This is a response to Artichoke’s letter, here, and by no means a full, comprehensive analysis of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl in its own right– this is merely a few things that I really wanted to bring up, on my own, some of which ties into Artichoke’s points, some of which are more random. Now, Artichoke was kind enough to say that his letter was intended for those who have and have not read DG; I am not. If you haven’t read it, you are of course welcome to read this letter, but I make no bones that this will make the slightest amount of sense to you. And of course; spoilers. Be warned.


Structural Notes

The Principle of Duality

There is a certain poetry to Artichoke and myself writing dueling and complementary letters about The Drowning Girl, especially given that Artichoke is busy creating his own secondary pair to his own letter, therefore creating separate but overlapping pairs. The internal structure of The Drowning Girl operates on a basis of duality, as a building block by which any needed function takes place. Duality is how the plot is driven forward, how the characters are developed, how the information, true, factual, and false all alike, is organized. This book has the most complicated performance of duality, of parallels and mirrors and foils, that I’ve ever seen in any text (college teachers– take note). To some extent, that aspect of the novel feels like an experimentation, as if Kiernan is both playing and exploring every and any possible way in which she can construct and deconstruct and reconstruct duality. No single thing (character, motif, theme, what have you) is simply part of an isolated pair, and there’s no neatness to these pairs; they are picked up and put down again as needed.

The Camps of Unreliability

Artichoke went over a great deal of this in his own letter, but I wanted to explain my understanding of how to organize the varying forms of unreliability in this book. Because, I don’t know if this is clear yet, but much as I love this book, it is goddamned hard to understand, yo.

The Unreliable Narrator Who is Not Always So Inclined To Tell The Truth

The Unreliable Narrator is a trope in fiction, which is somewhat ironic, because when you truly think about it, there’s no such thing as a trulyreliable narrator, regardless of first person, second, or third point of view; every story has not so much two sides as a thousand, and that, even when every storyteller is doing their level best to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them. As Artichoke points out, Imp is, occasionally, a liar, but Kiernan dispenses with the straight-forwardness of there being an obtainable Truth and a Lie, with Imp’s statement, “There’s no point doing this if all I can manage is a lie.” Therefore, the frequently antagonistic relationship between Unreliable Narrator and audience, wherein there is a Liar and a Person Being Lied To, is eschewed, and The Drowning Girl becomes an investigation of truth, wherein both Imp and the reader are looking for the murky truth together (pun intended). But. Imp does, still, occasionally, lie. And her declaration as to there being no point if the manuscript is nothing but a lie can be read as a good intention at the beginning, but not as a guarantee at the ending. It’s written at the beginning, after all, and the manuscript has its own sense of linear time passing, in addition to the story it tells (thus, those inflammatory Back Pages). Furthermore, the signs Kiernan occasionally gives to the readers to indicate a lie being told are frequently more confusing than not. One, is that we are lead to believe that whenever a crow appears, a lie is being told– somehow. Somewhere. Perhaps. And while there are times when this lends immediate clarity (Artichoke gives a perfect example in his letter, wherein the crows flock by as Imp goes to the graveyard and discovers that her much earlier declaration “there only ever was one Eva Canning” turned out to be an inadvertent lie), they are as often as not accompanied by Imp swearing up and down to the reader that she can’t explain the presence of the crow, but she’s telling the truth. What do we make of that?

The Matter of Schizophrenia

I don’t usually find cause to say this, but the fact that Imp struggles with mental illness, specifically and especially delusions, hallucinations, and intrusive thoughts, is actually one of the more straight-forward aspects of the novel. For me, anyway. Part of this is Imp’s frank acknowledgement of her insanity and the ways in which she deals with it. Another part of this is the portions of the narration where Imp, for lack of better words, dissolves into her intrusive thoughts and near incoherency; the style of writing makes it pretty clear what lens we’re looking through, even if it’s not clear what’s going on.

The Supernatural Element

As Artichoke pointed out, there is, very technically, nothing supernatural that happens in this book. And simultaneously, it is a ghost story, and the devastating story of a haunting at that. It is the story of when countless scientific and historical items, each as coldly, provably factual as the next, add up into something deeply unsettling, a sum of their parts that equals otherworldly malevolence. Or, it’s merely a paradox. You decide.

