August 2014

Darren Huang


Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Among the wild or wooden men of fiction and film who have returned from war to the shock of ordinariness, what is consistent in these portrayals is their opacity. "The Fugue," the opening title of Arna Bontemps Hemenway's collection of stories, Elegy on Kinderklavier, confronts the familiar inscrutability of military men. Hemenway's resistance to convention is admirable. He imagines a fitful mind seeking to articulate an authoritative account of each fragment of experience. Fitting to this pursuit, the main character, Wild Turkey, is both veteran turned vagrant and a sensualist, absorbed by the inadequacies of sensation. Wild Turkey's interpretation of a veteran friend's suicide as a deprivation of knowledge, as the entombing of a well-fleshed narrative with the body, suggests his fascination with the assembly of revealed history. He mourns the loss of a friend's narrative along with the potential of explicating his psychology. Wild Turkey assumes objectivity to wrestle complex states into linear logic:

This is six months before Tow Head, who has this day refrained from his usual running obsession with the possibility that he suffered an undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injury at some forgotten point during his deployment, will use the replica rifle to shoot himself through his cheekbone, perhaps purposefully making his theory impossible to ever disprove or confirm.

A perquisite for a solemn search for narrative is the consideration of the intimate and the animosity with equal reserve. How much the loss of Tow Head evokes the protagonist's sympathies, whether a cool mind has stilled an empathetic heart's writhing, is obscured by this necessary distance. If there is progress in this arc, it is the growing consciousness of failure. It is less epiphany than credo when he realizes the impossibility of his task: "he will be no more able to separate what actually happened, for the most part, from the false implantation of memory, of narrative memory, which was coeval with the experience itself." What is elegant in the most experimental of this author's works is the form of its conveyance. And despite its predictability, the confessed truth is no less urgent: narration can never be greater than a selective interpretation of sensation, memory, and documentation.

Preoccupation with psychology broadens into paranoia in "The IED," when a soldier near to death broods over his presentiment for the impermanence of newly felt sensation: "the passage [of the train] he is now waiting for, if in fact it ever comes, will be over almost even as it begins, exactly because Abrams has become aware of its singularity." The arc is roughly converse to "The Fugue": the failure to assemble a narrative evolves into the existential fear that the narrative has already been written. Glimpses of the unanticipated seem miraculous because they upset the predictability of things: "Shockingly, something Abrams has not foreseen: the color-coating of the Nerds, enveloped by the ice cream, has begun to bleed into the pure bed of ecru." This is a sensual style that adorns its details and conveys its anxieties about the complexity of the mind it describes.

In the titular story "Elegy on Kinderklavier," a mother abandons a child ravaged by cancer. The anguished father watches with "queer neutrality" the bloating of his child into "this Other, this boy whom some persons else allowed to grow so fat, to become so lost in his own body." For this narrator, the body and its reflexive responses -- whether the quiver of desire or the necessary disgraces prior to death -- are the determinants of identity. This is an echo of the frankness with which Saul Bellow lavished his character's exteriors: the body as a map of the soul. But Hemenway is less concerned with communicating internal essences through appearances because his characters are convinced of their sagacious lucidity into their states of being. They theorize and declaim on the mental architecture of their reunions and betrayals: when the absent mother is pressed into explanation,

Maybe he can sense that the whole reason I had to leave was because I love him, because more than I couldn't stand the thought of having to see the worst things happen to him, I couldn't stand the thought of it happening and him looking up at me...

The narrator believes this is talking in pursuit of logic:

I spoke very little during these conversations, eventually not even curious to see if like a tunnel through the center of the earth, her endless in-turning, her frantic affected deprecation, her spiraling mental contortions might surface somehow back into the daylight of reason.

What is ironic in this passage is lodged in the prose: while the narrator accuses his wife of illogic, the uncertainty of "her endless in-turning, her frantic affected deprecation, her spiraling mental contortions" betrays the clouded-ness of his own thought. This is a passage that conveys the narrator's egotistic belief in his ability to decode the internal states of others through keen observation. Curiously, Hemenway is also prone to this same vanity. He polishes observed details until they shine too brilliantly, as if we could not assemble a psychology without such obvious keys and clues. But coddling is a minor vice, redeemed by the pathos in watching these characters, despite their claims to awareness, fail to describe themselves and their intimates.

Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Sarabande Books
ISBN: 978-1936747764
224 pages