No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, September 19, 2015

2015/20: Black Oxen -- Elizabeth Knox

Surely it's better to be human and live with grief, than outgrow your humanity and learn to raise the dead too late to raise your own. [p.269]

I'd owned this novel since 2007: I'm not sure why it took me so long to read it, given my admiration and enjoyment of Knox's other novels.

This was the second novel I'd read within a month with the same central conceit: multiple viewpoint characters, who turn out to be the same person. The effect here was quite different, though. Black Oxen felt, at times, like a novel whose major events happened off-stage, off-page.

Apart from a brief prelude set in Scotland, the novel takes place in three imaginary worlds. 'Eden' is the most archetypally fantastic, but we only catch glimpses of the characters' lives there. Lequama is an imaginary South American republic, replete with black magic and political posturing. And the framing story, that of the narrative therapist whose newest patient is a frustrating enigma, is set in a near-future California. (It should be noted that 2022 is rather closer now than it was when the novel was first published in 2001.)

There's a list of characters at the beginning of the novel ('poets, foundlings, prostitutes, revolutionaries, escaped convicts, torturers, psychotherapists, entomologists, child film stars and billionaires', to quote the Guardian review) which includes one significant morsel of information. What would really have helped would have been a timeline, possibly at the end to minimise spoilers: I made my own, and found myself admiring Knox's craft all over again as the stories meshed together and another, more profound story was revealed at their intersections. [Also a couple of inconsistencies: but this is fiction, dammit, and fiction of a magical and flexible sort.]

I'm circling around the plot, because it's difficult I feel this is more a novel about character than about events. At its core is Carme Risk's father, who is beautiful and mysterious, 'morally unencumbered' and possibly not wholly human. (Carme's narrative therapy is an attempt, or so she claims, to make sense of her father's stories, and of the worlds through which he's passed.) When we first meet Carme's father, in the mid-1970s, he is a nameless foundling: his self-appointed guardian Carlin Cadaver names him Abra. Abra discovers a portal to another world; lives there a while, undocumented; finds himself amnesiac in La Host, Lequama's capital, where he seems to have a somewhat mystical history and is known as Ido; disappears again, leavng only a journal or two.

Abra, or Ido, is a compelling and charismatic character. None of his doctors or therapists can make sense of him: nor, for many years, can he make sense of himself. Yet his story emerges from between the threads of Carme's own story, of the political and personal machinations of the post-revolutionary movers and shakers in Lequama, and of the sketchy details of life in Eden. Abra's emotional landscape is as complex as his personality: he is far from heroic, especially to himself, but his gifts (which might be called curses) compel him to act as an agent of change wherever he goes.

After I'd read Black Oxen (twice) I turned to Knox's collection of essays, The Love School, and discovered that the novel's roots are in the storytelling game she's played with her sister and their friends since the early 1970s. I'm fascinated by co-writing, co-creation, and all too aware of how hard it can be to set down one's inner universe -- that ongoing narrative with a cast of thousands -- in a form that others, lacking the nuances of the story's evolution, will understand. I felt I understood rather better why Eden was never described; why Abra and Dev's relationship, though it precipitates the main events of Black Oxen, was backstory; why Knox chose Carme to bind the stories together.

The title refers to a street in La Host, where sacrificial black oxen were led to the temple in pre-Conquest days, and where key characters find themselves again and again. Early in the novel, Carme produces a drawing of a line of oxen: but are there many oxen, or is there just a single black ox at different stages of that doomed journey? Black Oxen provoked a great many questions of this kind. Nothing is here without purpose: any image may hold a key, and any gesture might reveal another thread of the story.

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