Monday, July 25, 2011

Keith Donohue's Centuries of June

The success of Keith Donohue's new novel, Centuries of June, will depend heavily on your attitude to short stories.  This surreal, wickedly humorous narrative, told from the point of view of the narrator, a dying man who has fallen and hit his head on the bathroom floor, is laced with short stories.  If you like ghost stories and magic realism, this is for you.  

The ghosts of seven angry women invade the bathroom and then tell their stories, among them a folk tale about a woman who falls in love with a bear, an epistolary story about the Salem witch trials, a tale of American slavery, a filmic montage about baseball, and noir fiction. There is an eighth woman waiting in the wings, but her story is different.

Does this sound confusing?  It is difficult to describe; hence my lateness in a review of a book I June, appropriately.  Each story is set in June in different centuries of America.  And though we don't learn the narrator's name is Jack till the end of the book, I will call him Jack to cut through the post-modern anarchy.

One of the most important characters is an old man who appears sitting on the edge of the tub.  He may or may not be Jack's father, and saves his life by warning him about the entrance of each homicidal woman.   Jack nicknames him Beckett, and their dialogue is occasionally like Waiting for Godot.  They talk wittily about the women (Jack says they showed up on bicycles, sang and danced for him, and then went to bed with him).  When Jack asks who has redecorated downstairs, Beckett suggests faeries, changelings, gremlins, or two tramps.

"His sarcasm perplexed me, but I did not press the point.  Beckett had saved my life five times, yet possessed a preternatural relationship with the five would-be assassins, cozying up to them in my absences.  Nonchalant to the essence of my predicament, he seemed awfully familiar, yet his true identity shifted in mysterious ways.  One moment he reminded me of my deceased father, the next I was sure he was the spirit of Samuel Beckett come to wait with me for a truth that would never arrive.  I could not tell if he was friend or foe, and as these thoughts raced through my mind, he smiled dumbly at me, as though content to let me stop and ponder it all."

Donohue said in an interview that he was inspired by Gustav Klimt's painting of eight women in bed.  In Centuries of June, all eight women have been sleeping in the same bed.  One by one, except for the eighth woman, they enter the bathroom and try to kill Jack.

Klimt's painting

In one scene, Jack fixes a hole in the attic by covering it with a print of a painting by Klimt.  I wish a reproduction of Klimt's  painting were on the cover. 

I am not really a short story reader.  I admired Tea Obreht's beautifully written The Tiger's Wife, a novel interwoven with a series of tales about tigers and a deathless man, and Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination (which I learned about from Donohue's review in The Washington Post), a morbid novel told in six short stories linked by a woman's journal.  Louise Erdrich's novels, of course, are always linked stories.  Donahue's novel has the strengths and weaknesses of this form. 

My two favorites, the folk tale, "The Woman Who Was Married to a Bear," reminiscent of Louise Erdrich's stories, and "The Woman Who Danced the Vaudoux," a story of slavery, could be stand-alone stories.  But others, "The Woman Who Caught the Gold Bug and the Silver Fever," a story of the Gold Rush, and "The Woman Who Lost the Flag," a story of baseball, mystified me.  These two women's stories did not particularly seem like women's stories to me.  The magical American history of women could perhaps have been better represented.  

The ending winds things up, but seems a bit precious.  Wait...there should be more.  An editor should have asked for more.  It's all very detailed, and then it ends abruptly.  I wanted more of Jack's story from Jack's point of view. 

Donohue is a very good writer, and though this novel isn't quite for me, it is because I only want to read two short stories a year, and I have now read three novels of short stories in one year.   I'll have to look at his future work. He is also the author of The Stolen Child, a fantasy much touted a few years ago, and Angels of Destruction

No comments: