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Cards of Identity

The Secret

by Eva Hoffman
Public Affairs, 263 pp., $25.00

Eva Hoffman’s previous books have been piercingly specific about time and place—a Polish shtetl, the Holocaust, the New World as experienced by a new immigrant. In her first novel, The Secret, she abandons that grounding in the historical moment and space and goes the whole fictional length into an imagined world set in an imagined future.

The world is still a recognizable one: the book opens in a small college town near Chicago where a mother and daughter live in a “wooden house with two porches, a leafy yard and pleasing, eclectic clutter inside,” even if the narrator plays with “robodolls” and watches “virtual videos” called Just for Real. Her relationship with her mother is of a primal, visceral intensity:

We moved in our own special atmosphere, as in a semi-liquid surround, an amniotic fluid that incorporated us both and within which there was a connecting passage or cord, along which silent sounds and messages and electrical pulses travelled back and forth. We seemed to move in tandem, always knowing when the other was happy or sad, hungry or impatient. Sometimes, as we looked at each other silently, I felt as if I’d entered her and was looking at myself from inside her eyes. She sponged me up and I felt some of her own substance passing into me along the connecting corridor, like nourishment, like juice.

And:

She would lift me up and fold me to her till the heat and softness of her body enveloped me and absorbed whatever small unhappiness was inside me into herself, until I felt dozy and fluid, like those amoebae under a microscope that maintain their amorphous shape for a moment and then merge with the organic surround…. I felt, as I raised my face to hers, that I was looking at the very image of beauty, but also at an enlarging looking-glass, into which I entered through her eyes and in which I dissolved, becoming indistinguishable from her, becoming her.

At times even the child is frightened by this experience and eventually she picks up hints that the relationship that seems almost animal is not entirely natural. A rare visit by her aunt Janey allows her to overhear a conversation in which her mother is accused of something “monstrous” and

as I stood there, riveted by the voices coming out of my mother’s study, I felt a dense darkness come over the hallway, as if the sun had been there and had gone; and I sensed a cold, scary emptiness opening within me, where a cosy warmth and safety had been…. I felt, beyond the scary gaping space, an intuition of another kind of Being, inorganic, non-biological, non-human entirely. The Weirdness. The Thing. The black matter lurking in the back of myself, into which I could vanish or metamorphose….

She struggles to escape into her own separate identity by insisting on going to school, against her mother’s wishes. There she skips rope with her friends and learns the multiplication tables but continues to be made aware that she is not like the other children; they eye her with suspicion and disquiet. A more serious situation arises when a man comes into her mother’s life. An occasion for the green-eyed monster to enter into the child’s Eden, one might think, but—on the contrary—the child falls as much in love with Steven Lontano as her mother does. When he places his hand on her mother’s, her mother puts her own hand on the child’s, creating a physical bond, and

so it was only natural that I wanted to sleep with them sometimes, to partake of the warmth which coursed between them and which, I felt, also belonged to me.

She had often slept in her mother’s bed and wants to continue doing so when Steven has begun sharing it. When he picks her up and returns her to her own bed, the mother objects, sharply, and follows the child. He tries to explain in a reasonable way why she should not sleep with the man who fills the role of a father in her life. She replies, “But you’re not my real father…and I was here first.” When he points out that “she chose me to be there for her,” the child argues, “No… she chose you for both of us.” After all, she and her mother “shared a delectable, frightening, powerful secret—though what it was, I could not have said, or maybe, could not allow myself to say.” Admitting defeat, it is Steven who departs and the child who protests, “But what has changed? We still love you.” “I wish you wouldn’t speak in the plural all the time,” he says. His feelings for her are summed up when he puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “Poor Iris, poor child.”

This might not strike us as an unknown or unique situation in the complicated tangle of human lives. What is unusual is that it is the child who laments his departure and blames her mother for it. “I want to know about my father,” she asserts, and determinedly sets out to uncover her mother’s secrets. In the basement she finds letters from her grandmother to her mother, photographs of her mother that are uncannily like her, and, finally, her own birth certificate: “Father’s Name: None. Method of Birth: Cloning. Laboratory: Rosen, McPherson & Park.”

