“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -- G.K. Chesterson
I chose this for an epigram, because it's the best way I can think of to describe Caitlín R. Kiernan's magnificent more-than-true novel, The Drowning Girl, in which fairy tales, art and madness all coalesce to form one of the most affecting books I've read in years.
The Drowning Girl is definitely something like a fairy tale, but it's a ghost story too, and a love story, a postmodern puzzle, and a journey through the labyrinth of mental illness that -- for anyone who has struggled with it, or loved someone who does -- feels completely genuine and never condescending. It's also a beautiful piece of postmodern art, with layer upon layer of myth and mystery, beauty and horror, mirroring one another in a flow of archetypes that challenge the primacy of the "real" over the "true." To wit: early in her story our narrator notes that she has saved the following Ursula LeGuin quote, which goes hand-in-hand with the Chesterton: " . . . fantasy is true, of course. It isn't
factual, but it is true. And that is precisely why so many . . . are
afraid of fantasy."
The memoir of India Morgan Phelps is an experiment. India (Imp to her friends) is a heavily-medicated but mostly functional paranoid schizophrenic, the daughter and granddaughter of lunatics and suicides, haunted by genetics. (She also keeps her mother's suicide note handy, which itself quotes Virginia Woolf's suicide note in a multiple regression of despair.) But Imp is responsible and self-aware about her disease; she takes her meds, she sees her doctor. Early on she declares: "It's a myth that crazy people don't know they're crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people."
Besides being crazy, Imp is also a charming, literate diarist, and a frequent, admitted liar. Well, not exactly a liar; it's just that sometimes her memory betrays her, and she can't tell what actually happened from what did not. Which is why Imp is writing a journal: she means to work through the knots in her brain from two different (and yet eerily similar) sanity-shaking events: she calls it "telling [her] ghost story." You see, first, there's the time in the summer with the cold, wet, naked girl (mermaid, siren, melusine) who came from from the river; but then there's also the time in November, with the bedraggled girl-wolf/wolf-girl freezing in the snow at the side of the road. The same woman but in different places, in different months -- hell, in different states -- yet somehow in her mind, either time Imp stops on the side of the road to help the girl, the experience is discrete. Her memory houses two different versions of the same story. (And if you are confused, gentle reader, imagine how Imp feels.) Still, she knows: "Only one of these is factual, but both are true." Something has happened to fracture and double her fragile memory, to create a haunting she can't get past, and through her writing she means to face it head-on. Imp's tone is deceptively casual, but don't let her lull you. Her story requires careful attention, though it's a pleasure to follow our unreliable narrator on a quest through her wide-ranging, allusive imagination. Imp is certainly not afraid of fantasy, nor is she terribly afraid of being haunted. What she fears is getting to the truth.
I may have made The Drowning Girl sound lighter than it is. Though mostly chatty and charming, Imp does go to some very dark places on her journey, and Kiernan's muscular, beautifully detailed prose pulls the reader along for the breakdown. Several other macabre haunts (some real-world factual, and others Kiernan's inventions) obsess Imp, and dart in and out of her stubborn delusions. There's a painting she first saw as a child, called "The Drowning Girl"*; the story of The Open Door of Night, a cult who committed mass suicide by walking into the ocean; the gruesome murder of the Black Dahlia; a deep forest in Japan that is rumored to induce suicides; and "Red Riding Hood," a story Imp loathes, but which keeps insisting itself into her world. And, for those of us who think about our thoughts a lot, it's also possible you'll see glimpses of your own version of crazy in Imp; I know I did. It both made me feel comforted and gave me pause; we all harbor some crazy we try to keep under our hats, but it's a peculiar experience to see flashes of yourself in the writings of a madwoman.
Now, it's true that I sometimes just fall unreservedly in love with a book and fail to note its shortcomings. (I have a friend who still challenges me to explain why I love The Night Circus. I just do, okay?) In the interest of being fair and balanced, I will say there are aspects of The Drowning Girl which strain credulity -- and not the mermaids and wolves, either.
For instance: though she's frank about barely having been able to graduate high school due to her "terrible memory," Imp is quite casually erudite, peppering her memoir with offhand literary quotes and allusions. Shakespeare, Homer, Charles Perrault, Emily Dickinson, Moby-Dick -- they're all in there, along with various peculiar historical facts. I suppose Imp could be an accomplished autodidact; she's practically a hermit, and has in her house a room she actually calls "the room with too many books" . . . and no television or computer. So she knows the classics -- but where did her ideas about meme theory come from? (I know she could read books about it, but the whole concept of a meme was half-born from watching popular media culture mutate. The interest in memes is a meme itself.) Of course an illiterate diarist would be an oxymoron, not likely to have written what I'm reading, so I'll bite.
Some readers will find the digressions and dream-logic chronology of Imp's story confusing . . . and they would be right. I was puzzled at first, kept going back over pages for clues to the order of things. Then I realized (hello!) that the confusion is ingrained in the text: India Morgan Phelps doesn't know herself how time in her ghost story of a life flows, so how can her reader expect to? With all its Jungian doubles, writerly games and general meta-ness, The Drowning Girl qualifies as the kind of complex novel a college seminar could occupy itself with for weeks, unpacking all the themes and allusions. (Some sickos find that sort of thing fun.) But it's also compulsively, immersively, readable. And I don't think you have to play games with literary theory to get it.
The Drowning Girl is the first novel of Kiernan's I have read, though I've come across some of her weird stories in anthologies. The first one I remember was "Pickman's Other Model (1929)" in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird. (Anyone who loves Lovecraft is a writer after my own heart.) Come to think of it, TDG is more than a bit squelchy . . . and it's set in Providence, the birthplace of Things that Should Not Be. And I just discovered that Kiernan wrote a novella about The Open Door of Night cult called "Houses Under the Sea" which suggests the cult may have had an Innsmouth-like relationship with the ocean. (Oh goody, another interwoven piece of narrative to explore!)
But I digress. What I mean to say is read this book. Something like the fine film "Silver Linings Playbook" (I have not read the book, though it's in the stack), whose success helped to generate fresh and open media discussion about mental illness, The Drowning Girl at its very least sheds a light on the dark places of the human mind in a way that generates understanding and empathy, and beauty. But it's much richer than merely that . . . its multivalence boggles. And, though the narrative is deeply engaged with the "trueness" of mermaids and sirens, wolves and ghosts, it deserves to transcend any genre labels that might cling to it. Imp's story not only feels true, but shows us the possibility of defeating the dragons and finding the truth in our own struggles.
The Drowning Girl most certainly goes on my best-of list for 2012. It's nominated (and rightly so) for both the Bram Stoker and Nebula awards for 2012. And, in breaking news: yesterday it was awarded the Tiptree Award for "works of science fiction or fantasy that explore and expand gender roles." I wasn't even going to try to address the themes of gender and sexuality in this review, but since this particular award has been won, I might as well add that Imp's on-and-off girlfriend Abalyn is transgendered. It's not made a big deal of in the book, though her decision is briefly and poignantly discussed as the only alternative Abalyn had if she wanted to live. Perhaps that's the point -- Abalyn is a character who serves as a positive model of self-awareness and transformation, of overcoming of the merely factual to uncover what is true. So there's yet another avenue for college seminars (or careful readers) to explore.
* In one of those neat meta-media tricks, Kiernan's vision of Phillip George Saltonstall's (fictional) 1898 painting "The Drowning Girl" has been realized here.