"It should have been like a storybook here": these are the words of a boy in the opening scene of The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s dazzling manipulation of storytelling. The boy, Harrison Shepherd, is on Isla Pixol to be exact, transported to this island by his Mexican mother, Salomé, who’s in pursuit of the first of her moneybag lovers. Story begetting story, Salomé exhibits herself dancing. The sweep of years in the novel, from the Great Depression to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, is noted with care. It’s 1929: the boy has a pasteboard notebook in which he writes poems and stories, a practice he will continue, a life’s sentence. He judges his youthful scribbling is not up to the adventures he’s been reading–The Count of Monte Cristo, the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Yet the boy writes his own fable of a fish. The Tragic Tale of Señor Pez is extracted from his journal, set on the page for the reader; Señor Pez is awarded a noble burial with "everything needed for his journey into the second world."
Reading The Lacuna is a fast-forward pleasure, but it’s worth turning back to decode the writer’s early entries. Kingsolver’s grand-scale novel has a mystery built in. Start with the title: is it the luminous sea cave the boy dives into at his peril?
"Laguna? The lagoon?"
Leandro, the cook at the hacienda where Shepherd and his mother idle, explains the sea caves of the island as God’s creation, though the boy knows they are hollows in volcanic rock. Kingsolver has a fine gift for the imagery of nature. Readers of her bestselling The Poisonwood Bible (1998) may recall the foreboding opening passage, set in the Congo: "The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason…. The forest eats itself and lives forever." The lacuna of this novel is more than island scenery, more than a misnomer or mistranslation. "Underneath the ocean is a world without people. The sea-roof rocks overhead as you drift between the purple trees of the coral forest…. It’s a perfect world down there, except for the one of them who can’t breathe water." More than a boy’s sport, lacuna is the missing text of a manuscript provided by an amanuensis who comes to the aid and defense of the writer Harrison Shepherd. The archivist’s notes, discreetly signed VB, reveal that Shepherd had been writing a memoir, noting that "the pages preceding are plainly not from the hand of a boy." We will not know Violet Brown until she is written into the very pages that have been blessed with, promoted by, her editorial guidance.
The Lacuna makes dramatic use of its settings; the first move is Isla Pixol to Mexico City, where Salomé places her son with artsy folks. He will connect to the studios of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which is more than plausible in a novel that nurtures our disbelief. Diego and Frida are awarded dimension: their fractured marriage and revolutionary politics, so often mythologized, are woven into Shepherd’s story. He is dealt a job mixing the plaster for Diego’s murals, rather like kneading dough with Leandro, then advances to typist/secretary, all the while recording his hosts’ illustrious lives. Kingsolver’s moves are as bold as Frida’s bright costumes and colors on canvas. Set into play by VB, her characters gain texture as though released from their iconic roles in Rivera’s murals. In a staged scene, over-instructive as a schoolroom skit, the assistant is lectured by the great painter of socialist frescoes about the life and times of Lenin. Diego reports on the great loss after Lenin’s death, on Stalin’s rise to power and his cruel pursuit of Trotsky, "the populist with scruples." I bristle at his schoolroom summary of the major players in the Russian Revolution, but I’m won over by a clever line delivered by the boy: "It’s a good story, señor. Strictly from the point of view of plot. May I ask, what was the accident of history?"
"You can ask the man himself."
Enter Trotsky, now on his way to Mexico–Lev, as he is comfortably called in exile. Dos Passos is sited once in The Lacuna. In USA, his newsreel bios of the famous–Eugene Debs, Henry Ford, Isadora Duncan–are lively short takes, not Kingsolver’s style. She plays Trotsky’s role out: the harsh political break with Rivera, his murder no accident of history. The spare apartment where Lev was billeted with his wife, Natalya, the bright tiles of Frida’s kitchen, are all finely rendered. Throughout Shepherd’s recall, a good deal of tourism is on display–the enchantments of Isla Pixol, bright scenes of the Zócalo, the din in Mexico City. I recall my turística view of Trotsky’s last bleak apartment, one white shirt on a hanger, washed and ironed by Natalya, we were told by our guide, his small desk set by a sunny window where, in this story, Van, the handsome translator, records Trotsky’s continuing works of political philosophy, types out his letters to loyal followers. The Mexico City years are a long and lively entry in this pentaptych of a novel. Shepherd’s service to Diego and Lev will indeed prove strategic from the point of view of plot.
There is yet another tour: Frida and Shepherd’s to Teotihuacán, where the mighty pyramids of the vanished civilization stand in everlasting glory. Nothing is lost in The Lacuna, not the memory of the 14-year-old boy’s love for the adventures of Cortés, preparation for the writer’s life that has eluded him. Urged on by Frida, who cites his notebooks: "Dumb kid, you are a writer." Their picnic in the ruins, somewhat discursive, gives way to contemplations on love and art, allows for her dig at Diego and André Breton’s manifesto "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art" published in the "pindonga Partisan Review." I imagine the novel’s intricate moves laid out in the pre-scripted manner of Dickens’s Work Sheets: the boy’s American father will remain a shadow in his clerkly DC post; Salomé to be written out swiftly; Van, the object of Shepherd’s unspoken love; Violet Brown to the rescue. Before leaving Mexico for the afterlife in Asheville, North Carolina, he will sign on to ship Frida’s paintings to the States. His role as an art handler will be much like Kingsolver’s in this oversize canvas of a novel, which delivers one further stroke before turning to the years in Asheville: the notebooks are gone. Shepherd’s judgment of dedication to the great cause of a People’s Republic in the Rivera/Trotsky compound is harsh: "That is the sorest embarrassment: those hopeful hours of typing through the night shift…all of our hearts bursting with the certainty of our own purposes. No more of that, never another typewriter. Accumulating words is a charlatan’s career." Then how will Violet take hold of Harrison Shepherd’s story, not to mention her own? The Lacuna as thriller? Not an improbable solution to the mixed media of the novel.
Turn to "Part 4, Asheville, North Carolina, 1941-1947," where one payoff is Shepherd’s continuing correspondence with Frida. His bestsellers have swept back to the time of Azteca, end of empire, greed that ruined a civilization. After he has a good run at success, his own ruin will soon be under way, courtesy of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the destination of many plot points. The Lacuna is Violet’s book now, will come into the world. Her assembly of evidence runs to headlines:
U.S. Forbids Entry of Trotsky’s Body
79 in Hollywood Found Subversive
Asheville Writer Faces Tough Questions
This blotch on the calendar is where VB has been heading beyond her chronicle of the ’50s–polio epidemic, scourge of Japanese beetles, the ascendance of Perry Como, Frankie Laine. What a good time Kingsolver has rewriting the HUAC inquisition, assigning a limp line to Richard Nixon; setting J. Edgar Hoover’s signature to a letter informing Shepherd that "you have been a close associate of Mr. Diego Rivera a person or persons who displayed active and sympathetic interest in the Communist Party," thereby dismissing him from a small public post he has held in the art world. Such trials do not deliver the final scene. That’s for Violet to disclose like the prize figure in a nest of Russian dolls.
"It should have been like a storybook here." Well, it is: at his command, the grown boy orders us back to the lacuna of Isla Pixol, Leandro in attendance. Awash in his poetic recall, Violet loops back to the lost notebook now found, to the boyhood fable of Señor Pez. He takes the dive: "A long narrow channel through darkness, a tunnel through the earth and time. Take me away to another world." Or, to his death not verified in an archival note. As readers of Kingsolver’s intricate novel, we’re all art handlers now. Uncertain as Violet, I consign Harrison Shepherd to life on the page.