The reader has been led to expect this revelation for quite some time; the clues have been coming thick and fast, e.g., “We looked like sisters who, by rights, should have been twins. Or like identical twins who by some fluke were ageing at different speeds.” But this confirmation of our suspicions leaves some questions unanswered: in the year 2025, that is, around the time in which the book is set, will cloning be as outrageous and contested an idea as in 2002? Early on we have been told that “the nuclear family—the nuke—was dead as the dodo by the time I came along. It had exploded, or imploded, or done both at the same time,” and Iris had noticed, at school, that daddies were few and far between; she had chosen for a friend a little girl who actually had one and had noted wistfully, on being lifted onto the shoulders of one, “a shadowy longing. So this was what male shoulders were like, straight and steady. This was the feel of masculine energy.” We have here, then, a scientifically produced clone who experiences human feelings just as we know them. This produces a schizophrenic buzz in the narrative tone, and a giddying swing as of the ground not being steady under one’s feet. We are being presented with a vision of the world as it will, or might, become, but through the horrified reactions of someone rather like any of us today.

On discovering that “I was a replica—an artificial mechanism, a manufactured thing…. My sense of myself as a young girl with her very own, unique self—an illusion…,” she claims that “the knowledge nullified me. I was not a real person. I was not anyone.”

Quite aware of this dichotomy, Hoffman chooses to come down on the side of traditional melodrama: “I staggered back to my room,” “I experienced something like vertigo…,” “I threw myself on the bed and couldn’t cry,” and, finally, “I walked out of the house in which I’d grown up and into the grey, misty dawn.”

The split between a conventional reaction and an unconventional situation is bridged by the figure of the Adviser; conversations with him inter- sperse the narrative at crucial moments since the narrator turns to him for enlightenment in a very twentieth-century manner. Informed of Iris’s shock at discovering the secret of her birth, he assures her it is the usual revulsion a child feels on learning how it came to be born. Of course in this case it is precisely the opposite—revulsion at not being created by the usual “fleshly means,” at being

merely animated matter, programmed into a semblance of life by carefully applied moisture and heat. I thought I could hear the incessant clicking of protein sequences within me, polymerase chain reactions going through their mindless motions, sub-molecular matter dividing, combining, changing shape, exchanging signals and bleeps. Directed by what? By whom?

She acknowledges that the rage and despair she feels are not dissimilar.

The New York she travels to has the same disquieting fracture line running through it. So much is recognizable—the northern tip all tenements and condemned projects, the fashion and wealth all confined to the other end—but there are futuristic touches added like cosmetics. The entertainments now provided at artists’ studios in TriBeCa and Cult Town are the creation of “organic art,” i.e., artists at computer terminals turning out “cross-species composites” that are “sort of real and sort of not,” and “Mnemonic Aids” that implant imagined memories into the brain so that it is “like watching a homemade movie.” Iris once again shows herself strongly in favor of the traditional, and says “no thanks” to it all: “No thanks, no thanks, no thanks.” She did not choose the method of her procreation, and she does not choose the world that made it possible.

Conveniently stumbling upon an office building near Rockefeller Center bearing the sign “Rosen, McPherson & Park: Genetic Engineering and Modification, Suite 2305,” she inveigles her way in by pretending to be a student of cell biology engaged in research for a paper. The scene she enters is depressingly banal: “like a somewhat antiseptic kitchen of a mildly experimental restaurant” with “several metal-topped tables with bottles, syringes, Petri dishes and plain plastic containers.” Nothing high-tech or futuristic about it at all. Dr. Park, a Korean—yes, he is a member of one of those sinister yellow races out of the movies, with a face “either extremely young or ageless” and eyes that are “canny, calm”—explains the science of cloning to her as if she were a kindergartner, so simplistically as to be implausible, and he also recognizes her because—of course—it was he who performed the “operation” on her mother. She lashes out at him: “It’s you who performed a dirty trick…. It’s you who created a deception. A living lie. That’s what I am, a walking, talking fake. Do you know how that feels?” This is followed by a great deal in the Iris-the-Tragedy-Queen mode: “buffeted as if by great gales, by violent clashing waves…. I nearly keeled over from a strange pain. I was in a state of—I can only call it chaos” and “I felt sea-sick, heart-sick, mind-sick.”

