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Family Secrets

Annunciation

by David Plante
Ticknor and Fields, 346 pp. (1994)

Born the sixth of seven brothers in a French-Canadian enclave of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1940, the writer David Plante is best known for his trilogy The Francoeur Family (1978–1982), a novelized memoir of childhood, adolescence, and early maturity. Told without fear of the humdrum and repetitious, the book’s achievement is its gradual and convincing creation of nine characters—father, mother, and seven sons—each highly individual but seen to be so in reaction and relation to one another.

Catholic and originally Francophone in a Protestant and overwhelmingly Anglophone world, the Francoeurs are torn by competing impulses, toward solidarity and security on the one hand, independence and risk on the other. The book opens with the stubborn, taciturn father, of part American Indian descent, choosing to go it alone and ignore a union strike call, a decision that will eventually lead to his dismissal and economic downfall. At the same time his wife is lamenting the fact that she has lost all independence in marriage and has to follow her husband’s lead in everything, though she admits having chosen him because she is weak herself and attracted to his protective strength. Unable to find a middle way between fear of family breakdown and desire for personal freedom, she descends through one panic attack after another into a state of near madness, a process Plante describes over five hundred and more pages with extenuating patience and precision.

Meantime, each brother distinguishes himself from the others through the nature of his response to the same conundrum: how to have a separate, independent life in the Anglophone world while remaining loyal to the old community and safe within it. The eldest son, Richard, leaves home but exactly follows his parents’ model, marrying a Catholic girl and producing a large family. More interestingly, the second son, Albert, becomes a fighter pilot, stationed far from home but always turning all his money and attention back toward the family, as if he were only away from them for their benefit. Staying single, he uses his relative wealth to put the younger brothers through college and pay the parents’ mortgage, while his intense religiosity, disturbingly combined with an evident pleasure in bombing missions, is coercively deployed to keep the family aware of their shared Catholic heritage, sometimes forcing them to their knees to pray together.

The third son, Edmond, yearns to leave home like his older brothers but is never courageous enough to stay away for more than a few weeks. Resentfully running small errands for everyone, he will grow into middle age playing with model trains and forming ever more ambiguous friendships with adolescent boys. Once again, it is not just the quality of the character study and occasional drama that is remarkable here, but also the sense Plante gives us of the shared family dynamic from which, over many years, each boy is emerging: Edmond and Albert are two sides of the same coin.

The author’s alter ego in the trilogy, Daniel, has the most complex response to the Francoeur predicament and one that colors the telling of the entire story, and arguably of all Plante’s narratives. Oppressed by parental conflict and neurosis, compulsively seeking approval while guiltily wishing he were elsewhere, from early boyhood Daniel has powerful apprehensions of some magical space beyond the claustrophobic family circle. Crucially, this is not the space of the Anglophone world outside the Catholic enclave; Daniel is not interested in college or career or women or any of the practical roads to independence which, in the anxiety-drenched atmosphere of his family, might be construed as betrayal. Rather he imagines invisible presences lurking outside his bedroom window, other worlds opening up behind the veil of ordinary reality. These apprehensions, occasionally hallucinations, are at once seductive and frightening. They can lead him to strip off his clothes by a lakeside and masturbate into the darkness, as though to achieve some sensual oneness with the night, or they can have him terrified of imagined intruders outside his window and running to sleep in his parents’ bed.

It’s intriguing how Plante integrates this highly specific psychological and social situation with two strong traditions in American literature. Largely seen from Daniel’s point of view, The Francoeur Family at first appears to be a book of meticulous realism, drawing on a rich genre of American fiction that chronicles the fortunes of humble folk in provincial towns. But the sheer weight of detail, the pressure and density of the contingent world described, which always has a melancholy and hypnotic heaviness in Plante’s work, almost obliges the impressionable mind to imagine that there must be a meaning behind it and a space, another world, opening out beyond and, hierarchically, above it. The result is a style where the apparently antithetical traditions of realism and transcendentalism call to each other and complement each other, very much as brothers in a family.

The Catholic community Plante evokes construes any intuited space beyond the real world as the Christian paradise, or indeed the Christian hell, and there is much talk among the Francoeurs of being reunited beyond the grave, but Daniel’s awareness of alien presences is more in line with indigenous Indian mythology. So if the relationships between the members of the family are often and cleverly established by the play of eye contact between them, Daniel adds an extra dimension by imagining himself as constantly watched by invisible eyes in woods and wilderness. It is a situation in which he is both enthralled and passive. In rare moments when he takes an active part in his parents’ interminable battle of wills, he has out-of-body experiences during which he has the impression that he is watching the melodrama from a distance, becoming himself one of the presences that fascinate and frighten him. He is there and not there. In general, these psychic experiences occur at moments of indecision, when Daniel is caught between the longing to be outside the family and the longing to stay in it. After one pathetic scene with his mother, we hear:

A sudden desire came over him to get out of his house into the outside and at the same time he wanted to close the door to the living room, to close all the open doors, against what would come in.

