THE DROWNING GIRL: AN ANALYSIS

Dear ONION,

There is a seam that connects two famous fairy tales: The Little Mermaid links up in a single moment to Little Red Riding Hood.

There is the condition of the sea witch, that whenever the little mermaid walks on land, it will feel like she is stepping on needles.

There is the question that the wolf asks Little Red Riding Hood, “Will you take the path of needles or the path of pins?”

Little Red takes the path of pins; and the little mermaid chooses the path of needles; and The Drowning Girl is about taking both paths simultaneously, and ending up at the same place despite your best efforts.

This was a book I swallowed nearly whole, which is very unusual for me. I do not usually read books so quickly.

I am not a particularly fast reader, so I can’t really explain why it took me only a day and a half, since as a book it is not only complex, but fucking elegant in its complexity, and the only thing I can say for how relatively quickly I consumed it is: something about the prose was like a cool glass of water, and I was happy to drink it in big gulps.

Considering which book I’m talking about, this turned out to be a bit like swallowing a handful of seeds and then having them sprout in your stomach a day later.

Layers continued unfolding in my head for at least several weeks after reading. Two years later, I’m still finding patterns I didn’t notice the first few times around. Like I said: this book is fucking elegant in its complexity.

So I am going to pick it apart over several thousand words. I am going to do this because analysis is one way in which I engage with fiction that I really love. Also, I would like for there to exist, online, easily accessible via Google, a nitpick-y and careful consideration of The Drowning Girl.

TWO THINGS BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER

Two things before I go any further, and they are:

  1. The Drowning Girl is better if it is the first thing by Kiernan that you read. This is not because the other things make it less good. It’s because the other things give you an idea of how to read Kiernan, and how to read certain tics of her writing. I think approaching The Drowning Girl with that idea in mind may initially get in the way, since I assume you might have to unlearn certain expectations in order to see the book on its own terms.
  2. Kiernan is an author who self-cannibalizes. In this respect, she joins a club made up of such folk as Haruki Murakami and David Lynch. Also, Dan Brown. This is something that I want to examine in such great detail (specifically about Kiernan, but also very much as a concept in general) that I’ve written an entire supplementary letter titled ARTISTIC SELF-CANNIBALISM where I talk about it. And thus I do not have to talk about it any further in this letter.

I should also mention that if you have not read The Drowning Girl and do not like spoilers, do not read past this point. The rest of this letter is written for three types of people:

  1. the people who have read The Drowning Girl,
  2. the people who haven’t read it, but who (like me) don’t mind spoilers at all and in fact are more likely to pick up a book if they read a very detailed and intriguing (and inevitably spoiler-rific) analysis of it,
  3. vegetables who read and write blogs.

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And now we can proceed.

* * *

I suppose the place to start is how The Drowning Girl uses the Obviously Unreliable Narrator. Allow me to explain:

I think that practically every single use of the Obviously Unreliable Narrator generates two layers in the fiction. The first layer is what we are told by the narrator, and it is semi-transparent. We are meant to see through it and penetrate to the second layer underneath. The second layer is what you understand to actually be happening, regardless of what the narrator says—and the combination of the two layers is the full story, so to speak.

You can, of course, play tricks. Nabokov does so in Pale Fire, where the first layer becomes increasingly transparent as you read, to the point that it nearly vanishes by the end. But the layer underneath is tricky—very tricky—and you can read it as several different things. (There are in fact whole teams of readers—yes, like Team Edward and Team Jacob, why not go for that analogy—who advocate furiously for the interpretation they think is supreme.)

Mind you, there are a limited number of reasonable readings. It can be either A, or B, or C, or maybe D. There are a limited number of teams. The book is open-ended, but on limited terms; and part of the fun is exploring the limits of its fiction.

(The fact that Nabokov sometimes devised chess problems for money is probably relevant to the nature of Pale Fire‘s construction.)