In any other story I’ve encountered, wherein there might be something externally happening (such as a haunting or a conspiracy), or it might be all in the main character’s mind, there usually comes a moment of reckoning, a single instance, in which one interpretation is favored over the other, and we have to reconcile all we’ve seen accordingly. Therefore, in Black Swan, Nina returns to her dressing room to find Lily decidedly not murdered, and we know that Lily was never out to get her, and it was all in her mind; in Pan’s Labyrinth, when Ofelia escapes imprisonment by drawing a chalk square door, and we know that magic does exist, and work, functionally, in this world. The Drowning Girl never gives us such a moment, and therefore, we have to stay on the side of realism, wherein there are no ghosts, wherein everything that’s happened can be explained by madness, misinterpretation, sharks, and all the like… but we’re never very comfortable with it.

The Fallibility of the Text

The one I’m not supposed to mention in a review, I think.

The text itself is the product of humans (shocking, I know), a species known for their occasional errancy, which is usually pretty easy to spot for the eagle-eyed reader; a typo here, the wrong name there, you get the idea. In this, there’s not a single instance where I’m sure that there actually was a mistake, but at the same time, I’m not so confident of the intention that I want to start drawing conclusions.

For example, the very beginning of the novel starts with Imp describing her grandmother and mother’s suicide before her. Her grandmother’s suicide is straight-forward enough, but her mother’s, not so much;

“My mother, Rosemary Anne, died in Butler Hospital. She committed suicide in Butler Hospital, though she was on suicide watch at the time. She was in bed, in restraints, and there was a video camera in her room. But she still pulled it off. She was able to swallow her tongue and choke to death before any of the nurses or orderlies noticed what was happening. The death certificate says she died of a seizure, but I know that’s not what happened. Too many times when I visited her, she’d tell me she wanted to die, and usually I told her I’d rather she lived and get better and come home, but that I wouldn’t be angry if that’s really what she had to do, if she had to die.”

It’s impossible to kill yourself via swallowing your tongue– while that tongue is still attached to your mouth, anyway. Simultaneously, the misconception (mythconception? Is mythconception a portmanteau that I can use? It should be) that you can die via the swallowing of one’s tongue is widely held, so much so that I felt it necessary to cite a source when I made that statement. So– where does Kiernan fall? Does Kiernan know this not commonly known fact, but is writing a character who doesn’t know it, and relying on widely held misconceptions on the part of her readers?

The first time I read this novel, I read with the unquestioning understanding that Rosemary Anne, Imp’s mother, had committed suicide, which is in many ways a cornerstone of many of the themes of The Drowning Girl. The second time I read it, after focusing on the matter of swallowing one’s tongue, I noticed a great deal more ambiguity. Imp mentions more than once how the orderlies insist to her that it was not suicide, but a seizure– something that does happen, especially when you’re on a number of antipsychotic medications, and something that definitely can kill a person, but not because of the swallowing of the tongue. It seemed to me that when bringing up the suicides of her forebears, Imp concentrated more on her grandmother Caroline’s suicide, a much less ambiguous suicide, as if perhaps she knew there was something decidedly not straight-forward about Rosemary Anne’s suicide. Furthermore, Imp has a tendency to look for and favor interpretations of suicidal impulse in ambiguous or accidental deaths, and make of that what you will.

Thematic Notes

The Legacy of Suicides

Which brings me straight to the next thing I want to talk about; one of many, but among the more important, themes of this novel is suicide.

Suicide is the connecting point between themes of insanity and haunting, and, given that this is, at least nominally a horror story, among the more terrifying fears for much of the audience.

In a sense, both Imp and Eva are following in the footsteps of their suicidal foremothers; Imp, following the lineage of insanity in Caroline, her grandmother, and Rosemary Anne, her mother, tries to kill herself by drowning in the bathtub, and is rescued by Abalyn. Eva, following in the lineage of her own mother, other Eva, and her mother’s lover and cult leader, Jacova Angevine, eventually walks into the ocean, to later be found in the belly of a shark. In Imp’s Perishable Shippen binder of local hauntings, we find several more suicidal girls, including l’Inconnue de la Seine. And then there are our two painters, Phillip Saltonstall and Albert Perrault, both of whom died in suspicious accidents.