In the passage below Daniel is exploring the lake near the family’s country house with his younger brother Julien. The spiritual experience arises when the natural world offers only impasse:

Julien said he thought he’d go back. Daniel wouldn’t go on without him. The long hill they had been walking over sloped away, and at the bottom of the slope was a large, dense clump of what they called waxen-berry bush, in fact laurel, and there seemed to be no way through. They didn’t move. Noises slowly increased in volume; low insect noises, a lap of water, the sudden high screech of a heat bug. But the noises made Daniel aware of a deeper silence; it was the silence of a person, or people, keeping silent, and he all at once felt they had come into a place where, a moment before, people had been moving about freely and talking, and now, with the intruding presence of the boys, the people had stopped still and become silent, and those people, behind trees, in the waxen-berry clump, floating, perhaps, just beneath the surface of the water, were watching Daniel and Julien, who didn’t dare talk, didn’t dare move, both of them frightened that any word or sharp gesture might release those people from the tense immobility and silence they kept; then they would appear, and Daniel didn’t want them to appear.

While the first, longest, and best part of the Francoeur trilogy never allows us to see any of the family members except when at home or with one another, as if any life outside the home were meaningless, the second part relates the adolescent Daniel’s frustrated attempts to form relationships with girls and college friends, suggesting how profoundly family experience has conditioned his sexuality. Finally, the third part is told in the first person by Daniel, now a novelist in his thirties and living in London, where Plante himself has spent much of his adult life. But again, the book concentrates entirely on the family during return trips to Providence. The space beyond the ordinary world has been discovered and conquered in the art of writing, but just as older brother Albert sent his money home, so Daniel/ Plante turns his creative attention back toward his family: the fictional space he creates is an imaginative reconstruction of the world he escaped and hence a way of showing continued attachment and loyalty.

The nonfiction work Difficult Women (1983) gives us a sense of what Plante was up to in London while writing The Francoeur Family. Now declaredly homosexual, he tells us of his relationships with three remarkable women who inhabit the world of literature to which he aspires. As they appear in these portraits, Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer all richly deserve the epithet “difficult,” in that Plante, ever the child seeking mother’s approval, finds himself frequently abused, exploited, and even insulted in their company. Most men would walk away, but the author hangs in there and eventually wins the friendship that is so important to him, perhaps by creating situations where he has become the necessary foil for these ladies if they are to give full reign to their caprice.

From time to time Plante lets us know that he understands all too well what is going on. Here he is with the decrepit, alcoholic, self-pitying, and irretrievably idiosyncratic Rhys:

How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother—“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother!”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her very greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

Elsewhere Plante answers his own question by showing admiration for Rhys’s ability to bring out the extraordinary behind the ordinary in her writing and to create “a sense of space around your words.” The link with his experience as a child is evident.

Plante makes these portraits effective by mixing ruthless exposure of his subjects with genuine affection. Ironically, for someone who yearns for transcendental truth (“these…impossible longings” as he has referred to this state of mind in interview), the quality of his work lies not in any vision of the absolute, but once again in the way that in scene after scene, dialogue after dialogue, one character emerges in relation to another, as in this case the three women all respond very differently to Plante’s masochistic determination to accommodate.

The finest of the portraits is undoubtedly that of Germaine Greer, perhaps because she is the one who best understands Plante’s way of relating to her and deliberately pushes his patience to the limit. There is a charmingly climactic moment when the two are running a creative writing center in Tulsa and Plante finds that Greer has removed the high-backed leather chair from his office. At last he reacts to her dominance, claims the chair back, and accuses her of “expansionist politics.” Though he is pleased for having “done what she would do,” the aggressive Greer is no doubt even more satisfied to have forced Plante to lose his temper and confront her, since confrontation is evidently her favored way of relating to people.

Plante’s most recent novel, ABC, marks an intensification of some aspects of his work and a major departure from others. It begins in typical style with the three members of a family responding differently to the excitement of taking a risk. Gerard, Peggy, and their six-year-old son Harry are canoeing across a New England lake when Harry, who is at the stage of asking “why” about everything, becomes curious about an abandoned house. Peggy is against going inside, since she is “sure all kinds of acts have been performed there that I wouldn’t want Harry to know about….” Gerard, another of Plante’s French-Canadian American alter egos, is eager to explore it because, as he tells his wife, “the house makes me think of an act I’d like to perform with you.” When father and son ring a bell hanging from a pine tree outside the house, we hear:

The silence that had followed the ringing of the bell was more profound than before, the silence and the stillness, which he imagined kept by invisible people, aware of him standing there. And he had the acute sense that those people were in the house, also aware of him, and that, like those outside, they were holding back from making themselves visible to him, until, suddenly, one of them would.