There’s another novel that plays a different variety of tricks with the conventions of Obviously Unreliable narration, and that novel is The Red Tree, a book Kiernan wrote right before The Drowning Girl—it is the Lost Highway to her Mulholland Drive, so to speak.

In The Red Tree, the first layer is blatantly untrustworthy. And we are given all the usual tools for penetrating it correctly—right down to a supposedly impartial preface, written by an editor, which drops a number of important confirmations that certain things within the unreliable narrative Really Existed. But what the second layer is, and whether we’re ever intended to sort it out coherently…

Well.

A point of The Red Tree (at least, based on how I understood it, and I could be wrong, so please chime in if you think so!) is that all the usual arrows for figuring out the truth behind the semi-transparent layer lead in circles, or double back on themselves, or just squiggle off into dark corners and vanish. A point of The Red Tree is that the first layer is transparent as glass and the second layer is completely opaque, and we can never shake it into a reasonable Euclidean shape. As readers, we’re used to the first layer of unreliable narration being full of paradoxes, which are then resolved by the second layer’s rationality. Kiernan reverses this. The resulting reading experience is a trip worth taking.

And then we get the The Drowning Girl, which speaks in a totally different register, and politely breaks the two-layer model into little pieces and does something with the Obviously Unreliable Narrator that I find so interesting (and also, in Kiernan’s hands, majestically satisfying).

Because the question is never what really happened, even if the novel pretends to start out that way. And because we are presented with two semi-transparent layers instead of one, and neither could have occurred as described. They are also incompatible with each other—and our narrator knows this, and is doing her damndest to figure this conundrum out. Either Imp met Eva for the first time in July, with Eva in the guise of a mermaid; or Imp met Eva for the first time in November, with Eva in the guise of a wolf—so which one is the real fake layer, anyway? (And if you can ask that question without having to pause at the inherent oxymoron, then you are better at doublethink than I am.)

But that question is answered halfway through the book…. And yet, answering it is so obviously not the point, because it’s not the layers’ probabilities that matter, but the ways in which Imp is forced to shift them as she narrates the novel, and the reasons for those changes.

Imp doesn’t know what factually happened. As far as we can tell, nobody does. But take both of those semi-transparent shifting layers and line them up, like pressing two sheets of stained glass against each other… If you do this right, you may get a hyper-realistic image that tells you all the important things. The why. The emotional beats. The reasons behind certain of Imp’s responses. The reasons behind Eva’s behavior. The reasons for every one of the narrative’s shifts and quirks.

The two layers are, in a way, aware of each other. And they interact.

Imp knows she cannot always trust her memories. She tells us this almost right away (page 12). But her memories are still her memories, and they are frequently all she has to go on. And she has no investment in lying to us in the long run—the book we are reading is an attempt to divine the truth:

“There’s no point doing this thing if all I can manage is a lie. Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage.”

So right there, on page 6, Imp takes the traditional model for Obviously Unreliable Narrator and tosses it out the window, and page by page she presents this strange wonderful thing that we get in its place.

* * *

At the start of this letter, I talked about the path of pins and the path of needles, as if this is a theme made overt in the novel. So for anyone who hasn’t read the book, let me clarify: it’s not.

Like most of the really fascinating bits of this book, it’s something that’s carefully laid out for you. And then you are sort of left alone to notice it on your own time and, if you want, to piece it together with all the rest of what’s going on.

Another example of this sort of thing is the way in which there are two short stories that Imp writes, and they are placed carefully and nearly symmetrically within the novel. Those two stories-within-the-novel are so part of the novel’s backbone, and it is really necessary to understand why they’re there, and what they’re saying, in order to understand The Drowning Girl. But Kiernan is not terribly blatant about this. She’s done the hard part; the rest is up to us.

Sure, sometimes Kiernan is overt. She definitely gives us handholds for how to begin understanding what we’ve read. The paragraph on page 319 (the one starting with “We weave necessary fictions, and sometime they save us…”) is maybe the biggest glowing-neon-arrow sign meant to point its readers in the right direction. But we also have such moments as Dr. Oglivy commenting “You know now that you’ll never be sure what happened?” and Imp’s acceptance of this fact. And, back to those two short stories, we have Abalyn’s indignant comment when Imp suggests the stories might not be relevant to the manuscript as a whole:

“Imp, what do you think those two short stories are about?”

