The Heart, Drawn & Quartered
Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw
Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, and sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic.
Set in a Southern city ominously called Lynchburg, the novel tells the story of Maw and her twin daughters Whitey and Sweet Marie. Much to her regret and disgust, Maw briefly fell for a white ladies’ man known as Lafayette, who is fancifully described as “a man who lived in a dog’s house, a man with four legs, who barked at raccoons and gnawed bones.” But after the twins are born, Lafayette wants no part of parenthood and flees farther south to live with the Gulf Girls in their brothel. Men don’t come off very well in A Long Curving Scar. The male gender’s unquenchable thirst for control without responsibility, for unending sexual conquest, and for violence is thoroughly cataloged here.
In order to survive as a single parent, Maw converts her home, which is located “far beyond the edges of the map of what should be,” into a hospice.
She decided to open a home for the elderly, the veteran, the sick and the discarded. The unwanted. The unbelonged. Their warm needy dying bodies coming in and never going out except in death. Every room in the unwanted mansion with a bed. Each bed with a body. Each body crying out for her, each body seeing her as a saint, an angel, a minister of relief—
…Maw taught her twins how to pull out their own ribs for use as splints and back braces. She invited them closer—into the surgeries and doomed birthings, diagnoses at dawn, to bear exhausted candles at unanticipated wakes.They saw how they should thread crosses of absolution through the closures of a shroud. Never to avert their eyes from those of the misshapen and dehumanized, the cast off and secret people, tucked into invisibilities of all sorts by families of all kinds.
A Long Curving Scar is also an extremely bawdy novel. Maw teaches her twins “a wanton compassion: to weave a long plait of yes.” In other words, she wants them to be survivors in a world dominated by men. Grown up, Whitey ministers sexually to the men of Lynchburg, just as she ministers to the dying in the hospice. Wikswo loves archaic words—especially when it comes to sex—partly from an obvious love of language and partly as a way to place her story outside of time.
And rare is the man in Lunchburg who does not think of Whitey and then of his love-stalk, his love dart, his lily, his lark. His bowsprit, his broomstick, hid bird dog, his bark. His sternpost, his short arm, his spigot, his spark.
Of her acorn,her apple, her all’s-well, her ache.
Her copper, his clovermeat.
Her coupler, her cake. Her pudding, her plug-tail, her pinter, her pant.
His gardener, his grinder, his gimcrack, his gap.
Her cuntache, his todger, her tonguer, his tash.
Meanwhile, during a trip to New York City, Sweet Marie has a brief, torrid fling with a woman called the Jazz Girl, which leads to a miraculous pregnancy.
She had known for some time, suspected, that something tiny and good was growing inside her, a low note…those words rolled around in her head like a lozenge. A tiny note. A low note, baby. Part fist, a musician’s hand wedged up inside her, filling her, making her swell. A knowledge baby. A wake-up-now-and-get-it-on baby.
The novel is divided into four sections, each named after the two atria and two ventricles of the heart. There is also a brief fantasy prologue in which Maw and her twins discover that all of the men of Lynchburg except Lafayette are dead, each carefully wrapped in tobacco leaves and hung up to dry from the rafters of a barn. But, alas, that dream was fake news.
Wikswo is a brutal and relentless mythologizer, dissolving the everyday and spinning it into something grandiose, preposterous, and yet stunningly apt. This is a story that is all about the telling. The book has the Baroque feeling of horror vacui, of plastering the known world with words. And yet no amount of words seems to erase the pain, the shame, the guilt, the grief, and anger that the three women share as a result of their relationship and kinship with Lafayette, their own version of original sin.
The grief in the house was not articulated, but it was ancient, it was larger and longer and bigger than the women, it went back to ripped apart continents, to the center of the earth, it fed on magma of loss, its lava the only trace of injustice in the void, every inch a measurement of grief, felt in the morning upon rising or in the evening as the light changed from thick to thin and part of them, unconscious, wondered, each to herself, unspoken and incoherent, did the world contain this pain for all people? Is it just us?
A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be is a lush parable that ends in murder and suicide. But it’s not clear that even Wikswo thinks these sacrifices will be enough to cleanse the American heart.
Once upon a time there was a big white house on the hill, an evil house, some folks say, though nobody really knows for sure where it went except to say that not all the people who lived in or near that old white house ever came out alive. African slaves. Our family. The patients when it once was a hospital.
Like her earlier book of short stories, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (she does like titles, doesn’t she?), A Long Curving Scar is filled with dozens of Wikswo’s own photographs. As an activist artist with deeply held principles (which she writes about in an afterword), she uses “repurposed” cameras and outdated film, which combine to create color photographs that have light leaks splaying at the edges, an imprecise focus, and ghostly double exposures when the film fails to advance properly. These images are meant to suggest memory and, placed as sequences that separate the book’s many chapters, they are also, perhaps, meant to serve as a respite to Wikswo’s intense prose. But after a while, I found the images began to pale against the onslaught of the text. In part, that seems due to the fact that the images as they appear in A Long Curving Scar might have been printed in colors that are too muted. If you take a look at an excellent interview with Wikswo about this book and her other work over at Volume 1: Brooklyn , you can see several of the book’s photographs which are reproduced with much richer color saturation. Check out the interview and read this book. Buckle up!