This is the core experience in Plante’s narrative, the exciting, terrifying sense of an invisible alien presence. In earlier novels Plante’s alter ego tends to step back, to be satisfied with an awareness of strangeness but not to confront it; now, however, Gerard’s son takes his father’s hand to go into the house, upon which Gerard rather ominously announces: “So I guess we’re both up to the big adventure.” Readers familiar with Plante’s writing will be aware that he is no longer just describing his characters’ adventures but taking a risk himself as an author. Either the spirit world will prove not to exist or it must declare itself.

Inside, the house has been vandalized and its rotting bric-a-brac and broken bottles are unpleasant and unpromising. “I think your adventure, as all adventures, has ended in disappointment,” says Peggy, taking a position akin to that of Daniel’s mother in The Francoeur Family. At this point, as the son sets out to explore another room, Gerard is distracted by a piece of paper which he sees is covered with strange letters or signs. He is fascinated:

The more he studied it the more its incomprehensibility took hold of him, and the more the incomprehensibility took hold of him the more he believed it must have a meaning.

It is at this point that the son falls through the floor of the house, crashes into the cellar, and dies.

While the plotting in Plante’s earlier work is pleasantly meandering, as it follows the unstructured back-and-forth of relationships at once fraught but stable, it will already be evident that ABC is written to a strict plan and has a more didactic tone. With the loss of their son, Gerard and his wife gradually lose interest in each other as he turns inward and she, after brief resistance, escapes his near autism to spend time with a woman friend. The independence yearned for in The Francoeur Family has come, but at the price of tragedy; the attempt to step into the space of otherworldly presences has proved fatal.

Free to ignore his partner and family duties—a “freedom of total helplessness” as he describes it later—Gerard gives all his attention to finding a meaning behind his son’s death, and in particular behind the strange sheet of writing he has brought back from the abandoned house. He soon discovers that the writing is the Sanskrit alphabet written over and over. In his son’s first-grade copybook he finds the English alphabet written over and over. Casually turning to the letter K in a dictionary, Gerard is

still in that slight trance, that of sensing connections all about him that he himself couldn’t connect with, as if they crisscrossed in invisible lines through the very air, bouncing from a ceramic bowl on the coffee table to the shade of a floor lamp to a pillow on the sofa to a framed watercolor of trees against a sunset, creating a pattern too complicated for him even to imagine….

The following winter, in heavy snow, Gerard revisits the abandoned house, not to get over his grief for his son (of which we hear very little) but in search of “something…overwhelming…that the house itself must reveal to him.” Once again the house is full of invisible presences, “their lidless eyes bulging.” This time Plante identifies them as the dead, and the dead, it seems, are there to witness the world’s horrors. Harry’s death wasn’t an accident. The house had been booby-trapped. Gerard’s son now takes on the status of emblematic victim of mindless evil. The dead around him are perhaps “the victims of horrors, horrors committed not only in this house but, more, in houses all over the world.” Moving into a room he hasn’t explored, Gerard finds the letters “ABC” scrawled on the wall. At this point Plante has abandoned the realism within whose frame, in earlier books, intimations of transcendence were contained. From now on the contingent world is all too ready to confirm the mind’s visions, or paranoia. Credibility is strained as the reader is invited to shift into a different mode of storytelling.

Another piece of paper is found with writing in Sanskrit. In the winter night Gerard enters a nearby trailer camp. Echoing his son Harry’s “why” questions of the opening pages, a conversation with a gypsy woman there includes such questions as “Why do people do [evil things]” and “Why are there poor people and rich people?” The woman’s truculent son knows a girl from India who, fetched with haste, is able to tell Gerard that the latest Sanskrit discovery is a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says, “Of sounds, I am the first sound, A.” From this Gerard concludes—it is not clear why—that he must dedicate his life to discovering why the alphabet is arranged as it is, as though such an achievement would lead him to apprehend absolute meaning and hence an explanation of what has happened to his son, and indeed to his own mind.

In a secondhand bookstore Gerard comes across a book entitled Histoire de l’Ecriture. While he is there a girl buys all the store’s copies of the Bhagavad Gita and insists on giving one to Gerard. Sometime later, in Boston’s Central Burying Ground, Gerard watches an Asian woman visiting the grave of a certain Susan Whipple, daughter of Ben and Catherine Whipple, who died in 1800 aged eighteen. He sees her again in the public library where she tells the librarian: “I would like to find out about the alphabet.” Surprisingly named Catherine Whipple, the Chinese woman, raised in South America and living in London, has recently lost her daughter, Susan, to a drug overdose, following which her husband committed suicide. She has come to Boston to visit this grave of her namesake. Susan had been studying philology at Cambridge in England and shortly before dying had asked her mother if she knew why the alphabet was arranged as it was. Catherine had declared such things “unknowable.” But now she too, in response to grief, is determined to learn more. She too is constantly aware of the presence of the dead. She too looks for deep connections in everything she sees. “Those who wondered about meaning,” thinks Gerard, “needed the sympathy of others who also wondered.”