There’s really something playful in how Imp plays the role of Obtuse Reader to her own manuscript. Yes, Imp’s insecurity and naiveté comes out of her characterization, and that’s the primary way to read this section, but I think there is also a second purpose, of taking a sly dig at the Bad Reader, who grumbles “why are those two stories even there, this is a novel, this is not a short story collection, I just don’t get it!”

Meanwhile Dr. Oglivy and Abalyn are more perceptive. They say things about the manuscript to Imp (and thus about the very novel we’re reading) that give us clues how to be Good Readers ourselves: how to read it; what to look for.[1]

So why are the two stories so important?

Because The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean describes, metaphorically, exactly the impulse that drove Imp throughout the events of the novel, and which resulted in the manuscript we just read. As such, it gives us a lot of context for understanding the novel.

And because Werewolf Smile is essentially a revision of 7/7/7/7 and a damn crucial one too—and what it revises, and how it revises, is especially important. It acknowledges a lot of dark, unpleasant things that remain forever missing from the mermaid-tinged parts of the novel; and it is as important to understanding Eva Canning as anything else within the book.

These two stories are also important because the path of needles/path of pins symmetry is only one of the many, many significant symmetries stitched into the novel. The patterns these symmetries make will tell you plenty about what’s been going on and how to read certain things, and—in a step that makes sense for a novel so heavily about paintings—there are a few crucial ones that only leap to the eye if you very carefully visualize them.[2]

There is, for example, the symmetry between the Fecunda ratis painting—which reoccurs frequently as a dark motif—and a single one of Imp’s recorded dreams: the un-lobster un-quadrille.

Two circles, with Eva Canning at the center of both of them—but my goodness, is the context ever different. In the mermaid version of the circle, Eva is the siren to Imp’s insanity, and Imp is compelled to dance around her in a ring-around-the-rosie chain made up of herself, and her dead insane mother, and dead insane grandmother, and her psychologist, and her girlfriend too. Eva is powerful here. She is the fiddler, and Imp and all the rest are dancing to her tune.

In Fecunda ratis, the red-capped girl at the center of the painting—Eva, essentially—is about to be consumed/raped/witnesses/destroyed by whatever dark circle of stones/wolves/demons that have gathered to consume and rape and witness and destroy.

And this feeds back into the two stories-within-the-novel, of course, because this novel is as fractal as all fucking hell. The lie in Imp’s 7/7/7/7 tale wasn’t just, as she says, that she saved a wolf girl and played hero. The lie is that Eva is powerful.

Imp tries to make Eva powerful both as a mermaid and as a wolf—power over Imp, and power over herself as well. The amendment to 7/7/7/7 which is provided by Werewolf Smile is that Eva was as much a victim as Imp. More so, even, since Imp survives where Eva does not. Imp has her maternal line and family history of insanity and suicides; and she has Eva to draw her like a siren even further over the edge.

But Eva has her own mother too. Eva has her mother and her whole adoptive, terrible family of a cult who drowned themselves in a suicide pact. Eva is not powerful. She is utterly haunted. In the end she is powerless against it.

And so there is another moment that only appears when visualized: the part in Werewolf Smile where, instead of the 7/7/7/7 Eva who is a girl resuming her wolfhood in a triumph of recalled memory, we have an Eva who is a fuck-up, who is assisting an artist with his sculpture, and in the process, this fucked-up Eva is visually consumed by the sort of wolf you only see in nightmares.