But there are suicides and there are suicides, aren’t there? Nothing about my above, improvised list clear. I’ve already mentioned my reservations concerning Rosemary Anne’s suicide. Then there’s Jacova Angevine and Eva Canning; Angevine leads her lemming cult, The Open Door of Night, into the ocean with her, resulting in dozens of deaths, and suicide is one thing, but murder combined with suicide is another matter entirely. Eva May Canning’s suicide becomes doubly ambiguous; on the one hand, was she merely following Angevine (just as Eva of The Werewolf Smile short story is following Albert Perrault– different Evas, remember)? On the other hand, one second-hand account credits Eva’s charisma for the cult’s popularity and intensity, and obliquely gives her more responsibility for the deaths of the cult members than one might otherwise think. On the other other hand, there’s an oblique reference to a survivor of the Open Door mass suicide who gives information as to the cult’s going-ons, a survivor known as EMC. Perhaps this is Eva’s daughter, other Eva, or perhaps Eva’s death was not a murder nor a suicide but simply a sham. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

I’m of the interpretation that Albert Perrault and Phillip Saltonstall, our fictional painters, both died accidental deaths that Imp then interpreted as suicide. She points to their expertise in motorcycling and horsemanship as evidence that the eventual grievous injury was done with intent, which seems mighty ambiguous to me; almost as ambiguous as the motivations given for their suicides, especially in Perrault’s case, which ultimately boils down to, it would be cool. Besides, in many respects, Imp is our little conspiracy theorist, searching for any and every connection, no matter how tenuous or ambiguous, driven by her schizophrenia into crafting a haunting.

The Performance of a Ghost Story

“Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways. A book, a poem, a song, a bedtime story, a grandmother’s suicide, the choreography of a dance, a few frames of film, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a deadly tumble from a horse, a faded photograph, or a story you tell your daughter.

“Or a painting hanging on a wall.”

In The Drowning Girl, hauntings and ghost stories, generally supernatural torments, are likened to contagion, like a virus that originates in some strange but inconspicuous place, and spreads amongst susceptible members of the population, riding them until they either die or find a way to cope or become immune. It’s an enthralling metaphor, not the least of which because Imp presents the idea to the reader with real world examples, such as the Japanese Aokigahara forest. Within the metaphor of contagious hauntings, is the blurry matter of mental illness, which, in some sense, Imp did “catch” from other people– namely, her mother and grandmother before her, via genetics. But even then, there’s something far more insidious at work with this metaphor, given that Eva invades Imp’s life, her mind, and even her apartment. In the middle third of the book, the two of them engage in a dubiously consensual folie a deux, which culminates in Eva’s death and Imp’s mental health being very nearly destroyed.

Importantly, and in line with the one principle to hold high, nothing in this book is simple. Insanity isn’t merely the realism explanation for haunting. In one major instance, insanity is a coping mechanism. In her eight/seven truths, Imp tells us, “7. I created the wolf/2nd Eva/Perrault exhibit as a defense mechanism against the events of the July Eva.” And yet, November Werewolf Eva is when, if you’ll pardon, shit gets real crazy. The introduction of Werewolf Eva is when Abayln can no longer even keep up with what’s in Imp’s head, and when the narrative, memorably, erupts into a stream of conscious deluge.

I can’t say that I know that this is right or not, but my interpretation of Werewolf Eva is of an abscess of the mind, a protective, pus-filled immuno-layer that Imp’s mind created around the infected wound that Mermaid Eva left. When Abayln (who acts as our Angel of Sanity in this book) asserts the truth– that Imp only ever met Eva once– the abscess bursts, and Imp gets very sick, for a time, until Abalyn comes to save her and put her back on her medication.

