O'Rourke, and an unattractive cover (traits common in the series).

Its opening, an introduction to the arable lake country of northern Ohio, would not feel out of place on the first page of rural classics like Cather's O Pioneers or Lawrence's The Rainbow or Capote's In Cold Blood. Phrases like "gloomy forgotten farmsteads loom" or "lopsided buckboards vied with flying Oldsmobiles for the right-of-way" are excellent, but very much comme il faut. Then something odd happens: "When we lived there, on the farm which was right on the edge of the city limits, we thought it the very center of the world, and the green and golden land and wooded hollows which began two blocks over from the railroad loop and then rolled off to obscurity formed a natural barrier to the rest of existence, which we dismissed as the outer darkness."

The next paragraph, a reminiscence of "Our Uncle Dan..." and his butcher shop, cements it. Chase writes this novel in the first-person plural. Her collective narrator is a single voice concocted from the summertime experiences of four girl cousins at their grandmother's farmhouse. The events it records are unique in a sense. For example, an aunt stands around in the nude before an audience of nieces with the string of a tampon dangling between her legs. The girls watch their grandmother turn up an expensive Persian rug to retrieve cash she's scattered beneath it. Their grandfather sweetly intones vile things to his milk cows in the morning. They leap through the rafters and haylofts of an old barn with the unproven and yet incontrovertible knowledge that it is impossible to fall. But that pronoun, that "we," sounding relentlessly, like a river, lends to these exceptional circumstances an archetypal air. To translate from specific terms above to the collective: "This is what our bodies will look like when we're older," "Family relationships do not guarantee trust," "Humans behave very differently when they think they're alone," "I have learned to do something very well without ever having thought about it." How quickly the life of one (or in this case, of four) can resemble the life of all when the skin is removed. The perspective accomplishes just such an exfoliation of the superficial.

On one important ground, however, the experience of the protagonists remains unique even when stripped to the foundation. The farmhouse where they spend their summers is an island of matriarchy in a patriarchal world. Gram, not the girls' grandfather, owns the property, and she keeps it or disposes of it as she wishes. Inheritances pass in trust to her daughters and granddaughters, not to their husbands. The social order at work in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is something of an impressionistic American counterpart to the nuts-and-bolts Zimbabwean desert oasis of Norman Rush's Mating, only in this instance engineered not by a megalomaniacal visionary but simply by a woman no longer content to do the bidding of others. The humble genesis of this small women's republic underscores the nature of power and servitude at the heart of the sex divide.

Without directly acknowledging it, then, Joan Chase has written a novel that works well as a document -- a small alternative history, say, or a good working template for a modern time (at least in some places in the world) where women hold property and government offices, where women have some recourse now for crimes that used to occur behind the blind of the husband-wife relationship. And Chase saturates her vision with so much Midwestern Americana that it could pass for history. From that point of view, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is a superb book.

I question whether it works so well as a novel -- in a word, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia wants contrivance. Chase establishes her most conspicuous devices, the narration and the placement of the first chapter, from the first but neglects to develop them. Actually, the first chapter shows great promise, not only for its tightly poignant portrait of Celia's love and sexual initiation -- the best-constructed episode of a primarily episodic novel -- but for the abrupt transition from young womanhood back to girlhood with Part Two. It's a fine old trick. For me it evokes the first sentence of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, a testament to the safety of the narrator that dismisses notions of suspense from the adventures he goes on to relate. Immediately one becomes interested less in the result of Pechorin's behavior and more in identifying its patterns and deviations. But I fail to see compelling patterns among the protagonists in the ensuing chapters of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. They listen, they learn, they pretend, they grow. But there is no "despite" about it: they develop in a human way simply because they are human. Blessed with a wholly unique environment, Chase's characters are reduced to the most general patterns of development. There ought to be a new metal, or at least an unforeseen defect or an unfathomable purity, to accompany the redesigned crucible. That metaphor doesn't pan out in science, but fiction is the realm of the possible, not of the natural.

The collective narration ends up a promise only half-fulfilled, too. The voice is marvelous, and its effect, as outlined above, is provocative. But I want to see the next phase, the consequences when the girls break away from each other and carry the collective memory with them as they forge a second self. One of them moves away and becomes depressed, yes, but all of it occurs off-stage. Once again, I am less interested in what happens: I want to see her succeed or fail as an individual just as I have seen her succeed and fail as a part of the group.

I do not want to undersell Joan Chase's achievement with this book. Her style verges on mastery, and her performances always hit the mark: spite feels like spite, desire feels like desire, belief in and skepticism of Christian Science feel like belief in and skepticism of Christian Science. Her many moving parts -- men and women in and out of the house, or on the outs with each other, or on the outs with the physical earth -- synchronize beautifully. The farm and its particular social laws constitute an ambitious revision of history. Without drama, however, what is the point? I would appreciate the vision more if I could watch it dissolve.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177150
240 pages