Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner. Coffee House Press. $16.95, 364 pp.
Partway through Norah Labiner’s latest novel, Let the Dark Flower Blossom, an author at a public lecture speaks to a hushed audience about what stories do and what they mean for individuals and society, using his two small boys as an example:
. . . they, one, the elder or the younger, will ask, no, no, command: tell us a story. And I do: I tell and I tell and I tell my children a story and I give them what that [sic] they will need to fight the demons that will rise up from the underworld. It is an underworld of their own creation. It is terrifying for this very reason. And they need weapons. They need talismans, poison arrows, swords, daggers, keys, slingshots and stones to launch, to arm them against monsters. And are stories the same for us? Do stories whether a book a movie a television drama keep us distract us save us for one more moment one more minute from facing the thing that we fear? Do they distract from some ancient terrible truth? Don’t worry, we will not face that ancient truth tonight. Not here. Not now. Tonight here in the darkness in this darkness we will turn upend overturn the hourglass. For what is a story? A story is a map to the underworld and how your follow that map is, of course, entirely up to you. There is a price for your travels. I won’t say that there isn’t a price. Remember to keep a coin for the ferryman. He must have his payment. He demands his due.
This passage brings together the book’s main themes and forecasts the thrust of Let the Dark Flower Blossom, its rhythmic flow between that author and his audience, those children, us as readers with our shared monsters, and the ferryman who will exact something from each of us.
Let the Dark Flower Blossom centers on twins who share a tragic family history. Leaving that behind for college, they become friends with a fellow student who turns out to be a creature from a very different social milieu. For these three, and others, there are journeys, sexual escapades, the flush of success and fame, failure, murder, faulty memories, guilt and innocence, children unacknowledged by their parents, disguises, and a set of obsessions that, among other things, includes Greek gods, statues and places that might give rise to miracles, typewriters, labyrinths, and mazes, a wooden box that is tricky to open, fire, roses, apples and cakes. A patient reader will spend some time tracing their occurrence and how their import changes, subtly and broadly, depending on what consciousness Labiner wants us to follow. What is paramount, though, what we’re not meant to forget for an instant, is both the importance of storytelling and its ramifications.
Sheldon Schell (known as S.Z. Schell) and Eloise Sarasine, his sister, have a secret, as each lays claim to witnessing something; by the end of the book, just whose version can be believed may still be wrapped in the tatters of mystery. Both are liars, cheats, and fabulators in ways that range from disturbing to, in a particular case, malign. We view their interactions with Roman Stone, who begins as a corpse and whose bones are layered with tissues of myths and tales (often sordid). Soon into the book he becomes a novelist heralded as the voice of his times, and a celebrity. As his sidekick, the frustrated writer Schell has the most to fear, and to hide, from what Stone knows about him. His deceptions alternate with the ever-changing story Eloise (for a short time Stone’s girlfriend) tells to her husband Louis about her childhood. (His interest in stories stems from the need, as a lawyer, to find the narrative that best serves his clients.) She carries inside a suspicion that is initially puzzling—it comes about when a boy reading on the floor of a bookstore gives her a hard look: “And as she passed him, she wondered; she couldn’t stop herself from wondering: had he ever murdered anyone?” We often make up stories about passing strangers, but such speculation is not common. To further complicate matters, Labiner presents the less structured thoughts of the superstitious Susu and her relationship with an unnamed man who has a troubling influence on her.
Everything that we learn about Stone is hearsay, and that includes the tale of him cuckolding his father with his new stepmother. The shade of Stone is being pursued by Benjamin Salt, a younger writer, himself the author of “a tome, a Herculean hurly-burly of literary ephemera called, Here Comes Everyone,” who has tracked Schell down to an island he has bought with an inheritance from his rich widow. (One hopes that Labiner deliberately gave Salt’s book a very similar title to Clay Shirky’s 2008 book to indicate derivativeness.) With Stone’s death, announced almost at the very beginning of Let the Dark Flower Blossom, we are meant to follow Schell’s nagging worry that something unpleasant is going to be asked of him or revealed when Salt visits. In his quiet life spent playing chess with his only friend, Dr. Lemon, while getting to know Lemon’s daughter, Beatrice, Schell has had time to both hide and nurse his regrets.
It can’t be said that Stone’s death precipitates the action, for there is not so much activity as cogitation and recollection. The real question for Schell and for Salt, and for the authorities, is simple: who killed Stone? Yet the murder is not of that much interest to Labiner. It is a device that generates tension, sends characters down dusty hallways of their past, and permits space for Labiner to fashion a small world where everything is connected. If we were to ask a novel to be realistic, then we would judge Let the Dark Flower Blossom an improbable work for its interweaving of fates. Even secondary figures serve to tie the main characters more firmly together. (Beatrice, for instance, is rarely given to us from the inside; she is mostly property to be passed on from her father to Schell for safekeeping, and even at the end, when her role has changed, it is only to perpetuate the writer’s life.)
Being realistic, then, is clearly not Labiner’s intent. While Salt is at Schell’s home, his wife, Elizabeth Weiss, is interviewed by a young woman and petty thief named Eris. Part of their conversation revolves around the purpose and future of the novel. Weiss “felt that a novel should offer—if not moral instruction, then—a roadmap for the reader. It should tell the reader where to go and how to proceed in the world.” A roadmap that’s a didactic work could, in some supposed ideal situation, usher in a harmonious world, and this runs directly into Stone’s view of stories as “a map to the underworld,” where terrors abide. Eris (named after the Greek goddess of discord) predictably differs from both in her eagerness to get rid of mythic and moral undertones by dispensing with the immoral center—though she never uses that phrase—from which the stories emanate. “‘In the future,’ she said to Liz, ‘the novel will be a polyphonic electric/tronic dialogue between all the readers in the world, and we will have no more of this, this, this monster called the author.’” The book demonstrates that in the present day Eris is wrong. The monsters are as present now as they were in ancient Greek thought, and they lurk at the center of the labyrinth Labiner has devised, which we enter on the first page. It will take us to a cold and barbaric form of creativity where what people say they do starts to erase what they did do.
Salt comes to Schell for reasons that are not his own, but he leaves the island with a story he needed to invent in order to resume writing; Schell gains solace in telling his life story over and over to a man whose mind is deteriorating; Susu’s story knits together the lives of many people. In Let the Dark Flower Blossom Labiner, with a firm control over events (perhaps the grip is too firm at times) and a fine way with language, presents us with an intellectual murder mystery that seeks to determine how writers’ foibles and eccentricities can be dangerous to themselves and, often, to others. “A good storyteller must be a monster,” Louis Sarasine tells an assembled group, and those words reflect Norah Labiner’s beliefs.
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