Post Road Magazine #12

JOHN DOLLAR and EVELESS EDEN by Marianne Wiggins

Susan Choi

I first read Marianne Wiggins some time in 1992 or 1993. It was her novel John Dollar, not long after it was issued in paperback, and it was an experience from which I emerged awed and harrowed and horrified and physically shaken, as if it was me and not the title character who’d been smashed and crippled and then eaten in demonic little bites by a pair of starving school girls. John Dollar so amazed and disordered me that I promptly installed Wiggins in my personal canon of writers and then didn’t read another word by her for more than ten years. It wasn’t like I’d forgotten her; I was avoiding her. For one thing, she’s a genius, but most geniuses don’t frighten me; like other readers, I proudly collect them, and feel affection for their recognizability, the resemblance of their works to one another, the coalesence of their works into an oeuvre. Geniuses (here I’m talking about literary geniuses, and actually just the living ones; I’m even less qualified to expound on literature’s genius dead) benefit from constraint; they go deep and not broad; they exhaust their unique acreage and we admire them not in spite of but because of this relentless worrying of a small constellation of things. I’m glad that Alice Munro’s women are always her women and that everything happens in the same small Canadian realm. It makes me happy that every novel by Haruki Murakami features a lost cat, or a bottle of Johnny Walker, or a precocious adolescent girl, or all three. All of this is reassuring; the genius and I can commune; I line up the books on my shelves, buy and read the new ones as they come out. But not Wiggins; I could sense right away she was different, a genius on the model of Nabokov (writers: take to your beds!), so very fertile and brilliant and wicked I was frankly frightened of what she’d do next. It insults her to even bother pointing out how far superior a writer she is to the (no longer) husband to whom she dedicated John Dollar (a hint: “for beloved Salman”), yet unlike that person, who thrives, she’s arguably even less known today than sixteen years ago, when John Dollar came out. It’s a completely mystifying situation, but one that emboldened this cowardly writer—the most faithless and undeserving of her fans—to finally read her follow-up to John Dollar, Eveless Eden, published a decade ago, in 1995. (“Maybe it’s bad,” I thought hopefully, “Maybe that’s why no one seems to have heard of it!”)

No such luck. While somewhat sprawling where John Dollar is lean, contemporary while John Dollar is period, in first person where John Dollar is omniscient, what Eveless Eden shares with its predecessor, is a quality of pyrotechnic verve that even more impresses for the fact that it never quite goes too far. Every writer this gifted with wit, this possessed of easy virtuosity even when describing a slogan t-shirt, in other words, this capable of having a roaring good time in the course of narrating her story, runs the risk of annoying her reader with cute cleverness, and it’s some sort of perverse indication of how good Wiggins is that she openly threatens to do this on almost every page and yet never gives up control. The result is exceptionally vertiginous and fabulous writing, the rare coupling of a riveting story with dazzling prose. Few examples of this come to mind. Lolita is one. Norman Rush’s Mating is another, and if you’re dying to denigrate Eveless Eden you could fault it for its arguable resemblance to that magnificent novel, which preceded it by only four years and won the National Book Award in the bargain, although to my mind such a fault is an asset; what a great reader’s world it would be if more books were like Mating. Besides, all of Eveless Eden’s resemblances to Mating are superficial, more matters of type than of substance. Like the other book, Eveless Eden treats of consuming desire. Like the other book, Eveless Eden swaggers, convincingly and breathtakingly, to all sorts of undervisited parts of the world, from Cameroon to Ceausescu’s Romania with time off in Paris and London. Like the other author, Wiggins pours herself into the skin of a sexually obsessed member of the opposite sex and never once lets the mask slip; her Noah John, jilted lover and vengeful detective, is one of the great losers of the modern love story. But unlike Mating, Eveless Eden actually ends too soon; I was left bereft, dangling, even slightly annoyed, but I had to admit I’d been given a hell of a ride. There are scenes in this unabashedly cinematic novel that have gotten themselves shuffled up, in my mind, with scenes from Apocalypse Now; at one point Noah and his lover, Lilith, have commandeered a helicopter to take them to remotest back country Cameroon, where a rare massive chemical ‘fart’ from a volcanic lake has resulted in a holocaust of people and cattle. On their way, they come across a stranded volcanologist from Italy—named, of course, Giuseppe Verdi—to whom they give a lift in a bucket dangling down from the copter’s open bay; they try to haul the volcanologist in but he’s too grasso for them.

So we kept a careful eye on him, like angels, from the bay door. As we rose above the trees Signor Verdi gripped the bucket rim for all his life—but then, after a few minutes, when the sway subsided, he stretched out his arms and began to gesture at the landscape. ‘What the fuck’s he doing?’ I asked Lilith.

He’s singing, of course—an aria from his namesake’s Rigoletto—as throughout this book extravagant love songs are sung in extravagant ways. I won’t wait thirteen years before I read her again, only because I’ve grown a bit more courageous. She’s still just as brilliant. •

Susan Choi is the author, most recently, of American Woman, which was a finalist —along with Marianne Wiggins’s Evidence of Things Unseen—for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

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