ShadowplayNorman Lock. Ellipsis Press. 154pp, $13.00.
With his short novel Shadowplay, Norman Lock makes no attempt to hide his inspirations or intentions; an epigraph states, “In Java during the reign of King Senapati, a master of the shadow-puppet theater heard, by chance from a Portuguese sailor, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.” The novel is, at its most basic level, a reworking of this classic story: the protagonist, Guntur—the master puppeteer—falls deeply in love with a girl, Candra, who dies just a few days after he meets her. Ten years after her death, Guntur uses his storytelling prowess to make his way into the afterlife, carrying back his lost love.
This seems straightforward enough, if uninventive. Lock twists the myth, though, and therein lies the novel’s success: Candra resents Guntur from the moment she meets him, and more so after he brings her back. In this way Guntur is no longer the noble, tragic hero of his own story—instead he takes on the role of abductor. Lock updates the myth by setting it in post-colonial Java, but only to an extent; these islanders, though informed by their interactions with the Dutch and Portuguese, have as yet retained their culture and traditions. By referring to both Greek myth and traditional Hindu stories (specifically The Abduction of Sinta, which Shadowplay mirrors in several key ways), Lock draws the reader away from Western culture and into something more exotic, but he does so without leaving those Western roots entirely. We are uncomfortable in this new place, but we have enough to hold onto, and Lock explains the Javanese traditions well enough that we don’t have to read the book with Wikipedia’s help.
Lock’s intention with this revisited and revised myth is to explore the power and danger of telling stories; as the back cover blurb states, the novel is “a meditation on storytelling as an act of seizure, a parable of obsession and of the danger of confounding the real with its representations.” Moreover, Lock blatantly acknowledges that his novel is about storytelling; the focal story is related by a first-person narrator, who in turn knows the story from seeing a shadow-puppet production of it, a story that itself takes the form of the story that Guntur tells to himself.
This layering technique mimics the oral tradition; since the story of Guntur and Candra has become a myth before we even approach it, it moves beyond the realm of magic realism. We doubt their actions because they are never presented as actualities, as they might have been in, say, a Marquez story. Lock’s language reflects the fabulous nature of the myth, intricate in description but never hard to understand, full of repeated images that, however simple, resonate deeply within the story. Candra’s wooden bangles, which appear before we even meet the actual character, are one such image:
The rough music of her bangles heard whenever she raised or lowered her arm became the musical accompaniment of his love’s story. He did not know that the sound her bangles made signified her annoyance at this old man who tried to seduce her.
From here on, the soft clinking signifies Candra’s contempt for Guntur in a way that even the most obvious narration would fail to capture.
Ultimately the novel comes off as somewhat cautionary; as in a fable, we learn a lesson at the end. This makes sense. The story, and even the story about the story, is arranged like a fable, an oral narrative designed to examine and explain—to a degree—human nature. As a fable, as a revisionist myth, as a story about stories, Shadowplay succeeds. As a novel, however, there are some tensions.
Shadowplay is very short, covering only 137 pages in fairly large print. That brevity is a strength in some ways, as this story could not have been extended much further. (Indeed, it often seems overextended.) The plot does not progress, really, beyond the second chapter, and we instead return again and again to the same vital scenes and images, approaching them from the supposed viewpoints of different characters in the author’s attempt to reveal more, more, more—not so much about the characters as about the act of storytelling. The language follows the same circular path as the story, repeating certain images and phrases; though this is poetic—even beautiful—the ornate language becomes sugary in its repetition.
The mythical structure of the story suits Lock’s intended focus, but it distances the reader from the characters—not beyond sympathy, but perhaps beyond any deeper emotional connection. Their story is tragic, but it loses some of its emotive heft from being filtered through multiple storytellers. Lock’s first-person narrator seems to be an attempt to establish a character closer to the reader, but this narrator’s intermittent presence—his identity isn’t really established until halfway through the book—does not give the reader much purchase.
Lock has written a novel that accomplishes its goal convincingly and quite skillfully. To this end, we can call it a success. Like Guntur’s stories, though, Shadowplay sacrifices some of its potential individualism and connectivity in the interest of furthering the goals that Lock set forth. These goals are intriguing and even captivating in their course, but they restrict the story to little else. At its end, the story leaves us with its lesson and the themes it discusses, but takes with it the characters and their personal tragedy.
Mark Wadley is a philosophy student and fiction writer living in Memphis, TN.
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