Between 1985 and 1993, Bob Shacochis published two story collections and a novel, two of which were finalists for, and one of which won, the National Book Award. As literary percentages go, these are Ted Williams numbers. Twenty years have passed without another work of fiction from Shacochis, though he has published other books, including The Immaculate Invasion, a grim and gorgeously written account of Operation Uphold Democracy (less idealistically known as the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti) for which Shacochis embedded with American Special Forces years before “embedding” was part of the journalistic lexicon.
His new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic Monthly Press, $28), is thus long awaited. While no one would accuse Shacochis’s earlier fiction, most of which is set in the Caribbean, of lacking ambition, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is of considerably wider scope. Until now, the catastrophe-prone islands scattered between Florida and Venezuela have for Shacochis been a seductive world in miniature — a way to dramatize, among many other things, the festering wounds of colonialism. In his new novel, he shuttles the reader from Miami to Haiti to the former Yugoslavia to Istanbul to Montana. Using the lives of a fanatical American spymaster and his damaged daughter, Shacochis attempts to explain the “slippery algebra” of how American Cold War crusading transformed into the global “war on terror.”
Shacochis descends from Conrad, Hemingway, and Graham Greene, all of whom are name-checked within his pages, yet Shacochis’s debt to these writers is less stylistic than spiritual. All have a weakness for oracular pessimism, a fascination for characters in extremis, and an angry sympathy for the wretched of the earth. The internationalist novel that Conrad, Hemingway, and Greene helped pioneer — which is carried on today not only by Shacochis but also by Robert Stone, Peter Matthiessen, Norman Rush, and Philip Caputo, among others — has an uncertain place in modern letters. Much of this, surely, is due to the rise of so-called narrative non-fiction, which provides readers with a similar heavily informational and partially touristic experience.
Shacochis’s new book opens in the late 1990s. A humanitarian lawyer named Tom Harrington, his “once-clear ideas battered into merciless diffusion” by his ongoing work in Haiti, is forced to investigate the murder of an American journalist with whom he was once unwisely (and violently) intimate. Tom knew the journalist as Jackie Scott, but this turns out to have been merely one of her many names. As Tom picks through his ex-lover’s life, Jackie is characterized as beautiful, promiscuous, and “defiantly literal and without irony.” (Foremost among Jackie’s problems is her fear that she might have lost her soul, which makes Shacochis’s title as defiantly literal as Jackie herself.)
Suddenly, though, Shacochis abandons Tom and his diseased obsession with Jackie, and his narrative steps back in time to Dubrovnik during World War II (the opening scene of this section involves a boy smelling the roasting flesh of his father’s severed head, kicked into a fire by his executioners); this is followed by a temporal shot forward to Istanbul in the 1980s, where we read of Jackie’s coming-of-age as a red-passport-carrying diplobrat and of her affair with a young Turk working both sides of the struggle between an autocratic secular state and its increasingly religious youth. Jackie isn’t just posing as a “poor little cokehead scag”; she has some reasons for being the way she is — and for worrying about her lost soul. Shacochis plunges fearlessly into Jackie’s consciousness, bringing forth both valuable news of the world and complicated news of the heart.
Jackie’s father, who was born Stjepan Kovacevic but eventually assumed the blander name Steven Chambers, is a professional foe of communism first and a despiser of Muslims second. As an agent of American intelligence, he finds plenty to do in the second half of the twentieth century. Shacochis describes the clandestine world of Steven and his colleagues in this way:
Anybody who came to them bearing a simplistic back-channel mentality only earned . . . derision, since they operated quite a few levels beyond or below or behind that, in an endless hallway of locked and unidentified doors that opened into nothing until one door in fact opened into everything, but you were never going to have access to that door.
Every novel in which the CIA (or its equivalent agencies) has any narrative prominence runs a high risk of breathlessness. (Shacochis actually has Tom Harrington stop himself from saying “CIA” at one point “because he always felt like an idiot mouthing the acronym.”) Yet this is a CIA novel in the way The Quiet American is a CIA novel, which is to say it isn’t. The precise nature of its many intrigues goes largely unexplained, though one underlying plot involves Arabs coming into forged papers in Florida, where some of the 9/11 hijackers lived (the book, thankfully, is not so Clancyfied as to point this out). Any and all “plots” encountered are hatched within the minds of believable human beings rather than secret lairs. In this sense, Shacochis has written one of the most morally serious and intellectually substantive novels about the world of intelligence since Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost.
