Stylised Sagas, Part 1
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine
Years ago, when I landed a gig at the loans desk of a community library, one of my first tasks was to familiarise myself with the literary genre of the blockbuster saga. I don’t mean the saga of Icelandic pedigree; I mean the dynastic melodramas of Lynda La Plante, Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and the like. Because most of the library’s patrons were stalwart OAPs with a sweet tooth for these authors, I had to learn the lingo and the tastes of the people who’d come to me for advice on what to read next. During my first week on the job, then, I was assigned an armful of the most sought-after tomes to take home; and, being earnest and eager to please the folk with whom I daily chewed the fat, I dutifully cracked the spines — already split in a hundred places — and gorged myself on chronicles of inter- and intra-familial wrongdoing. Soon enough, I knew what to expect. There would be the prodigal returned to the family estate after a stretch in the wilderness. There would be the young lothario sowing wild oats and/or the daughter of dubious moral standing with her elders. There would be a potential suitor somewhere in the picture, someone to help the unsettled to settle down, and the suitor would seek informal guidance from a melancholy patriarch while taking instructions from a matriarch of legendarily manipulative capacities.
I was reminded of my time at the loans desk while reading two recent novels that could both be loosely classified as blockbuster sagas — though I doubt whether any of my old patrons would have given them even a minute’s indulgence. For those not put off by its repulsive title, Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine offers a tale of two sisters, their prospects for marriage, their very different relationships with their overbearing mother, and their mother’s relationships with her eight ill-fated husbands. Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror inverts the familial architecture and zooms out by a generation: it tells the story of one young woman reconciling herself to her familial history, and two very different grandmothers with very different views of her legitimacy. But the similarities between Lake of Urine and The Sound Mirror are really only superficial, only to be found in the stuff of their stories. Each novel applies a distinct aesthetic to their overlapping concerns — the one satirical, rambunctious, carnivalesque; the other introspective, politically nuanced, sincere to the point of solemn — and so, to varying degrees, each makes use of the concordances and discordances between its idiosyncratic style and its sensationalist subject matter.
Lake of Urine is very much a novel of discordances. At its core is a woman named Emma Wakeling, the mother of two adult daughters: the despised Noranbole, treated by Emma as little more than “a scullery maid”, and the beloved Urine, who was misnamed in a fit of post-natal spite before Emma began helplessly to dote on her. The novel is broken into four parts: the first is narrated by one Willem Seiler, a pseudo-scientist besotted with Noranbole even though Emma sees him as Urine’s suitor; the second leaps into the future to find Noranbole starting afresh, free from her mother’s abuses, now in her element as a political heavyweight married to an infantile man named Bernard; and the fourth reunites Noranbole and Seiler at Emma’s stately house, where the three of them are drawn into a supernatural drama in the aftermath of Urine’s untimely death. The third part, however, makes up about half of the book and tells the story of Emma’s early marital mishaps, and intertwines a chronological sequence with a series of reverse-chronological episodes in the manner of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). In other words, each of its odd-numbered chapters takes a step backwards in time, so that the first chapter details the end of Emma’s eighth marriage and the eighth chapter details the end of her first marriage, while each even-numbered chapter moves forward in time to depict Emma’s youth in advance of her first wedding — and the two timelines conjoin just before the action of the novel returns to the Seiler-Urine-Noranbole dilemma.
If all this sounds a bit wild, perhaps forcibly so, that’s probably because Lake of Urine is indeed a wild, unruly thing. If ever there were a novel calculated to embody zaniness, it’s this one. The farcical characters and the madcap narrative patterning aren’t the half of it. There are copious exclamation points on virtually every page and more than a few logorrhoeic souls who affect a sort of Wodehousian aristocratic/circumlocutive patois. There are characters with outlandish names like Vacuity, Feuchtwanger, Drinkwater, Mimi Tourette, Phinoola Quigg — and, of course, Urine. There’s a Thomas Pynchon thing going on with the plotting and characterisation, more or less successfully, and there’s a David Foster Wallace vibe to the alternately snappy and lackadaisical prose. There’s also a deliberately indeterminate timeframe in which the nineteenth century intermingles with the present— Seiler rides a decrepit mule, and enraged villagers literally wield pitchforks as weapons, even as Noranbole becomes the CEO of a high-tech corporation — and there’s one man who speaks entirely in languages other than English, in dialogue rendered using the Cyrillic and Arabic scripts, the hiragana and katakana and kanji of Japanese, and even binary code.
But wait, there’s more! The perverse people of Stitch’s world do unspeakable things to animals: they consume dolphins, monkeys, and boiled piglets with shocking nonchalance, as if such gustatory exoticism is utterly de rigueur. And as it goes for the beasts, so it goes for women: the male chauvinism on display in Lake of Urine is really rather staggering, not least in the array of absurd, outmoded titles for the anti-feminist tracts favoured by Emma’s father: “Gaspar Spurt’s Phrenology of the Minx”, others that include the words “trollop” and “strumpet”. Then, too, there’s a lot of silliness to do with Seiler’s ridiculous scheme to measure the depth of the titular lake using a dog attached to a piece of string, and later, following the drowning of the dog, to weave the string into a vast net with which to dredge the lake. Oh, and I mustn’t fail to mention the handjobs! There are loads of handjobs here. As Emma Wakeling prides herself on her skills at “milking” various men in exchange for a modicum of goodwill, masturbation occurs, throughout, with metronomic regularity. But forget about even a hint of eroticism. It’d be an act of charity to describe Emma’s approach as clinical: with her gloved hand pumping away at some hapless toyboy’s cock, she radiates as much human warmth as Urine’s reanimated corpse when it possessively clasps on to Seiler. Such bawdiness! Such grotesquerie! It’s all so goshdarn zany!
