Buying hardcover is such an indulgence, when a year’s wait will get you a paperback and a month or two’s wait will get you to the top of the queue at the library. So it was a real treat when Joy gave me the newest books from three favorite authors at the holidays: Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals), Robert Barnard (The Killings at Jubilee Terrace), and Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna). It was Christmas week and my first week on sabbatical, so I wolfed down the mystery and the Pratchett before so much as peeking at Kingsolver’s thick new novel. But by the time I got to page 5 of The Lacuna I couldn’t put it down.
I was a little apprehensive going in, especially when I realized the book was going to deal with overtly political issues. Not that I expect (or want) Kingsolver ever to be apolitical, and Animal Dreams, which wears its politics on every chapter if not every page, is not only my favorite of hers but one of my favorite books, period. But my last go at a Kingsolver book had been Prodigal Summer a few months before, and I couldn’t stand the lectures on the preservation of despised predators that she forced out of her heroine’s mouth. I love Aldo Leopold, but I don’t want to read him reproduced in improbable dialogue. I like my essays to be essays and my novels to be novels. If telling is inferior to showing, ranting is worse than telling.
She does stray into ranting a couple of times in The Lacuna, but late and seldom. I was so captivated by then that I could forgive a couple of unnecessary, distractingly lecture-y passages on the subject of the blacklist. I love the main character, I love the way she writes about people like Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky so convincingly, I love the painterly detail of her descriptions of Mexico. And I love the metaphor of the lacuna.
A lacuna is a gap, such as a missing page in an old book or a period of silence, longer than a rest, in a piece of music. Kingsolver uses it in multiple meanings, layered and interacting, which is one reason I can tell this book will reward rereading. One is the geological phenomenon of a cave that is actually a tunnel; another is the missing volume in a lifetime of diaries; a third is whatever you don’t know about others’ lives. What they choose to leave out when they tell you about themselves.
The most poignant lacuna evoked by the novel, for me, is the gap in our world created by the failure of Communism, by which I mean not the collapse of the USSR, but the failure that concerns Kingsolver here, the true one, the one that began in the 1920s when Stalin rose to power. What did we lose when the revolution was betrayed to totalitarianism . . . ? Workers’ ownership of the wealth they produce has always struck me as eminently sensible, but I got through four years at what I privately dubbed Marx-and-Freud University without ever reading Marx, something I still regard as a, well, lacuna in my education as a citizen of the 20th-and 21st centuries. (I did read plenty of Freud there. And for the record, as outdated as much of his thinking is judged to be and surely is, I think he was a genius and a hell of a writer.) I’ve never given much thought to Trotsky, the sum of what I know about him being that he was an early Communist leader and visionary, he had an affair with Frida Kahlo, he was assassinated in Mexico City, and he (probably) shows up in Animal Farm as Snowball the pig. All but the latter get attention from Kingsolver. Now I want to know more about him and his philosophy. Her protagonist grieves for him as a person; I grieve for what we lost, as a world, when the great Communist revolutions died.
Not that ideas ever die. The end of the book suggests that there might be life in these “dead” ideas yet.
Another, related lacuna suggested by The Lacuna is the work lost to our culture by our imposition of the blacklist. All those writers and directors and actors who were shut down and never got back to their life’s work. What might they have created? It’s gone now, unrecoverable.
I also realized, with a laugh, that I did my undergraduate art thesis on lacunae. Not that I used the word–thank heaven, undergraduate art majors have enough of a struggle with pretentiousness–but my senior show in ceramic sculpture was called “What’s Not There,” each piece having in some way to do with an absence that makes itself felt as a presence. More on this in another post, as this one is long enough.
Barbara Kingsolver is giving the keynote at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in a couple of weeks, called “Finding my way into The Lacuna,” and we will be there.