Ripple Effect: Lawrence Sutin

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When to Go into the Water
by Lawrence Sutin
Softcover, $15.95
Sarabande Books, 2009

Lawrence Sutin’s writing caught my eye initially because he’d authored a biography of legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and I am one of those PKD fans who finds the man’s life and the phenomenon of his work—his books, the screen adaptations, the sometimes cultish following—as interesting as his fiction. I bought Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1989) but doubt that I ever read it cover-to-cover. Instead, it was a book that I habitually plucked from my bookshelf to read in no apparent order, the path to wherever I’d been headed diverted for maybe ten minutes, maybe an hour.

The book could be read that way. The reader could drop into beginning, middle or end and be assured of finding a nugget. Sutin had to overcome suspicion from those who knew PKD before they would sit down for an interview, but having a book contract gave him credibility. Sutin’s sense of being entrusted with memories permeates the book. Each anecdote receives due care and attention. The one that has always stuck in my mind is from PKD’s days as a struggling writer in Berkeley, when he and his wife were so poor they ate horsemeat, and PKD’s deep shame when one day the pet store salesman (who sold horsemeat as dog food), said, “You’re taking this horsemeat and you are eating it yourselves.” The story affects me because a) I am always taken by early stories of artists, especially writers, sacrificing comfort and/or dignity as they make their way to a future which for them is uncertain but which I know will be worth the travails; b) being poor but living in a Berkeley bungalow is like paying $35 per month for a SoHo loft: it’s hard to believe America was ever so cheap; and c) horsemeat? The book is bound by Sutin’s respect for the work of being a writer — not just the pen-to-paper work, but also the work of living.

Sutin as protector of memories comes as no surprise. For his second book, Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf Press, 1995), Sutin interviewed his eponymous parents, both survivors of the Holocaust in Poland. He edited the interviews (Sutin is credited as “author-editor”) and the narrative alternates between the voices of his mother and father. This time, the book made me its audience. I didn’t linger leaning against the bookshelf reading in a haphazard order. Rather, from the moment I started to read the book, I could not put it down. I finished it in two long stretches over two days, barely moving from my armchair, ignoring hunger and the ache that developed in my neck. The Sutins’ story of atrocities and survival is, simply, stunning. After reading Jack and Rochelle, I felt that I knew them. I wanted to be an honorary member of their family. Some passages echoed in my mind for days—they are still echoing.

When I brought home A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2000), I stood in my front doorway, leaning against the old door with its brass doorbell, and read the entire book through. Sutin’s writing seemed always to stop me in my tracks. His prose is beautiful and intelligent, and his writing is efficient: every word deserves to be there, no more, no less. But most arresting is that Sutin tells a good story.

Postcard Memoir is structured around old postcards from Sutin’s collection (now numbering over 12,000, according to a recent post on Sutin’s Facebook fan-page). These serve as springboards, or accompaniment, in the book to memories of the friends, places, adventures, family, work, musings, fears and discoveries of the first 40-odd years of Sutin’s life. A 1950’s-era postcard of a tour bus in the Fairchild Tropical Garden goes with Sutin’s fifth-grade class trip to a potato chip factory. A postcard of a patient arriving at a tuberculosis sanatorium in a Model T-era car goes with Sutin’s thoughts on death.

Why marry the words to postcard images? Some of the pictures are banal—urban landscapes, a building—while others are exotic, either foreign or elaborately drawn. The memoir’s structure might have been provided by any illustrative collection—matchbook covers, concert posters, knitting patterns — but I suspect that postcards offer an unrivaled range of subjects and styles. The postcards also offer another side of the author—not only the pictures, which initially attracted him for reasons I can only guess, but also the collection itself, the fact of gathering these cards—and this fragmented, eclectic group of images satisfies some part of his vision.

Sutin’s latest work, the novel When to Go into the Water (Sarabande Books, 2009), is blood relative to these earlier books. When to Go into the Water proceeds in brief untitled chapters which are often no more than a page long, rarely longer than two. Each chapter stands discreetly, while acting as another necessary piece of the mosaic, and just a few photographs punctuate the text.

The novel tells of a man, Hector de Saint-Aureole, who writes a book titled When to Go into the Water. This fictional biography provides the backbone of the book’s plot, from which numerous other stories branch off, some later crossing and entangling each other. The characters and plot of Hector’s book are taken from his own life. But the narrative follows some of the readers of his book as well. Their interludes take place in the near and distant future, on this planet and elsewhere. The effect of so much reflection is not one of disorienting funhouse-mirrors though—there is no wink as in, say, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler—so much as a kind of tightening, a limiting, a self-imposed restriction, like a close examination of a single snowflake, which, magnified enough, reveals the mechanisms of the universe.

Tracing the effect of the book on its audience (“One of the readers of When to Go into the Water was a former UFO abductee named Claude…”) shows the ripple effect of the “unremembered” Hector de Saint-Aureole who, like every author, will never know exactly who will read his work or how it will change them. All the characters remain ignorant, equally so, of the continuing lives of their actions. During World War I, for example, a photograph of Hector with a kindly German soldier runs in a Munich newspaper and becomes part of a larger propaganda effort. “Neither his parents nor Hector ever knew of this publicity triumph, the moment when Hector exercised the greatest influence over the world that he ever would.” When Hector attempts to use the magus Stanislaus to make a beautiful woman fall in love with him, Stanislaus winds up in bed with the woman instead: “[T]he pleasures he now attained were precisely those which Hector had beseeched just a half hour prior. It was, without Stanislaus knowing it, the culmination of his magical career.”

