For this weekend starter that seems to be out of place because of nagging colds and dry cough, I will begin with Andre Dubus III and what I have gleaned from reading his 300 plus page novel.
But to begin right away with readings would be insulting to the overall experience, which albeit had been quite protracted, was inarguably a real delight. So let me tempt myself first in falling downright into affective fallacy, because what an experience reading his House of Sand and Fog truly became. I first tipped my feet on the everyday world of Kathy Nicolo and Lester Burdon and Colonel Behrani November last year, only to be pulled away by Denis Johnson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn during the holidays and returned to it with renewed enthusiasm starting the new year. In jeepney rides, in my first quarter chilly room, in the coming of dusk in Kalinga – this novel has been an engaging companion, stealing me away from the tremulous moments, making reading confusable with drinking coffee.
What drew me to this novel, lengthier compared to Johnson’s Nobody Move and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was its being character-centered. There was Kathy, suddenly homeless; it’s not just a house that has been taken away from her, but a home, an entire storage of a family’s memory, a precious inheritance from her father. There was Colonel Behrani, the fallen Persian immigrant who struggles to reclaim stature, and many more albeit in a foreign land, – pride for one’s self, respect from his wife and children, a sense of security. And there’s Lester, Kathy’s eventual lover, torn initially, and eventually compelled to split up a first marriage for her; later sealing a tragedy which perhaps, and I hope too, he did not regret at that point of encounter.
Their lives intertwined in that house Kathy’s father gave to her when he dies: Kathy losing it, Behrani buying it and trying to make huge profit out of it, and Lester trying to help Kathy win it back. The novel ended, and by that I meant that it has reached its last page, without any of them accomplishing what they sought at the onset. The colonel has died beside his wife, or perhaps has reached that supernatural dimension whose existence was made for him to believe by his faith. Lester was in jail, and Kathy, too, with her mother turning her back against her.
No optimism here
And this is not a time when we should invoke cheerfulness and the mantra of trying to look at the beauty of things. Because I do not doubt that pang crawling in me as I leafed through the last few pages of the book: one because of the unfolding tragedy right in my face and that the novel is ending and what happened to Kathy and Lester afterwards would just remain as guesses and imaginings to me.
The sorry outcome the novel lent on Kathy and Lester’s relationship, however centered on sex one may think it was (but I am beginning to think otherwise, now) was something that will bother a more or less engaged third person. In his lowest, a law enforcer turning into one punished for breaching it, Lester had two calls to make to perhaps say goodbye to a waning phase in his life and make the most in trying to mend the things he had left damaged in the streak of his errors. He dialed the number of Behrani’s residence, actually, and legally, Kathy’s, in the hope of talking to her, but all for naught. In these lines, I can only see Lester closing his eyes, turning his hopes into undistinguishable mutters, and their eventual failures into mellowed utterances of “shit:”
“By tonight, he’d imagined the two of them driving north in a rented car, maybe giddy for having just gotten away by a hair. Now he just wanted to hear her voice, a bit husky and unsure of itself. He just wanted to hear her say his name. But the phone kept ringing and no one was picking it up (342).”
I just know this feeling, when I keep saying, “Please just fucking answer the phone, even if we don’t talk for five seconds and more, just make me hear your voice, confirm to me you are still alive and sane and sound to press the answer key” – even at the pursuit of that tiny kind of connection, one could utter “shit” upon a failure. You are feeling like you have shared so much life with that person it fatally haunts you to fail in hearing her sigh, assuring yourself that she’s still breathing and hopefully well.
And Kathy had her moment of resignation as well, although seemingly a less difficult one, but definitely not something as easy as inhaling air:
“I think of Lester, his Toyota station wagon pulling away from the neon light of the El Rancho Motel, disappearing into the fog. There is a loosening warmth between my legs and I want him inside me again, but feel sure now I never will (364).”
This is approaching the last two paragraphs of the novel where perhaps Kathy tried to swerve away from a realization: that the new name “Remote” she has earned in the County Hospital is just tightly an apt one for her who always fumbled in taking control and regressed to being a tool, an implement to achieve something — a remote. How did she attempt to swerve? She went behind Jolene, one of the more famous persons in the hospital, perhaps like Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted, who gave her the Remote label, asked a smoke from her, most probably will do exactly what she used to do in those times of inner tension and confusion when she found out she’s losing her home, when Connie told her it would not be easy recovering it, when Lester has gone back to his family and she’s eaten by insecurity.
And Colonel Behrani was no longer here, already dead after clinging to his faith and trying to resurrect with his wife into another dimension. But nevertheless, he still shares the same tragedy that took full circle and engulfed him, just like what occurred to Kathy and Lester, as individuals, or as two in one.
And about his earthly death, alongside his wife, and probably his son too who had been shot by the police earlier, traditional readings could point out a traditional note: the eventual falling of an Asian immigrant in America while the American characters, despite kissing the soil from the ground, remains alive, still has the potential to go on and persist for something better.
What about the “cultural differences?”
Most of the times, I hated the Colonel for being too adamant and refusing to just surrender to Kathy what is rightfully hers. I was sort of on Lester’s side when he “threatened” the Colonel and tried to make him give up what is to be given up. Now, I am thinking that this depiction of him stems more from individual motivation and not some racial or cultural peculiarity. He was once a Colonel, keeping a deep renown in his country before the war displaced them; in Lester’s observations, he is someone who is used to giving orders. And after the fall, what can you likely expect from him but a macho reaction: a sense of shame he’d try to conceal as much as possible, a burning desire to reclaim all status symbols that are now gone. Even when he repulses the Americans and their way of living,
(“These people do not deserve what they have. When I first came to the United States, I expected to see more of the caliber of men I met in my business dealings in Tehran, the disciplines gentlemen of the military….. And of course the films and television programs imported from here showed to us only successful people, they were all attractive to the eye, dressed in the latest fashion…. Yes, there is more wealth here than anywhere in the world….And I am told that many family meals are eaten in front of the screen, a nd perhaps this explains the face of Americans, the eyes that never appear satisfied, at peace with their work, or the day God had given them… who are forever looking for their next source of distraction, entertainment, or sweet taste in the mouth (123-124),”
he unknowingly subscribes to their gods as well: material wealth above anything else.
But thankfully his wife, Nadereh, has another side to show — the motherly, which is perhaps universal, the nurturing spirit. She showed these several times: when Kathy stepped on some nails when she tried to stop the peons working on something on her house and when Kathy attempted to shoot herself and swallowed some of Nadereh’s pills. But even the Colonel would turn back and try to win some of the readers’ sympathy, unsurprisingly by unleashing that side of him as well, as he was the first to see Kathy in her car, pointing a gun at herself, he halted her, and in that light, has saved her life.
In the seeming complexity of the scenarios where they find one another, more than cultures clashing, we can see a shared humanity among all of these characters. They all have the ability to feel sympathetic; they are all eager to pursue what they have set out for themselves. Which I think ultimately, downplays that side of the story, directing our attention more on the similar struggles and not the so-called differences. They all wanted to live, and live prosperously, and when tragedy reckons itself in the picture, no nationality or culture can be singled out as safe.
Only representations matter. And I think, if we follow this criterion, Dubus was able to be as objective as possible, again, focusing not on the differences, but on the sameness of fate. And perhaps, in the last note, that would give his work more merit.