But now a switch takes place. So far the narrator has been anguished and tormented by her fears and discoveries; now she begins to emphasize her lack of feeling. She takes up with Piotr, a man she meets at a panel discussion on “Creations and Re-creations: Whither Human Design?” Although he is “feverish with passion” and she moves in with him quickly, she herself feels very little. She had hoped he would “jolt me into feeling something strong. Something vivid,” but he does not. He suggests the Affect Simulator, a “small, horizontal missile” in which she lies down, in the dark, and allows narrow beams of light to alter the “hormonal balance and pituitary gland outflow” so that she might experience love, jealousy, anger, hate, etc., in adjustable degrees of intensity.

It turns out that the body can tell the difference between natural and artificially induced feelings: they are simply not the same. She cannot shake off her suspicion that whatever feelings she has have been implanted in her by Dr. Park. Piotr pronounces her a zombie. But when she walks “out into the muggy summer sunlight of mid-Manhattan” and is nearly run over by a “street shuttle,” she swerves out of the way and so discovers a perfectly healthy instinct for self-preservation,

which implied, perhaps, a strange kind of self-approval. I didn’t, apparently, hate my condition enough. Which meant that I had to figure out how to go on living with it. How to go on being. How to go on.

She goes on very determinedly, to begin with, by finding out her grandparents’ whereabouts in Florida and traveling to Palm Beach to confront them. They live in a condo in Eldertown rendered in bleak, bright images. They are elderly, of course, and shocked by her arrival, so shocked that the grandmother suffers a heart attack and dies, confusing, on her deathbed, this granddaughter with the absent daughter. Iris returns to confront her mother and assaults her physically as well: “I raised my fist and hit. I was trying to shatter the Mirror’s reflecting surface.” (The Adviser had presented her with the useful, if worn, Narcissus image of mirror/pool and voice/echo.)

We wrestled blindly, with an awful intimacy, body meeting body, body meeting itself…a line of pure violence joining us now as love once did. Her reflecting features contorted, love and hate twisting into each other, and twisting her face.

Who are you?” she said…. “What are you?”

You,” I answered…. “I am you.”

She does not quite kill her mother. “‘Goodbye, Elizabeth,’ I whispered and her name sounded immensely strange on my lips. My mother, my sister. My mother, my twin, ‘Goodbye for now,’” and once again Iris finds herself walking out “into the dark funnel of night.”

Having performed the ritual murder of the parent according to Freudian dictum, the child now walks free. And freedom, she finds, is a lonely state. She is driven into visiting her mother’s discarded lover and persuading him to make love to her, but it only gives her “a kind of nausea, as if one part of myself were ill with the other.” The truth is that the series of climaxes through which Hoffman has led us with speed and efficiency has now come to an end; we are at a plateau, and Hoffman must “find closure.”

It comes with a banality typical of our century. Seating herself at a computer, Iris picks a man called Robert from the Consciousness Site much as one might from a Lonely Hearts column of another time. At first, they correspond in riddles but when the riddles have been answered, “I felt let down, as though something had been shattered, something dark but precious…. My secret magic, magic lack. I wanted and didn’t want it to be known.” In abandoning the secret, giving it up to Robert, she actually initiates another stage of her life—more mundane, more happy.