Remember the description of how Perrault slathers Eva in Vaseline and alginate and plaster bandages, making molds from her body for his sculpture set of Phases 1-5. Remember that Phases 1-5 depicts a woman, mutilated and bisected in the style of the Black Dahlia murder, except Phase 1 is a sculpture of a mutilated woman and Phase 5 is sculpture of a mutilated wolf[3], and Phases 2-4 are sculptures of the mutilated creature in various steps of werewolfish transformation. Realize: this means that, when Eva was being molded, she was actually being consumed, phase by phase, by a gradual wolf. She was enclosed inside this wolf as much as Little Red Riding Hood is enclosed inside the belly of her own wolf, and it was Perrault who was enclosing Eva there.

This is the only moment when you realize how literally Little Red Riding Hood is Eva Canning’s story just as much as The Little Mermaid. The mermaid returns to the sea where her entire family awaits her. The girl in red finds herself in the belly of a wolf with no way out. 7/7/7/7 is beautiful but it is also a beautiful lie, and part of its tragedy is watching Imp having to force herself to put cracks in it, by writing Werewolf Smile.

There are two girls who are “drowning” in the novel, and there are two stories stitched into this novel’s backbone. Werewolf Smile is more about Eva, but The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean is more about Imp. Because in Concrete Ocean, the woman in the wheelchair describes how that unnamed artist came across half of a young girl’s corpse lying on the beach—that poor girl, bitten in half, not much left below the rib cage, just bone and meat and a big hollowed-out place where all her organs had been, no blood anywhere. The woman in the wheelchair describes how she and the artist met not long after that incident: her in her wheelchair, him haunted by that half of a woman. And how he proceeded, soon after, to paint mermaid painting after mermaid painting, using the woman in the wheelchair as his only model.

In other words, what Imp did with her manuscript, what her memory did to her own mind, was done in response to whatever events happened during her experiences with Eva Canning.

The real Eva Canning, as a person and as a personality, is that hollowed-out girl, and we will never know her. The mermaid paintings are what we read: both semi-transparent layers. And we may combine them, if we wish, for that blurred bright image that is created when you overlay stained glass over stained glass, and see reflections of the inner truth.

* * *

I think that only in Werewolf Smile do we hear a voice coming from Eva Canning’s mouth that sounds remotely similar to how everyone else in the book describes her: “that stalker…” “that bitch…” “that deceitful, manipulative…”

In the mermaid-tinged portions of the novel, Eva Canning speaks, but sometimes it is blatantly Imp’s voice that comes out—like the moment on page 37, when it is Eva’s mouth opening but Imp’s words emerging, talking to her own manuscript and bickering with it. (Only when Imp returns to this scene again and plays it out fully, on page 77 and onward, do the words coming out of Eva’s mouth sound much more like Eva than like Imp.)

Even when it’s not so blatant, I almost never trust a word of Eva’s dialogue as really being Eva’s. There are, as I say, some exceptions, but generally speaking, Eva’s dialogue is always too measured, too learned, too casually all-knowing, too smiling-secretly-to-itself. It is, in fact, the voice of the siren that has power over Imp—a voice given to her by Imp’s narration—the voice of someone who knows how the story will go and is utterly self-assured within it. It is not the voice of the girl swallowed by her own demons, nor the voice of the girl who drowns. It is the voice of a mermaid, of a tail painted over, to disguise the terror of what is found underneath.

Though… I think some of what Eva says in those moments must be her own words in a True way, because there are times when I believe her voice utterly. Like when she looks at the mirror and says “You’re a ghost,” over and over to her own reflection. Or when she tells Imp, “I’m the girl who drowns. You’re the girl who learns how to swim.”

The Eva that we meet in Werewolf Smile is decidedly unpleasant, and especially so when compared to the seductive and omniscient Eva we generally see outside of that particular story. But, with the Werewolf Eva, it is acknowledged that she was a broken and terrified human being, and she was a lot like Imp in a number of ways; and she behaved terribly, and she drew Imp into her own insanity as much as Imp drew Eva into hers, but it is hard to blame Eva for it completely.

