THE LIGHT POSSESSED
By Alan Cheuse
Peregrine Smith. 325 pp. $19.95
This is a novel about a powerful American artist born in the Midwest around the turn of the century. She studies in Chicago, teaches school in Texas, then moves to New York, where she marries a famous photographer named Albert Stigmar, who is much older than she is. She divides her life between time spent with him in New York and time spent alone in New Mexico until he dies. She then moves to New Mexico altogether, where she lives alone until her eyesight fails and a young potter, with ambivalent intentions, and his wife, come to live with her for her last years.
Though the name Georgia O'Keeffe is never mentioned, Alan Cheuse is clearly enraptured by her: her determination, her visual awareness and the mythic quality of her story. Ava Boldin is not exactly modeled after Georgia O'Keeffe, of course; the author has made a number of significant alterations. Ava has a mysterious part-Indian grandmother who walked on water, and a suicidal mother who died in childbirth with Ava's twin sister.
Later, while living with a rich, alcoholic godmother in Chicago, Ava has an affair with a young Polish woman. The mercurial Albert Stigmar has an affair with a young chambermaid at his family's summer house. This results in an illegitimate son who goes to Bennington and becomes a potter -- it is he who looks after Ava in her last years. But O'Keeffe is strongly evoked -- a line from one of her letters is quoted verbatim -- and it is difficult to read the book without thinking of her. If you already know O'Keeffe's story, reading this book is like watching a movie wearing someone else's glasses: It is hard to keep things in focus.
But presumably this is what Cheuse intends. Early in the book we are introduced to the celebrated critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who taught the famous "Myth Rit. Lit." (Myth and Ritual in Literature) class at Bennington College. (Cheuse got the name of the course wrong -- he calls it Lang. and Lit. -- but not the atmosphere or the reading list.) Hyman is the hero and father-surrogate of Michael, Stigmar's illegitimate son, and the theme of myth and the role of hero are introduced at the beginning of the book.
Hyman's thesis was that myths played a powerful role in society, establishing role models, delineating behavioral norms and defining moral codes. Hyman taught his course in prefeminist days, however, and there was no mention of the curious incidence of women among the heroes -- that is, there were no women among the heroes. Ava Boldin/Georgia O'Keeffe, of course, corrects this deficiency by leading a life that established a new pattern of behavior for women. Strong, mysterious, inner-directed and tireless, she pursues her own life and the source of her joy -- the light.
The book itself is written very much on a mythic plane, in lush, poetic language and in an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. The format is deliberately fragmented, mixing chapters from different characters, dialogue, meditation, flashbacks, memories and narrative. Cheuse is in love with elliptical exchanges, strong repetitive undercurrents and lush, sensuous descriptions.
It is in the descriptive passages that Cheuse comes into his own, for his main concerns are style and language. He writes in a lyrical, tranced fashion. Ava's stillborn twin sister Eva, in a dreamlike chorus at the end of the book, croons, "Tell me about color. Tell me about all the colors you have seen within your eye and without. Tell me about blue, blue without cease, and red -- tell me of the nature of red, its fiery menstrual challenge, its lingering embers; tell me about the ocean depths of green, tell me green."
Cheuse is wrestling with the idea of 20th-century myth-making here. Ava Boldin is larger-than-life, a hero; she is not humanized, not explained, but given mythic proportions, a giant soul and mythic forebears. Her grandmother muses: "And line, too, speak of lines, the way a stretch of black moves across your eye and takes on the curvature of the earth ... and I will learn how to perfect this story; how to write it in ink made of seashells and paint it on the bark of trees."
This is a poetic book, full of incantatory language, and written on a subliminal rather than a quotidian level. Do not read it if you are hoping to find out more about Georgia O'Keeffe, but read it if you are curious about light, about landscape or about the evolution and establishment of myth.
The reviewer, a biographer, art historian and novelist, is the author of "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life."