Before meeting him she had imagined his “slender long male body” stretched on the deck of a boat in a translucent blue bay, “his face etched against the wind, the air, the sun.” And so he proves to be; Hoffman is perfectly aware of the romantic tradition. “Reader,” she writes, “you must forgive me,” for when she meets him, he is “slim and tanned” all right and carries with him “some refraction of sun and water.” So “things progressed quickly between Robert and me, along the most familiar plot-lines, the oft-travelled trajectory.” In this condition of self-consciousness, Iris even looks up a walk they take in Central Park in the Plot Classifier and finds it categorized as a “Basic Convention,” but she gives the scene, and the moment of the first embrace, its full gravity, divested of any irony: “In that long, burgeoning moment, the Weirdness had vanished. It had dispelled itself like a vaporous fog.” A love scene follows along the lines of the Basic Convention except that in this case she feels “the original image” erased and replaced by what is “not-me but also not-Her.” A person is given identity when it is recognized and Robert recognizes and loves hers. “To be is to be perceived. I felt perceived by Robert, in my very me-ness, which seemed to thicken and tone up in his presence….” Another rule of the Convention—the Happy Ending—has been achieved.

Conventional and unconventional then, just as Hoffman planned.

The plot—young girl grows up and struggles to find her own identity—is familiar, but in most examples the writer reflects upon the reality we know, not the one we imagine. This gives Hoffman’s characters their ambiguity. They are and they are not like us—sufficiently like for us to recognize them as fellow human beings and unlike enough to rouse us to speculate on their possibilities. A brave venture for a writer whose known and acknowledged forte has been her ability to study and convey the historical moment—the Holocaust in Poland, then immigration to the United States. Those books had a warm, rich density to them, filled as they were with the memory of the physical and the living.

By comparison, The Secret is composed in cooler, paler shades, watercolors rather than oils or crayons. Her images and metaphors are drawn frequently from science: e.g., “heavy-metal density” and “decryption engines,” and there is a theoretical cast to much of the writing:

We know that stars collapse and emerge daily without such rhyme or reason; but in the mind, unless we want to fall into a chaos of non-meaning like some super-nova imploding and scattering into cosmic debris, we have to segment our lives…, we have to divide ourselves into units of sense.

Even descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes are given a luminous wash that covers them with a kind of film, making colors soothing and harmonious and with no jarring notes. One might be drifting, in the course of this novel, from dream to nightmare to dream again. In the Midi, where she travels with Robert, for instance, they visit

a softly hilly area, with gently dipping valleys and stretchy, flower-dotted meadows. The pastel grasses glowed over the body of the landscape, the wind bending them in great shimmering swathes, in rolling rustling waves. Melodious waves.

Out of this dreamy landscape, a figure emerges: Is it her mother or a dream-mother? Her blond hair blows in the wind, and she almost blends into the pale grasses. They do not speak but

I felt an immense, sad longing. A long, long sadness. I had loved her so and I was going to lose her. To leave her…. Without a sign or a sound, she turned and started walking away; and within moments she vanished into the tall grasses and the shimmering, flickering air.

At a Cistercian abbey the lovers test its known acoustic tricks that amplify even a whisper into a deep, resonant tone that echoes on and on. When it comes to her turn, she finds herself breaking into tears as she whispers, “Mother, forgive me. I didn’t mean… I didn’t know…I was not myself.” A sharp and poignant reality breaks into the calm beauty of the scene, pierces it and alters it. The fracture lines run in every direction.

Toward the end of her memoir, Lost in Translation, Hoffman and her sister sit talking to their elderly parents. The mother, recalling the first time she heard a radio or saw a film, remarks, “To think what I’ve lived to see.” “You must think Alinka and I are some kind of monsters,” Hoffman responds. “Through this time telescope I see my sister and me as sci-fi creatures, with shiny, hard carapaces, living in a sci-fi world….”

She writes of being driven to that twentieth-century panacea, psychoanalysis:

I’ve contracted this American disease, and now I have to get the American cure,” I tell my shrink accusingly.

And what’s the disease?” he asks politely.

Anomie, loneliness, emotional repression, and excessive self-consciousness, the latter of which is encouraged by your profession,” I say.”

First as a Jew in Poland, then as an immigrant in the US, Hoffman learned how the outsider can appear and be made to feel a monster and what adjustments, at what sacrifice, have to be made to finally belong to and be accepted by society. In The Secret it is not history that has created such a situation, but science. Whatever the cause, she understands the situation and gives us an account that is affecting.

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