There was nothing that Imp could have done to pull Eva out of her own abyss. This is a terrifying notion, at least in part because of how many parallels there are to the two of them. But Imp coming to acknowledge this notion is, at least in part, a necessary absolution—of Eva, and of Imp herself. And this is a bit of what Werewolf Smile is about. I think it is one of the things that allowed Imp to write the “final” chapter of the novel (before the “Back Pages”, I mean, which are the real final chapter) with such lack of bitterness towards Eva, and with such an open-mouthed singing quality.

* * *

Doubles, pairs, and metaphoric “rhymes” fill this book to a point that is almost absurd. What more, they change context and shift around, and make new patterns in the process. I want to go through a number of smaller ones very quicklynot as an exhaustive catalog, because this isn’t one, but more as a rapid demonstration of what I mean when I say this book has a fractal structure, and as a comment on the bigger patterns/rhymes I’ve been talking about:

The two Evas: mermaid-Eva and wolf-Eva—but also, as it turns out, the two Evas: Eva Louise Canning and Eva May Canning.

Imp and Eva are rhymed in many ways, and I’ve talked about some of them: but they are also rhymed right down to their names. Imp is India Morgan Phelps, and Eva Canning, before she changed her name to Eva, was Imogen May Canning. I.M.P. and I.M.C.

There are the two paintings: Phillip Saltonstall’s The Drowning Girl and its clear double, Perrault’s Fecunda ratis. But also: at the end we discover there is another double, in a very different way, to The Drowning Girl, and it is Saltonstall’s Girl on a River. Two paintings. But shift the context and you have it again: two paintings.

The two artists, Saltonstall and Perrault, who both die while riding their steed of choice: Saltonstall astride his horse; Perrault on his motorcycle. Both of them master riders. Suspicions of a suicidal drive in both deaths. (I think there is also an echo, in this pair, to the pair of I.M.P. and I.M.C., but a much fainter echo, and more subjective on my part.)

Phases 1-5 has a subtle little rhyme with l’Inconnue de la Seine, in that they are both artistic representations of two iconic women famous mainly for their deaths. And l’Inconnue de la Seine is peaceful and beautiful, whereas Phases 1-5 is, in every way possible, a monster.

As I mentioned before, Fecunda ratis rhymes with the un-lobster un-quadrille, but also with Saltonstall’s The Drowning Girl, and that’s another example of multiple rhymes criss-crossing all over the place. Just like, for example, how the moon of the wolf becomes the tidal moon becomes the siren call becomes the call of the wolf. The siren and the wolf live on the same territory, except they don’t at all, they live in opposite sides of a line, except that lines moves and blurs constantly—

If you were to try to map everything out, your map would look like those yarn-on-corkboard things that T.V. detectives use to track serial killers, but with a lot more loops and figure-eights all over the place.

Also: here’s an interesting thing that I only found out today, a week after writing the heart of my analysis, and more than a year after solidifying my understanding of this book: I decided to look up the details of the Black Dahlia murder while at work yesterday. (Living in an apartment without internet has occasional downsides, I guess.) Anyway, here is a description of the Black Dahlia murder, as taken from a 2003 article in the Los Angeles Times:

“Not only was Short’s body severed at the waist, but it had been cleaned and systematically drained of blood.”

Why did I never look that up before?!?! The Black Dahlia murder, rhyming almost word-for-word with nameless corpse of that girl from Imp’s short story, The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean, and both of them simultaneously rhyming with Eva Canning, intersecting with Eva at different angles, yarn criss-crossing that goddamn corkboard all over the place…

This is a book about how hauntings echo and multiply and propagate, but it is also a book about contradictory things existing simultaneously (a particle and a wave), and those things shifting shape every time you look at them too closely: so of course the book is fractal, and of course it reproduces its largest motif and largest concern on every level, in almost every detail.

You can find the book’s spine echoed in miniature throughout, carved all over its bones and beams. Put your ear to any part of its body, and the same voices speak.

* * *

It is probably pretty obvious by this point that I really, really liked this book a lot. I liked it so much that I actually wrote like an extra two thousand words, largely unrelated to my main points, and I’ve shoved all those tangential paragraphs into the Endnotes, which I have decided are now a thing (at least, for this particular letter).

