Monday, August 9, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2009)

Barbara Kingsolver is one of America's most celebrated modern novelists, but if The Lacuna is the first novel of this author that you have read, you may wonder why. For a book about Mexico in the 1930s, a reader might consider Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, where the bad guys are Nazis, not Communists. The PBS film The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo offers a more complete portrayal of Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. And Arthur Miller's The Crucible provides a more defining image of the terror visited by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's (HUAC) communist witchhunt of the 1940's and '50's. And if it's a scattering of Mexican food, recipes and meals you are looking for in a book of fiction, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate might be recommended.

But search the Internet for the combination of references to Kahlo, Rivera, Trotsky, and HUAC, and the results are largely reviews of The Lacuna. Few have connected these dots before, and as a "historical novel," The Lacuna scores some points for making those connections through the fictional biography of one Harrison Shepard, born of an American father and a Mexican mother. That biography started out as contrived, in my mind, as it is based on a series of diaries started by young Harrison while he was still a young boy, and who had no English language schooling until he was a teenager. Yet the early diaries read like the work of an adult with a command of the English language.

So what's the big idea in this novel, if there is one? Focus on the title. A lacuna refers to a gap --or the absence of something. In the anatomical context, it refers to an indentation. But I like to think of it as that space between two (or more) things. In botany, it refers to an air space in the cellular tissue of plants. In physical terms, Kingsolver's lacuna is a cavity in the earth that leads a swimmer from the ocean to an underground cave onshore where one can disappear. In metaphorical terms, if you think about a lacuna in terms of the space between things, and throw in the idea that something disappears in this space and can be transported to another world, dimension, or place, you begin to understand the idea that Kingsolver is attempting to communicate.

This understanding of a lacuna conjures up an impression of the "event horizon" on the boundary of a black hole, which, when crossed, information appears to the observer on one side to be lost, but is probably not really lost, as we learned in Charles Seife's Decoding the Universe (August 23, 2009 post). In The Lacuna, Kingsolver presents her reader with a space between Mexico and the United States represented by their common border, across which the protagonist Harrison Shepard transports himself several times. The border presents a space across which the culture, political environment, and economic environment on one side of this border disappears when one reappears on the other side. On the American side, there is little understanding of what is occurring on the Mexican side of this space --- it is simply lost on the American people. And vice-versa. And so when it is necessary for Shepard's survival, travelling across this lacuna to the other side finds the perfect place to hide, perhaps like information that has entered a black hole.

I doubt if this is what Kingsolver really had in mind. But the image of her lacuna at least allows you to ponder something larger than the life of a man who was hounded by fearmongering bigots in America and had to hide away to Mexico in the fictitious arms of Frida Kahlo.

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