The Mermaid – Wolf Motif

The central motif of The Drowning Girl is the transmutation of a circle of entities around a girl; in the first, the girl is in the circle is the siren, the Little Mermaid, “singing them to shipwreck.” In the transmutated version, the circle of entities become wolves, hunting the girl in the middle, the Little Red Riding Hood. Generally speaking, the girl in the center is Eva (though there is a case to be made for it sometimes being Imp), but otherwise, nothing is quite so straight-forward. Like the matter of duality, it’s a motif that Kiernan is constantly playing with. As Artichoke points out, in this version of the ring-around-the-rosie, the circle is made up of Imp, her dead mother and grandmother, her girlfriend and doctor, all enthralled by or hunting Eva.

But while that takes up the lion’s share of the narrative, the identities of those enthralled by and soon to devour the girl in the middle are occasionally variable. There is, for example, the cult of the Open Door of Night, which transmutes into the cult of personality of Albert Perrault of Imp’s short story, Werewolf Smile. My personal favorite circle concerns Imp’s Perishable Shippen binder of entities who make up a list of possible identities for a local haunting, that of the Siren of Millville. It’s a list that includes, in no particular order and with no especial completeness: Perishable Shippen herself, the Puritan girl possibly murdered by her father; Mary Farnum, the yearned-for cousin of fictional painter of the painting The Drowning Girl, Phillip Saltonstall; l’Innecue de la Seine; the ghost of a miller’s daughter, murdered by her lover; the ghost of a woman who drowned in Narragansett Bay; a selkie sans skin who, perhaps, was entrapped in the river by a hurricane; and many more. Imp is organizing them into a morphing entity of a siren, but in the process, they’re devouring her.

The matter of the girl circled by wolves– namely, the Little Red Riding Hood who is also Eva– is no less complex and changing.

The wolf circle is closing in on a girl in their midst, intent on raping or devouring her. But the girl, November Eva, is herself a wolf in girl form, the ghost of a wolf who has forgotten how to be a wolf, or a girl whose identity is a wolf, like Wolf-Alice of Angela Carter’s short story from The Bloody Chamber. And besides, it’s Eva, of any one character in this story– more than any of Imp’s ghosts, more than fictional Perrault or double-fictional Perrault of Werewolf Smile– who rapes and devours in this story. In the Back Pages, we learn that Eva has quite possibly been Imp’s stalker for much longer than realized. And just when you’ve got your head around that inside-out twist, well, remember that the wolves are not wolves but beasts of some implacable malevolence, monsters who can’t be identified– and the mermaid version has its own monster as well, a sea serpent that painter Saltonstall claimed to have seen when painting The Drowning Girl, as well as other iterations. Whenever you think you have a decent grasp of the story, it mutates.

Character Notes

The Enigmatic Abalyn Armitage

There is more going on in the character of Abayln than I understood.

And what a relief it is to type that! That’s one thing you can do on a blog that you can’t do on an English paper for a class. Admit that you noticed something, but didn’t really catch it, and I’m probably not going to reread this book until about 2016 so, you know… yep.

Abalyn, the angel of sanity. Abalyn, the foil to Eva. Abalyn, who is very sane and firmly rooted in the modern world, very much in contrast to our lost girls, Imp and Eva. Abalyn who rejects the heritage of her lackluster parents. Abalyn who rejects the duality inside of her as a transgender person (a duality that Imp wants to comment on and emphasize, even once referring to her as a Tiresias) in favor of a single, solid identity. And yet.

The timeline of Abalyn’s leaving (twice?) was the part of the time line I followed least well. Then there’s the matter of Albert Perrault– did Abalyn bring Imp to the exhibit of Fecunda ratis, thereby sparking the existence of Werewolf Eva? Or did Imp’s work friend Ellen take her? Did Albert Perrault and his art ever exist at all outside of Imp’s head?

When Abalyn walks onto the page, the story immediately sharpens in clarity, and moves forward without Imp getting quite so bogged down in her own perpetual research and careful accounting of details, just as when Eva steps into the story, things immediately become far more murky, and what is and is not true becomes a great deal more difficult to parse out. The fact that this story has a happy ending– and not, for one possible example, an ending of Imp’s death– is almost entirely to Abalyn’s credit.