I think this book is a masterwork and it deserves a much wider and keener readership than it currently has.

If you managed to read all the way down to this sentence and haven’t already read this book: read this book.

ONION, this has been a pleasure. I hope you enjoyed your vacation on the beaches of North Carolina, and I look forward to seeing you in person again once I am back from my own vacation. Which is starting soon. Fun times ahead!

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Affectionately,

ARTICHOKE

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FOOTNOTES

[1] I’m also delighted by those moments for reasons unrelated to the novel directly: namely, I like it when Bad Readers are called out for being Bad Readers by the very book they’re reading. I find it satisfying, even if—based on some online reviews—those readers are so Bad At Reading that they don’t even notice the book shouting at them “hello, there’s a bunch of stuff you missed, try taking a second look, okay!” That Kiernan weaves this aspect into her actual characters charms me, though this is at least in part because I find Imp and Abalyn delightful, and yes I find it kind of great that Imp is a Bad Reader to her own damn book, even if it is only for a moment.

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[2] I am not an especially visual reader, though I do visualize somewhat—so I suspect that some of these moments will be really obvious to certain readers, while remaining completely hidden to others, depending on how you engage with what you read. For me, I only spotted these moments a week after my first read, when I was simply thinking about the book during my morning shower.

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[3] I think the book mentions that Perrault uses a coyote for his molding, and you could say this is probably because he was working in Los Angeles, and occasional dead wild coyotes are in abundance there in a way that wolves are not. Or you could say it’s because Perrault is a pretentious fuck and figured a werecoyote would be more exotic or grungy; or assumed that gallery-goers wouldn’t know the difference. The point is still girl-to-wolf—the rest is just bickering over details.

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ENDNOTES

And now, some real tangents, completely unrelated to the larger bulk of my letter! A bunch of endnotes—six in total—because once I start talking about something, I guess I find it hard to stop.

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[1] Backwards, Go Backwards

Key points and logical keys are frequently presented backwards. Or, they’re presented after the fact. This especially makes sense if you think of the book as something to be held entire in your head—for example as a vast painting, with us stuck in the mode of looking at only one portion at a time as we read.

For example: in the scene where Imp and Abalyn go to the graveyard and confirm the dates on the tombstones of the Eva Cannings, Imp encounters crows and crows and crows. Crows are a signal of a lie. So it is possible to read this scene wondering if it is made-up, and if Imp is lying about it—but then the answer to “what is the lie?” comes after the scene is done, which is: Imp inadvertently lied when she said there was only one Eva Canning. And that’s what the crows were signaling. Not that Imp was lying when describing this scene, but that an inadvertent lie was about to be revealed.

Another example: the 7. When it first appears, it emerges in some way from the musing on arithmomania (from page 57), and of course 7 is a number commonly associated with luck, though that’s not a terribly satisfying way to think of it when we first encounter it. Generally we have to take it as an arbitrary, compulsive talisman that comes up whenever Imp is in a really bad state (7/7/7/7). Only near the end of the book do we find out the 7’s significance: one of the entries on Imp’s list of truths was not true, and there were only seven truths on that list, not eight (7/7/7). For Imp, this is an arbitrary talisman that turned out to have relevance two years later. But from our perspective as readers, knowing this about the 7 colors all the previous 7/7/7/7 moments in the book, and gives us a further understanding of them.

And of course we find out about most of Imp’s main lies and omissions long after the fact—for example, Imp’s story of the Perrault art show from the first part of the book is revised in one of the last parts of the book, so that we go for most of the book assuming that it was Abalyn and Imp at the gallery, even though it wasn’t.

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[2] Some thoughts on the Back Pages

Initially I thought of them as Kiernan cheerfully throwing wrenches into the works, aimed at anyone who was certain they had the facts all figured out. I mean, that is how I read them at first, and I was a little delighted and amused by this aspect, I’ll admit.

