Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz

Charco Press, May 2019, 117 pp

Charco Press, May 2019, 117 pp

In her follow-up to Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz is just as brutal and intense as before. Co-translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (who is also the wonderful director and editor of Charco Press), Feebleminded is a visceral account of a mother-daughter relationship in an unspecified village, and it follows the daughter’s complicated affair with a married man. It is a story full of sex and violence, saturated with alcohol, and written in nebulous but often poetic and associative language, as the very first lines of the novel reveal:

I come from nowhere. The world is a cave, a stone heart crushing you, a horizontal vertigo. The world is a moon slashed by black whips, by arrows and gunfire. How far must I dig before striking disdain, before my days burn. I could have been born with white eyes like the forest of stark pines, and yet I’m woken by volcanic ash on the garden clover. And yet my mother’s pulling out clumps of hair and throwing them on the fire.

It has been a peculiar couple of weeks in my reading life. I’ve been drawn toward some rather belligerent and grotesque reads – and reviewing them very favorably. Just recently, the Danish author Bjørn Rasmussen impressed me with The Skin Is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body, and I’m currently under the spell of David Keenan’s raucous For the Good Times, set amidst the unbearably violent conditions during the Troubles. But it’s not the violence itself that does it; there’s nothing fun in that. (I’m very much a pacifist who said no to compulsory military service.) It’s the ability of the author to evoke something more against the backdrop of utterly vain human tendencies to harm each other, and I think there’s a place in literature for examinations of such conditions. There’s violence everywhere around us in real life, anyway. Putting it into words may help to untie a knot or two, be it on a personal or social level.

I’m happy that Feebleminded didn’t let me down, because I couldn’t properly connect with Die, My Love. Although pleased for its Man Booker International nomination in 2017, which it surely deserved, I remember having the feeling that the author was pouring more and more disturbing scenarios on top of the reader as the novel progressed in a deliberate attempt to shock. Moreover, I might have been reading too many narratives of unredeemable, evil men, so that the book was simply too much at the time. However, with Feebleminded, I don’t get the feeling that Harwicz is doing this for mere shocks or creating cardboard men for the reader to despise. This feels full-fledged and balanced – if balanced is a word you can use to describe a story so dizzying and twisted.

One of the absolute strengths of the novel (as was of its precursor) is the format the story is presented in. It’s a joy for someone like me who’s always interested in the different ways that form can serve substance, and Harwicz’s style of writing in short chapters without any paragraph breaks or inverted commas that would indicate dialogue – ultimately resulting in a vertiginous feeling when you’re not sure anymore which character is talking – fits and intensifies the story just the right way. Each short chapter is one long cacophonous scream, maintaining its power due to its brevity. One could argue that the fervor is also the novel’s weakness, and I’m not even sure I will remember the plot for very long. But whether it matters that you remember the plot of a book or don’t is a question for another day. I’m fine with the feeling, the images, and the emotions this short little novel evoked in me.