Sutin maintains a composed and careful tone for ordinary matters as well as magic, gods, goddesses, aliens, and Jesus Christ. (The exception to this is a chapter describing a nightmare—“To scour or score off, to run away, whittling the scrap, an old dance to a quick movement, thin legs like sticks with which small boys play swords”—in which Sutin lets loose in the linguistic equivalent of an extended drum solo.) Folded together throughout are the tangible and intangible, the natural and supernatural, what’s-there and what-isn’t-there. Thus the scope of the book—which is only 133 pages—appears infinite.

Born on a farm in France in 1900, Hector wanders the globe vowing that “my self-enforced exile will end only with the arrival into my life of my true beloved, should that ever come to be.” Bequeathed a tidy fortune by a patron of the bar where Hector works, Hector is free to go where he wants, when he wants. He is, as one character remarks, “unbeholden.” Or is he? “[W]hile walking and talking in the world, I shall act in accordance with the customs and desires of those around me—until I see my chance for escape. Escape to where? I shall travel the globe to determine the possibilities, or perhaps to conclude instead that the prison is perfectly constructed.” Hector—a wanderer whose destination is not a place but a person, a free man who seeks his prison’s gate—records his journeys and discoveries. These writings become the book titled When to Go into the Water, which is also the subject of Sutin’s When to Go into the Water.

The book-within-a-book binds the threads of the stories while juxtaposing the mundane with the spirited, allowing Sutin to offer small epiphanies:

One of the readers of When to Go into the Water was a woman who enjoyed reading in public because her private life had become a horror… She read When to Go into the Water one night in a Starbucks and poured the glass of water that the waitperson had brought with her coffee over her own head in response to the book’s admonition: “There is no prison so vast, so various in its tortures, as our own memories. Can we ever hope to be pardoned and released? But then, to whom are we pleading? We are the wardens of our own prisons. Wash the grime of the past from your skin and stand free in the present that is ours alone to live.”

Hector’s words offer freedom to his reader, but what about the freedom he desires? To whom does he write these words if not himself? Whether or not he heeds his own counsel (the book does not say), his words, in a life of their own, allow his reader to be reborn. In this passage, the banal image of Starbucks presses against language of despair, longing, scrutiny and baptismal liberation. I am not a fan of picking through a writer’s life for insight into his fiction; however, one passage in Jack and Rochelle that often pops into my mind is Rochelle’s remarks that after what she and Jack had been through, they didn’t enforce a strict bedtime on their children. “If they wanted to stay up until nine instead of eight, big deal!” she says. “Let them enjoy themselves and be happy.” Writing and reading are two ways in which we try to understand experiences that seem, for better or worse, beyond human. We do this by squaring the beyond-human with the quotidian. In literature, we can celebrate (or elevate) the everyday and attempt to organize havoc. Rochelle’s straightforward words—“Let them enjoy themselves and be happy”—come on page 203: there is no way to read them without thinking of what came before. When to Go into the Water economically moves between ordinary and revelation with an impartiality that respectfully acknowledges the miraculous in both.

Writing can also be a way of revising history. Hector’s readers will never know what material in his book was altered or omitted, but Sutin can say. There is the horrifying torture and murder of a Jewish waiter in Buenos Aires, of which Hector, acquainted with the killers and terrified that he could suffer the same fate, writes nothing except ,“The war is everywhere. It was folly to hide. Leave Buenos Aires tomorrow and never linger anywhere again.” There is the transformation of Hector’s travels with Somali pearl divers into a swashbuckling account of arms-smuggling, mutiny, and heroic rescue. And there is Hector’s response to the question posed by Una, the Irish barmaid who asks what Hector has “come to treasure” after all his years of wandering. Hector makes up his answer “on the spot as we do in conversation when we are invited to give sense to a lifetime of stumbles and missed ways and losses.” The truth, after all, is not always found in facts.

On page 31 alone—which is a complete chapter—a reader can find four distinct references to money, eight references to water, three instances of sex, and, in the bittersweet last sentence, the image of Hector “writing down… a sentence or so nearly every evening, as a sort of vespers, though he believed in little but love and in nothing so little as what he wrote.” Each brief chapter involves money (or lack thereof), water (in its various forms), love (often, lust) and magic (sometimes leaning toward the spiritual): primary elements of the life of writer Hector de Saint-Aureole. (He also smokes a lot of cigarettes.) These, then, are the questions that fund his story: What is to write? What is to love? What is to live? Again and again When to Go into the Water returns to these questions, each chapter offering an answer, now from Hector, now from one of his readers, now from the reader who will eventually marry Hector’s daughter, now from an alien that looks “like a squid with the head of a young dappled deer and a screen in its chest that flashed English-language queries and responses.” Hector’s life is a story of these questions and some of their answers. But the story of his life, like any life, also exists beyond him as the means by which these questions and some of their answers are inherited, requested, and discovered by others. In Sutin’s hands, this exchange is both cosmic and close, wonderful and humble and true.

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About Mojie Crigler

Mojie Crigler writes fiction, memoir, essays and plays. She is writing a memoir titled Get Me Through Tomorrow, about her brother Jason’s brain hemorrhage and successful recovery.