Just one little thing, though.

In Chapter 9, when Imp and Abalyn go to find Eva’s grave, with Imp insisting that she needs to know and Abalyn bravely leading the way, we encounter this:

“‘You don’t have to get out,’ I said.

All she said was, ‘Yes, Imp, I do.’

So we did. We both got out of the Honda. I stood by the car a moment, surveying the bleak cemetery. I glanced up at the sky, so blue and cloudless, so pale blue it was almost white, a wide carnivorous sky, as Rosemary Anne would have said. It wasn’t anyplace I wanted to stay very long, and twilight wasn’t far off. The shadows cast by the headstones were growing long. Abalyn lit another cigarette, and the cold wind took the smoke apart.

‘Let’s get this over with,’ she said.

It wasn’t hard to find Abalyn Canning’s marker. It was on the left (to the west) of the mausoleum barrow-den hill. It was set about twenty-five feet back from the road, surrounded by monuments bearing names like Cappucilli, Bowler, Hoxslii, Greer, Ashcroft, Haywood, Church, and, of course, other Cannings.”

Abalyn Canning.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Is it an indication of the fallibility of the text, as mentioned before? What? What the fuck? [1] [2]

One Last Little Note

The Dance of the Willies

At the beginning of the novel, in Chapter 2, Imp tells Abalyn about an encounter one night:

“‘I was driving home from work one night.  Usually, I take the bus, right? But that day, I drove because, well, I don’t know, I just felt like driving. On my way home that evening, passing by the park, I saw four people walking along together. … When I first spotted them, I thought they were nuns, which was strange enough…’ … ‘I saw that they weren’t wearing habits, but long black cloaks, with hoods that covered their heads. Suddenly, I wasn’t even sure they were women. They might just as well have been men, from all I could make out of them. And then– yeah, I know how this sounds– and then I fancied they weren’t even people.’ … ‘… they seemed like ravens trying very hard to look like people.’ … ‘Sure I know they weren’t ravens, of course. I don’t know why it seemed that way. I think they might have been Wiccans.’ …

‘Whatever they were, they gave me the willies.’

‘Gave you the willies?’ she asked, smiling. ‘No one actually says that, you know’.”

The significance isn’t exactly clear. They show up in the story like a death omen– before long, Imp is going to go out driving at night again, and find an entirely new sort of ghost by the side of the road. They’re indicated to be, or are connected to, corvids, an ominous bird by any literature, and especially after Imp has told us that corvids indicate lies. What lie? Who’s lying? Is it the birds, lying about being people?

I tend to think that these possible nuns, possible birds, possible men, possible witches areanother permutation of The Siren of Millville haunting, and that what they are is there in the name– willies. Specifically, the Wilies, as featured in Giselle, and more general folklore. The Wilies are the spirits of virgins driven to suicide by unfaithful lovers, which does seem appropriate to The Drowning Girl.

If you’ve made it to the end of this letter, and you haven’t yet read The Drowning Girl, do. Artichoke (who is currently in California, viewing a sculpture called Phases 1-5, by Albert Perrault), I will see you on Wednesday!



O&A on Tumblr! O&A on WordPress!

[1] This is not the only time the particular use of a name struck me. For example, when Imp is speaking to Dr. Ogilvy in her office regarding the paradoxical Mermaid Eva vs. Werewolf Eva, when she’s beginning to reconcile the two into something comprehensible, Ogilvy repeatedly calls her “Imp.” However, when we hear the messages left on Imp’s machine during her period of Werewolf Eva Insanity, Dr. Ogilvy calls her “India,” which does make a bit more sense for a psychiatrist addressing a patient given that India is Imp’s given name, not her cute nickname. Is any of this even significant? I don’t know.

[2] Artichoke has pointed out to me that Kiernan spoke about this mention of Abalyn Canning and admitted it to be a mistake of the text. Still, I left this part if my essay because it does nicely encapsulate this feeling one gets with this book, wherein whenever you think the ground if safe under your feet, it shifts. It also shows off my eagle eyes as a reader, so there’s that.


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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