Shacochis has a talent for slowing down scenes of violence and panic with images of stop-motion beauty. When a teenage Jackie’s sailboat sinks off the coast of Turkey, for instance, she swims for her life, only to see “directly in her path . . . a garden of small ghostly craniums.” These are jellyfish, which proceed to sting her. And here is Shacochis’s summary of an imposing American lieutenant colonel in charge of a battalion of Special Forces: “You could never be this man if you weren’t born this man, and being born this man took centuries.”
Who has a soul — and who is soulless — is a running concern of Kathryn Davis’s ineffably strange new novel, Duplex (Graywolf, $24), a coming-of-age-meets-dystopian-fantasy-meets-alternate-reality novel, or maybe an Ionesco-meets-Beckett-meets-Oulipo novel.
The story takes place largely along a row of numbered houses in a single suburban neighborhood. Here, humans live alongside (soulless) robots with such names as Cindy XA: “The question of how to teach — or even whether to teach — a robot came up from time to time among the teachers. No one had a good answer.” A being called the sorcerer tools down the street in his silver car, seducing lonely women and bartering for the souls of talented young men. A boy attends a masked ball as an “anamorphic blur.” Low-flying airships, called scows, drift overhead, manned by robots who sometimes abduct and molest young girls, an account of which provides the book’s most upsetting and mesmerizing scene. Meanwhile, large, sinister rabbits are said to be encroaching on this cockeyed neighborhood. Eventually, the reader is led to believe that the world depicted in this novel — which may once have been our more familiar world — ended long ago, and that what we are reading is a postapocalyptic, postnarrative cave painting of the mind.
Davis ferociously commits to her conceit of a place in which nothing — not time, not space, not weather — makes any conventional sense:
A wall of snow slid from the roof and landed with a thump like someone had thrown down a dead body. It was night, it was day. She drew back the branches and looked through the opening. The sun crept up the pane of the sky and then summer came.
For such an odd, cryptic novel, Duplex has a welcome sense of humor. When one character says to another that she doesn’t understand what “tomorrow” means, she’s told: “You will understand tomorrow what that word means.” Happily, Davis’s storytelling here is not imagistic finger painting. Although she’s clearly shunned the devices of the traditional literary novel and its cozy arrangements of meaning, Duplex also contains characters, scenes, and an overarching story about lost young love and the worries of parenthood. The point of most speculative fiction is to create a world that elevates contemporary social anxieties to the level of nightmare. Duplex does something else. The world it describes has gone cuckoo while its characters’ anxieties remain stubbornly, drably, daringly familiar.
Three years ago, the British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch published Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, a nearly 1,200-page history so magisterial it could have been packaged with a scepter and crown. More unusual yet, it was hugely fun to read. Now comes Silence: A Christian History (Viking, $27.95), which has all the spark of its predecessor but does not require a transcontinental train ride to complete.
Religion is the artful assembly of paradoxes, and very few subjects in the grand sweep of Christian thinking are as rich with competitive meanings as silence. In the Hebrew Bible, silence was often associated with the consequences of divine judgment: “Sit in silence, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.” What MacCulloch describes as “cultic noise properly directed” was a primary point of Jewish worship, and God himself is said in Genesis to have brought creation into being by speaking into the formless void.
While the New Testament calls Jesus a personification of the Word of God itself, the individual Gospels portray him as being evocatively silent on several occasions, most notably when he is confronted by Pontius Pilate during his trial, and, in Luke, when he turns to look at Peter after Peter has denied knowing him a third time, which MacCulloch nicely describes as “one of the most eloquent quiet stares in human history.” As Christianity spread, however, it became as raucous and loud as its mother faith. This forced Paul, in one of the New Testament’s most amusing passages, to attempt to establish some ground rules for Christians determined to gabble in tongues during their gatherings: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.” As MacCulloch points out, Paul’s recommendation that women stay silent in church, which is much derided (and ignored) today, “is a sure sign that, in many congregations, the situation was precisely the contrary.”
MacCulloch writes movingly of the growth of devotional silence in Christian monastic communities, which resulted in a deepening awareness of “the mind of the individual as the chief arena for prayer.” His most trenchant pages, however, concern Christianity’s “contemporary and retrospective silences,” namely its responses to slavery, the Holocaust, and the sexual-abuse scandals that continue to destroy the Catholic Church from within.
Early in the book, MacCulloch puts forth his belief that “it belittles and impoverishes human experience not to treat seriously the Christian assertion of divinity.” In this respect, he is the modern conservative Christian’s living dread: a historian sympathetic to Christian spiritual thinking who happens to be gay and knows more about the development of the faith than a hundred evangelicals combined. In MacCulloch’s hands, reading about Christianity often feels as soulful, as silently consuming, as prayer itself.