By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper. 507 pp. $26.99
Barbara Kingsolver's new novel, "The Lacuna," is the most mature and ambitious one she's written during her celebrated 20-year career, but it's also her most demanding. Spanning three decades, the story comes to us as a collection of diary entries and memoir, punctuated by archivist's notes, newspaper articles, letters, book reviews and congressional transcripts involving some of the 20th century's most radical figures. The sweetness that leavened "The Bean Trees" and "Animal Dreams" has been burned away, and the lurid melodrama that enlivened "The Poisonwood Bible" has been replaced by the cool realism of a narrator who feels permanently alienated from the world.
That central, though oddly faint, character is Harrison Shepherd, a popular writer of romantic adventure novels. Kingsolver neatly weaves this quiet, watchful man through tumultuous events that rocked two countries, and one of the most impressive feats of "The Lacuna" is how convincingly she tracks his developing voice, from when he's a sensitive teenager in 1929 until he becomes a national celebrity in the early 1950s.
The story begins in Mexico when Shepherd is 13, but we gradually learn that he was born in Washington, D.C., the product of a doomed marriage between a dull federal bureaucrat and a saucy Mexican beauty. His mother has abandoned America and taken up with a brutal right-wing businessman in tropical Isla Pixol, hoping to land a better husband. Alone and without any formal education, Shepherd begins reading moldy adventure novels and Mexican history, and he also takes up the lifelong practice of journal writing -- "the beginning of hope: a prisoner's plan for escape." Those journals, carefully transcribed and surreptitiously preserved years later, become the bulk of this complicated novel.
A "permanent foreigner," not at home in the United States or Mexico and aware that his budding homosexuality must not be expressed, young Shepherd quickly develops an outsider's detached perspective, tinged with loneliness. He has a sharp eye for the beauty of Mexico, its lush tropics and its colorful towns, and Kingsolver convincingly positions him near some of the era's larger-than-life figures. A handy cook, he gets a job making plaster for the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and eventually becomes a part of his household. Rivera and his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, leap off these pages in all their flamboyant passion and brilliance, repeatedly cheating on and punishing each other, even while their international reputation blossoms. As Kahlo's closeted gay confidant, Shepherd offers this gifted female artist a rare chance to share her frustrations about her husband and the shadow he casts over her work.
Shepherd's connection with Rivera and Kahlo, both committed communists, quickly brings him into contact with their contentious friend Leon Trotsky, and this fascinating section shows the Russian Revolution from the perspective of one of its reviled and isolated engineers. Constantly at risk of assassination by Stalin's death squads, Trotsky and his frightened wife remain awkwardly holed up in Rivera's house, trying to carry on the workers' battle without money, without an army, without anything but his prodigious writings, which Shepherd neatly types up for him each day. In this touching portrayal of a doomed idealist, the out-maneuvered leader can hardly ignore his irrelevancy. "In 1917 I commanded an army of five million men," he tells Shepherd. "Now I command eleven hens."
It's a loser's game trying to estimate the peculiar boundaries of my own ignorance, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and suggest that most readers could use more background than we get here on Trotsky, Rivera and Kahlo. Kingsolver has made Shepherd's diary so realistic that it shows little sense of the needs of some future, public readership. But for the truly interested, background information is newly available: Bertrand M. Patenaude recently published "Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary," a biography of the man's final years in exile. And this month, Robert Service completes his trilogy on the founders of the Soviet Union with "Trotsky." Both books offer a lively and finely detailed description of the bizarre household that Kingsolver dramatizes.
The second half of "The Lacuna" shifts, like "The Poisonwood Bible," from an exotic foreign land to the United States. Shepherd moves to a small town in North Carolina in the 1940s and eventually finds himself in the odd position of being an agoraphobic, homosexual heartthrob to millions of female readers. "Nearly every day," he confesses, "I wake up shocked at how little in this world I comprehend." Though this section is much less dramatic than his adventures in Mexico, it offers an absorbing portrayal of American life at a time when the country moved swiftly from Depression, to World War, to consumerism spun through with political paranoia.
The other considerable pleasure of this second half is the subtle depiction of Shepherd's relationship with his discreet secretary, Violet Brown, a 46-year-old widow, "sensible as pancake flour," who speaks in the antiquated English of Shakespeare's day. Theirs is an intense but formal affiliation, cemented by her devotion and his respect. In the notes she supplies to Shepherd's journals, she remarks on his "secretive temperament" and suggests that he suffered from "some kind of dread that went past the bashfulness." But she's determined to preserve his memory, even if he exists in these voluminous clippings and diary entries only as a kind of lacuna, or missing space, whose life is suggested by the shape of everything he describes around him. It's a lovely portrait of an intensely private writer, a man who suffered both the benefits of fame and the horrible costs.
From beginning to end, though, this is also a novel of capital-L Liberal ideas -- workers' rights, sexual equality, artistic freedom -- the kind of progressive causes that Kingsolver tries to encourage with her Bellwether Prize for socially responsible fiction. More often than not, that's a recipe for Literature for the Betterment of the People, in which all the precious brown-skinned characters and the requisite Mystical Negro line up against a battalion of wicked white landowners. Kingsolver is far too good a writer for that (though not all the Bellwether winners are), but the concluding section of "The Lacuna," in which Shepherd is harassed by J. Edgar Hoover's cronies, recites a predictable Red Scare story we've heard many times before: the just-the-facts FBI agent who asks incriminating questions, the mysterious collapse of the blacklisted writer's career, the outrageous behavior of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Considering the audience for literary fiction -- Kingsolver's in particular -- it's unlikely that "The Lacuna" will shock or change a single right-thinking mind.
Nevertheless, this rich novel is certainly bigger than its politics. It resurrects several dramatic events of the early 20th century that have fallen out of public consciousness, brings alive the forgotten details of everyday life in the 1940s, and illustrates how attitudes and prejudices are shaped by political opportunism and the rapacious media. But despite this large, colorful canvas, ultimately "The Lacuna" is a tender story about a thoughtful man who just wanted to enjoy that basic American right: the right to be left alone. As he was fond of saying, "The most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know."
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him at http://twitter.com/roncharles.