Chris Abani’s third novel, The Virgin of Flames, is set in the crumbling, beautiful parts of East L.A. where Hispanic and African Americans live. The City of Angels, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve,” has become a receptacle of wind and ash as brush fires sweep through the state. The atmosphere of dread and suspense in this apocalyptic landscape is heightened with apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A bent and expensive immigration lawyer starts to accept only donations, “even goats, chickens, and fish,” after her shadow is burned into the glass frame of her office door. Others sightings are reported; people gather in expectation of visions and portents. The City of Angels lives up to its name in an age of annunciation.
Tensions between the desires of the body, its self-destructive urges, and the spirit as mediated by ritual, sex, and art feature prominently in the novel. Black, a muralist, who paints “Montezuma at his local McDonald’s buying a Big Mac; mermaids draped on red couches,” drives around the city to photograph the signs of the Virgin. Born of an atheist Nigerian father who’s a NASA scientist and a devoutly Catholic Salvadoran mother, Black has visions. As a boy, he had seen billowing curtains as the Virgin’s robe. He had also placed a lit candle under his mother’s robes which caught fire as she listened rapt to the preacher talk about Yahweh. “She became the Virgin of Flames.”
Now during sex Black sees the Virgin, whose image merges with either his mother’s or Sweet Girl’s, a transsexual Mexican stripper whom he’s obsessed with (and whose first striptease is shown as if by a camera taking a long shot, tracking, panning, and ending with close-ups). The archangel Gabriel also appears to Black in different shapes when he’s ready to work or, more awkwardly, when he is just about to relieve his almost constant erection. He is mocked as he climaxes to the sight of men masturbating. When Bandana starts to rape him at gunpoint, Black receives the thrusting penis in his mouth first with a silent Amen: “body of Christ.”
The body also figures as a ground on which narratives are incised. Black had once saved himself from jumping off a bridge by cutting his face. Scars are connected with rituals, with cicatrices and stigmata, with insights and visions. His “fakir psychic” tattooist friend Iggy, owner of the trendy The Ugly Store, wears special steel loops threaded under the skin on either side of her spine. She suspends herself by chains from the ceiling above her clients’ tattooing chair. To gain admittance to her services, “clients had to be scarred.” Black has observed “Jennifer Garner and Uma Thurman in line scratching desperately but discreetly at their faces to gain entry.” Bomboy Dickens, once a boy soldier in Rwanda who took part in the atrocities, cutting limbs with a machete, is now “out of place . . . and out of time,” drives a Lexus, and runs a halal abattoir in East L.A. He can carve cadavers all day without getting a spot of blood on his clothes. His palms still bear the calluses of his youth.
In an epigraph, Abani cites some lines from Wallace Stevens: “What use is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” The past and the spirit world leave visible traces on this corporeal world, and memories and art can haunt places forever. Black asks Iggy, “Do you think the Chumash are gone because the Mission settlers wiped them out? History is everywhere here.” Opines Iggy: “Everyone is attended by ghosts. . . . Ghosts are the things, the shapes we make with our memory.” Art, religion, found objects, and even commerce make being and becoming, divinity in toto, palpable. Iggy sells organic “goodoo” dolls, including a Jesus with a hard penis, a kind of a profane creation myth in reverse. People create the gods they want.
Black realizes the differences between himself and Bomboy: the Rwandan lives in the static, uncreative world of rigid statements whereas he sees shades, angles, light, and perspective. As an artist, Black “sees everything as a whole—texture, silence, sound, color and image.” The colors that Black grinds and makes never dry or bleed into each other, just like L.A., a “segregated city that still managed to work as a single canvas of color and voices.”
In contrast, Bomboy’s logic is simple: “Your father was an African, and so therefore you are African.” But this is a narrative about unstable identities, boundaries, margins, and crossing over. In Black’s world, unlike Bomboy’s, colors can be unstable or indeterminate—at one point a newly ground paint turns black. Like the neighborhood he lives in, Black is “dark enough to be black, yet light enough to be something else.” We first meet Black applying an undercoat of white face paint as he puts on a friend’s wedding dress which he wears to go up to the “spaceship,” a metal pod above The Ugly Store where onlookers mistake him for the Virgin.
Black describes himself as a shapeshifter who has gone through several identities and different ethnic and national affiliations “as though they were seasonal changes in wardrobe, and discarding them just as easily.” For a while he was “Navaho, the seed race, children of the sky people,” but could never master the “steely-eyed and clenched jaw look he saw in films.” His art reflects this transgressive becoming. Aishwarya Rai and other celebrities all over the world send him examples of graffiti from men’s toilets in “Mumbai and Bombay” which he incorporates into a mural. With Ray-Ray, a dwarf who quotes from Raymond Chandler and smokes “wets” (joints soaked in formaldehyde), he drives past a turn where dogs are thrown to their deaths by their owners. Gang members use the carcasses for target practice. Black cradles two dying dogs, the tableaux of pietas. He is on a quest to become what he wants, even if he does not know at the time that it is to become a woman, the Virgin of Flames.
Elemental references to myths of creation and destruction run throughout the book. His father tells Black the myth of Draco, the dragon star, which “in Igbo is Ekeoku, the serpent of fire whose body is the endless darkness with the glowing jewel of fire on its head. If we ever meet that serpent the whole world ends.” Amid the news reports of the brush fires and the falling ash, James Taylor croons, “I’ve seen fire, I’ve seen rain.” However, in this blighted landscape the redemptive rain does not fall.
Where there is creation, there is destruction, erasure, and censorship of the freedom of expression. Black’s last mural is Fatima, “a being both Virgin and not and closer to the profane than the sacred yet holding the two.” The city authorities decree that the fifty-foot-tall mural of the Muslim woman, with Black’s face, carrying a gun and strangling a dove is too disturbing for the neighborhood children. The cops who enforce this order assault Black.
Black’s quest comes to a head when Sweet Girl finds out where he lives. (The seduction scene, which takes place among the bags of lapis lazuli and saffron and turmeric, features some of the more sumptuous, sensual prose I have read in a while and the description of the sex to the riff of a jazz band playing Coltrane features bravura writing.) Sweet Girl uncovers his/her penis and shows Black how to retract his testicles and tape his penis so that it disappears from view. Another unconsummated sexual act unhinges Black as, aflame with rage and confusion, he climbs to the roof of the spaceship, his “Virgin” gown soaked in turpentine. A crowd observes the Virgin’s assumption when the dress catches fire.
A published poet, Abani is fully using his artistic powers in The Virgin of Flames. The chromaticism of the narrative may not be as lyrical of violence as Becoming Abigail was, but it is undeniably more powerful, humorous, visual, even visionary. Abani, like his friend Walter Mosley, has become a fine poet of hybridity, of marginal identities, of urban anxieties, and of the hopes and myths of many in this post-9/11 age of religious positivism in the U.S.
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