Later I stopped seeing them this way because of how important they are to the book in general, and because of how much they complete and reinforce the book’s structure. I kept referring to them when writing this letter; and when I was rereading the novel, I looked forward to encountering them. It’s hard to think of them as “just wrenches” in that context.

But nonetheless: I should not forget that they are, also, wrenches cheerfully thrown into the works of anyone who thinks they’ve got all the facts figured out. The Back Pages give us facts all right, and the sort of facts that make us realize how little we actually know of Eva—and how much Imp’s narrative is not about the facts of Eva, but about something much more personal, insightful, and complex. I’ll quote from 7/7/7/7:

“It must have been worse on Eva. I was on the outside looking in and she was locked in the lie she’d told herself not to go mad as India Morgan Phelps or her mother.”

(Note, of course, that due to all the doubling and rhyming, it’s unclear whose mother we’re talking about. Imp’s or Eva’s? The sentence makes sense both ways.)

This is a book about internal truths rather than external ones, and nothing makes this point as gleefully as that bucket of wrenches in the Back Pages: simultaneously frustrating all fact-chasers while solidifying the beautiful art that this entire novel is working towards.

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[3] Some thoughts on Eva and all those gosh-darn ghosts

Imp clusters hauntings around Eva, in both the mermaid version and the wolf version.

Eva becomes, in Imp’s hands, a sort of massive lightning rod for every related haunting story that can fit either under the moniker of siren or wolf.

She swells large with ghosts and motifs, becomes nearly every ghost under the moon in the meantime, and I think of this frequently as a part of the endlessly shifting and hard-to-pin-down nature of Eva (and this novel in general). I also think of it as one way to understand how much Eva ends up fitting into Imp’s existing obsessions, and how Eva’s presence ends up stoking them all to an inferno.

But also: sometimes I think of the hauntings that Imp piles onto Eva as those nameless artist’s mermaid tails. Something iridescent painted over a harsh and unknowable reality.

This is a very subjective, wishy-washy line of thinking. I will end it now and move on.

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[4] Is this story supernatural?

This story is technically not supernatural. Everything that happened could have happened with no supernatural agent. There is a mundane explanation for it all.

This is a fact, even if it is not True.

On page 229, Imp says:

I’m beginning to lose the threads of my ghost story. I’m no longer even certain that it is a ghost story, and if it’s not, I don’t know what else it could be.

Eva Canning was alive when Imp interacted with her—even if from Imp’s perspective she came clothed in the skins of a handful of ghosts. And for a while, at least, as readers we are not sure if the woman that Imp rescued from the side of the road was a real live woman or some sort of undead lady.

But by the end, the book makes Eva’s living state and living reality emphatically clear, in many different parts and sections.

If Eva has to be a ghost from beyond the grave for it to be a ghost story, then The Drowning Girl is not a ghost story.

But that’s obviously not the point, just as obviously as The Drowning Girl is a ghost story, so there.

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[5] I am puzzled by this one section

There’s one thing I haven’t been able to resolve for myself. I thought I would mention it here, since I’m throwing all the odds and ends into this part of the letter. On the bottom of page 115, Imp writes:

Imp typed, “You are a liar. You are a filthy wicked little liar, and you know it, don’t you?

Yeah, I’m a liar.

I’m a filthy, wicked little lair.

And I know it, sure as shit.

I’m not sure what lie she is referring to here. The problem is at least partly because, like I said, sometimes she announces her lie before she lies. Sometimes she announces it after. And sometimes she is referring to something from a different section entirely.

What is the lie she is referring to on this page?

Or is she just saying that she’s a liar in general, and this is another one of those wrenches lobbed at over-analytical readers like me? It is certainly placed in a really good part of the narrative, speaking in terms of flow and pacing… It’s tempting for me to just think of it as a general wrench and contextualize it accordingly, but that is lazy on my part, and I refuse to do it out of sheer convenience to myself.

Frankly, I just don’t know.

If someone has any solid ideas on how they read this, please say something, I’d like to hear from you! Discussion is a lovely thing!