Of course, my exclamation marks here are rather more jaundiced than those with which Stitch ramps up the rapid-fire rhythms of back-and-forth dialogue like this exchange of insults: “A roundworm and a fluke!” “A scabied pinworm!” “A plasmodic strep of a man!” “A crawling moron!” “A cystitic mass!” — and so on. But I don’t mean for my scepticism to be construed as the disapproval of a finger-wagger. On the contrary, I’d say that Lake of Urine is at its best when it leans into its most distasteful elements, particularly the bizarre epicureanism and the knowingly antiquated misogyny. Because vivaciousness of the style is so at odds with the seriousness of those elements, even if there is a satirical intent to the pairing, the attempt to pair them at all carries a real risk of failure, and the acceptance of the risk carries a moral charge of its own — irrespective of the results. When the pairing works, though, the results are often spectacular. Consider, for instance, the passage in which Emma reflects on a lifetime’s worth of grievances — of humiliations and oppressions, of exploitation, wilful deprivation, sexual denigration, borderline prostitution — in a torrent of spirited rhetorical questions:
Has she not been dutiful? Appropriately demure and neat in her attire? Mindful of scripture? Sufficiently upright? Adequately contemptuous of fancy? Has she not been notably generous in her masturbations? Singularly generous? Paid regular visits to the cooperative, where the cheese boys would wait in line for her to attend them? Even, whenever marital status allowed, receiving the mayor of Small Town, Mr Bunbury, here at home each Tuesday evening to see to his own pent-up sac? Might that not have considerably eased the burden of his many grave responsibilities? Oiled the mechanisms of local governance? Could the Tiny Village Activated Sludge Processing Facility and Sustainable Construction Material Supply Project, then, ever have been brought to completion without her? The new tinted porch at the Mother & Baby unit? Is there not, consequently, a civic debt? Do they not, in fact, owe her something? All of them?
One can almost taste the bile on Emma’s tongue, and it’s a bile that rises equally from the indignities that haunt her and her own rhetorical flinching from regarding them as matters of fact. Although she tries furiously to reckon with her history of failures, her consciousness is pulled in two directions as once as her prose permits only a slantwise, evasive approach to her troubles. The subject of each sentence purports to make for a statement of pride, yet the speculative and equivocatory voice transforms them into implicit statements of regret. And when Emma acts on her burgeoning resentment, stepping forth to lay claim to what she believes is her rightful lot, Stitch’s nimble style takes two swerves that jolt the scene in unexpected ways. The first allows for a description of her fury as an embodied sensation: “The questions keep time with the beat of her cardiac organ. Her torment and her entertainment, she chews on their gristle with a grisly contentment. They surge with her lurching pulse and subside with it when the pitiless, punctuative silence takes over again…” The second swerve, triggered by this faint bodily motion, renders Emma’s new assessment of the world around her in terms that move from the externalised to fully depersonalised: “An iris flicks. The body moves — takes a last look at the sofa that balks, the fireplace that baffles, the picture that swindles, the plant that disenchants, the curtains that vex. Gets up and crosses the room.” Thus the reader swept along by that swift stream of rhetorical questions is suddenly deposited — thud! — into a space in which all the rage conveyed through the style has no weight, no external validity to match its felt intensity. There’s skilful alchemy at play here: Stitch’s droll prose, moving at a rollicking pace, is purposefully mismatched to a sombre situation in ways that enact visceral effects upon the reader.
And yet. And yet reading Lake of Urine is, for the most part, an unedifying experience. To some extent, that’s due to the length of the novel. Stitch struggles to sustain his spriteliness over two hundred pages of conspicuously tiny text, so that the glories of his work are too spaced out, or stretched too thin, losing the regularity they need to stop the pace from flagging. But then, really, why is the novel as long as it is? The length, in turn, seems to me to be due to a substrata of sincerity that is otherwise concealed by the spectacle of the style. The sincerity in question is that of Stitch’s commitment to the story he sets out to tell, and the demands of the genre to which that story belongs. My sense is that Lake of Urine would have been better, more fleet-footed, more consistently surprising, if Stitch had been more callous in his treatment of his own narrative premise — if he’d treated the material of the blockbuster saga as something disposable, as a mere pretext for vainglorious flair at the level of his sentences. Because, look: in the crudest terms, the drama between Noranbole and Urine and Seiler and Emma is simultaneously flat (boring) and overwrought (inane) and in any case just impossible to care about — and yet Stitch commits to it, with undue sincerity. The novel is as long as it is because Stitch is intent upon telling this story, connecting cause and effect, seeing it through to the end, no matter how much bloat it brings to the work as a whole. Too often, Lake of Urine swells with sequences that are narratively necessary but structurally meddlesome, with descriptive and expository and action-oriented passages that pad and swaddle its occasional flights of invigorating craziness. The result is a book whose narrative erects a cage around prose of uncommon swiftness. At best, then, long stretches of “what happened next” are punctuated only sporadically by bursts of ingenuity that seem to struggle for release from their subordination to the needs of plot. More’s the pity — for although Lake of Urine takes a clear stance as an unconventional and iconoclastic novel, mining the raw materials of the blockbuster saga in ways that upend and lampoon the genre, it finally yields to the genre’s requirements and contorts itself under the pressure to satisfy them.