Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Unreliable Narrator Lies Even To Self

The Darling, by Russel Banks, Read by Mary Beth Hurt, BBC Audiobooks America, 2004

There is something rather frustrating about reading Banks’ 2003 novel The Darling as narrated by Dawn Carrington, neĆ© Hannah Musgrave, a 60’s radical, ex-member of the Weather Underground, expatriate to Liberia then back to America as environmentally conscious farmer. Quite specifically, Dawn seems oblivious to the consequences of her actions — or rather, let us say, she is willfully blind to them. Long after the reader has twigged to what horrific happenstance is around the next corner, Dawn still pursues some ennobling vision of her actions and those around her. There are obvious parallels here being made between Dawn’s thoughtless choices and the greater world of American foreign policy, which is perhaps the point.

One needn’t be a soothsayer, however, to predict that Charles Taylor’s return to Liberia from an American prison would set off a bloody civil war (one needn’t even rely on historical hindsight). Nor is it necessary to realize that once in power Taylor would set himself up, as so many strongmen rulers before him, as dictator, growing ever more brutal towards his people and those who crossed him. Yet Dawn helps affect his escape, all the while being lead down the garden path with his sweet talk of African communist utopias. One needn’t have been a soothsayer to predict any number of recent American foreign policy calamities either, and so to read something so similar is an exercise in anger management at times.

This is what makes her so frustrating, yet it is this willful blindness that propels her story specifically along, and since it is her story, you must ask yourself where would we be without it? Were she a cannier character she’d never have fallen in with her idiotic radical friend, a wanna-be big shot associated with the underground whose bumbling prompted her flight to Liberia. Were she cannier she’d not have married Woodrow Sundiata, a man in a precarious position in President Samuel Doe’s frail government. Were she cannier she’d have guessed that one of her frequent American contacts was a CIA plant, subtly manipulating her actions for his own ends. Were she cannier and avoided any of these bad choices, she’d likely have graduated from college, gotten married, and settled down to a life of occasional peace marches with her famous pediatrician father.

Not that that couldn’t just as equally be a compelling novel. In fact, it might have been a better novel altogether. Which isn’t to say that Banks’ book is not interesting and readable, just that so many of these high-stakes scrapes that cause Dawn so much heartache and repeatedly almost end in her death could have been sidestepped with an ounce of foresight or insight into people’s character.

Our heroine in the very first chapter, dropping hints of Liberia, of what she did there and the unknown fate of her African husband and sons, catches our attention instantaneously. We are given just enough hints of a nightmare in her background to be intrigued, and her early weaving into the narrative of a much more contemporaneous account of her return to seek her family pull us along. Tucked in this as well is the truly fascinating account of her work as director of a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Here helpfully, Dawn provides us with a thumbnail sketch of the establishment of Liberia going back to the American slave days and following the twisted history of this nation, as most American readers are unlikely to know our connections there. For the uninitiated, it’s the usual story. Proxy governments importing American values, light-skinned blacks lording it over darker-skinned ones, interference by the U.S. government to keep cheap labor and exports coming back, turmoil whenever the bottom rungs of society start to get a bit upset at gross inadequacies, unfairness, and discrimination, CIA-backed coups whenever Liberian presidents started thinking independently, etc. Like I said, the usual story.

The evolution of Dawn/Hannah’s character is both convincing and revelatory. Banks tells the story in such a fashion that rings true, oftentimes maddeningly short-sighted, and oftentimes obscure even to her at the time but seen clearer against the backdrop of her life, in a larger context. What makes things so convincing in this context is how the character’s changes are outgrowths from previous behaviors and beliefs, that what happens affects her and shifts her perspectives. Any number of I-was-a-sixties-radical stories have jarrings shifts from when these so-called Marxists suddenly come out all libertarian or go-go capitalist. Dawn’s resistance to selling-out (if you like) comes off as both admirable and blinkered at times.

Interestingly enough, Banks takes the road less traveled by making his protagonist relatively unsympathetic. Often described by others as “cold,” she has a kind of selfishness borne of her privileged background. Apparently without even the slightest feeling of gratitude for anyone else or anything anyone has ever done, she cuts ties when convenient, turns herself into a frigid statue when reunited with her parents, leaves her husband and children behind when expedient. Yet, she’s a fascinating character study. Without her third world experiences, of course, one wonders if we’d ever care a little for her.

In part, definitely, this is a result of her upbringing, but also the dehumanizing regiment of self-critical analysis as part of her Weather Underground training. Dawn describes in detail the crushing of her own tastes and preferences, forcing herself into taking sexual partners for instance, not from attraction but for political statements. This absence of real empathy toward everyone including herself, this merely intellectualized, theoretical compassion for the downtrodden of the world is part of her iceblock persona. Consider her depiction of slaughtering chickens for market “...I slap my left hand over the creature’s small head as if I was covering a child’s coin purse.” Throughout all her relations, there is always that down-to-business quality, always that stiff exterior.

Most curious about the entirety of the novel is how Banks manages to work a sympathetic final chapter in the last pages that softens our hard-hearted fascination with Dawn. Ending the narration on September 10, 2001, however seems perhaps a touch gratuitous, maybe a little over the top in encouraging our sympathies. Nevertheless, when Dawn finds out about what monsters the war turned her children into, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, sorry for everyone in this whole sordid tale.

Mary Beth Hurt’s reading is a delight, her African accents surprisingly good, though her vocal characterization of Dawn’s Weather Underground buddy is grating, perhaps intentionally so. She reads this complicated personal narrative with just the right measure of gentle pleading for our understanding and sympathy and Ice Queen reserve to make Dawn Carrington come alive.

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