#

[6] I want to talk about the things I really loved because goddamnit I didn’t have room to do it earlier

I love the tone of this book, and the really careful and perfect pacing. For all that Imp talks about digressions and getting-on-with-it and avoiding her subject, she gives us information in a really beautiful, steady, and rather perfect stream. The flow of this novel is extraordinary and admirable. There is never a moment to me that feels even slightly out of place, and I am compelled by this book all the way through.

I also love the mixture of careful fact and research with fiction that emulates careful fact and research, and I loved it at least in part because, as a reader without internet who also happened to read this entire book in a day and a half, I had no ability to look things up as I read. So I had no real outside clues as to which parts were real and which parts were made up. I’d just read until something in the narrative began to signal that, oh, this was maybe fabricated by Kiernan for the purposes of this story, just maybe. So by the end of the book I understood that, yes, Perrault and Saltonstall were almost certainly not actual real artists—but at the same time, I went and Googled them anyway when I was back at the office, just to be sure.

I think that most readers believe, like I did at first, that Saltonstall is a real artist. I think we believe it for at least a good hunk of pages before we begin to suspect he is perhaps somewhat fictional.

But what’s marvelous isn’t just Kiernan’s ability to reproduce the sort of precision (and also the imprecision, and the constantly shifting nature of the precision) that usually surrounds genuine fact and research (versus, say, such dunderheaded attempts as common among the McSweeney’s crowd—I could vent my spleen over how bad and how inadvertently condescending they are when they do it—but maybe some other time). What’s also marvelous is Kiernan’s synthesis of those huge swathes of genuine facts and research, folded into the texture and structure of her novel as perfectly as if Kiernan had fabricated them herself. It is seamless, and thrillingly so.

And now some more things I loved:

Abalyn, and Imp, and Dr. Oglivy—as characters in general, and also the way they interacted and talked with each other. Imp was a lovely voice to read and really carried the prose, and Abalyn was such a strength to this novel, such a support and backbone to both Imp and the narrative. I can’t really describe it better than that, except that maybe it is that Abalyn gave us hope. Taken together, Imp and Abalyn are people I really believe, and really like, and I hoped for them.

Also Abalyn says some things that are just great and would be great in any novel, and I liked her, okay.

And thank god for Dr. Oglivy, who is intelligent and perceptive and really just a good therapist and she’s also clearly an individual in her own right. She’s a therapist who we can tell has a life outside her office, even with just the few hints that we see of it, and she came across to me like the sort of person that I would be curious about, and like to know. In a novel with so few characters, and with so much complexity in every other respect, I think that having these three lovely characters as part of the bedrock was at least a portion of why I think this book was such a wild success. Between the three of them, they provided a real stability to the rest of this tangled, wild thing.

And, unrelated to all that, another structural thing that kind of delighted me:

I liked how first we have this long, full version of the mermaid Eva, and we fully expect to have just as long a version of the wolf Eva… And then we find out from Abalyn that the wolf Eva was not the real one at all, so we’re still thinking “well shit, do we have to go through the whole wolf Eva now, knowing that she’s probably the fake one?”

Well, the version we get is definitely much shorter, which is the first immediate surprise, and it’s also so completely off its rails that it’s obviously the fake one, even if we hadn’t already had Abalyn tell us so—but it’s so desperate too, and saying so much more than just “this is Eva if she was a wolf in November”.

To me, who loves and thinks in terms of structure, this part of the book was the structural equivalent of a sudden and unexpected taste of champagne. The 7/7/7/7 section is desperate and raw, and it works so well for a lot of reasons. But it’s also a gorgeous flash of sudden color in a structural sense, and I love it in that way, I really do.

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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2 Responses to THE DROWNING GIRL: AN ANALYSIS

  1. Pingback: THE DROWNING GIRL, THE SECOND | Onion & Artichoke

  2. Pingback: ARTISTIC SELF-CANNIBALISM | Onion & Artichoke

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