The narrative takes on the structure of those fables (Grimm’s Bremen Town Musicians, for example) where one animal that has set out on a journey meets another with the same goal, then another and another, until we have a group of adventurers, each of a different species, but united by the same quest. Gerard and Catherine travel to England to get the help of a Cambridge professor who introduces them to David Sasson, a Sephardic Jew of Spanish origin and Greek nationality whose Armenian wife has been arbitrarily murdered by terrorists and who, like Gerard and Catherine, has responded to bereavement by becoming obsessed with the history of the alphabet.

Having gleaned all they can from Cambridge academe, the three proceed to the British Museum where a learned Indian schoolchild gives guidance in the reading of pictograms, then to David’s home in Athens where, the oppressive dead ever in attendance, the car in which his wife was shot mysteriously appears and disappears. On a Greek island they find another sufferer, Aminat, a Chechen woman who has lived through every kind of atrocity and degradation. In particular she has seen her daughter raped and murdered.

All Plante’s fiction, we might say, moves in the tension between two kinds of knowledge: the information ordinarily generated by our perception of differences between things, people, places; and the hypothetical knowledge that would come with seeing the connection between all things and hence the transcendent world beyond them: a mystical experience. Wounded by grief, the four characters of ABC will be satisfied only by the second kind of knowledge, which they imagine will be revealed when they understand the “meaning” behind the arrangement of the building blocks of human thought: the letters of the alphabet.

Gerard, Catherine, and David still exhibit a certain resistance to this project. They are aware of the folly of their quest. They are resentful of the dead for putting them up to this wild goose chase. “Shouldn’t we be howling with laughter for making pretentious fools of ourselves?” says Gerard at one point, possibly voicing Plante’s own concern.

Aminat, however, is beyond embarrassment and pushes their quest to the limit. Familiar, like the others, with Histoire de l’Ecriture (the book pops up everywhere), she is convinced that the ultimate secret lies in the ruined city of ancient Ungarit, a northern Syrian civilization whose alphabet, again beginning with “ABC,” predates all others and was, Aminat believes, a direct precursor of the Chechen alphabet. Describing the group’s trip to Ungarit, Plante deploys the style that serves him so well when evoking the landscape of New England. A simple vocabulary is given rhythmic solemnity by breaking up the syntax into short segments of more or less equal length, introducing frequent subordinates, repetitions, and occasionally unusual word orders. Here the multicultural foursome have taken refuge from blistering heat in a tomb:

As if to rouse Gerard and Catherine and David and Aminat, a wind entered into the tomb, and in the wind, with many reverberating echoes, voices seemed to call, to call and to cry. The dead were calling, the dead were crying out. Aminat, straining against the weight of her body, was the first to get up and climb the deeply worn steps out of the tomb, then David followed, then Catherine and Gerard. Outside, the wind bound all the dead together in a great, undulant cloud of dust, the windblown dust of the dead.

The wind wailed across the desolation, beyond the ruins, where now was scrub and a few loose stones from walls that had ceased to stand, it seemed, against the wind.

In the distance, beyond a chain-link fence, was the sea, its surf rising and falling, but there was no access to the sea, as the shore was a military zone, where soldiers trained for war.

Impelled by the dead to arrive at some revelation, the group begins to tear up stones from the ruined site, looking for inscriptions and knowing they will find none. After this supreme disappointment Aminat kills herself and the others “grieved, as none of them had grieved before…for someone whose suffering was world suffering….”

In an interview given in 1994 Plante remarks on the fact that though he is not a believing Catholic he still has a Catholic mindset; he still yearns for revelation. Describing his reaction to icons in a Greek Orthodox church and their use in his novel Annunciation (1994), he says:

I began to think about devotion in [terms of] images…. I wanted to take an art historian who is a nonbeliever, whose appreciation of art is basically historical—she sees things within the context of its age and aesthetic—and I wanted to take her and in the end have her kneel in front of a picture, a holy picture, and pray to it.

Reading ABC, it’s evident that Plante wants to use his narrative to bring the reader to his knees, much as Daniel’s elder brother Albert in The Francoeur Family forces his siblings and parents to pray together. Alas, the cumbersome mechanics of the novel, its interminable coincidences and wooden dialogues, all so far from the wonderfully sure touch of Plante’s best writing, create exactly the reaction of the unbeliever obliged to sit through a sincere but wearisome sermon. At no point are our emotions stirred.

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