Here are the opening pages of Genni Gunn‘s new novel Solitaria. Genni is an old friend of DG, dating back to the time before he had children and used to fly across the country to this or that summer workshop (the summer he met Genni, he did three in a row in New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan). Once upon a time, Genni used to tour with bands in western Canada, which always struck DG as exciting and romantic (given his own sheltered upbringing). Now she writes novels, stories, and poems and the occasional opera. She is Italian by heritage. The photo above was taken in Venice and seems to DG to be iconic–Genni in the mysterious aquatic city, only half-western, caught in the embrace of the golden and opulent east.
By way of a further introduction, here is the novel trailer.
By Genni Gunn
Facilis descensus Averni:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
It is easy to go down into Hell:
night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air,
there’s the rub, the task.
Fregene, Italy, July 15, 2002
They navigate through thick traffic, from Rome, for an hour and a half, in stifling heat, among stalled cars and angry drivers. Finally, the Fregene exit leads them off the freeway, and onto Viale di Pineta through the ancient pinery, down to Lungomare di Levante, where they turn left at the seashore, and continue until they stop in front of iron gates, chained and padlocked. Visible through the bars, a dilapidated villa rises among pines and wild hibiscus whose magenta petals shimmer in the July heat. Yellow police tape girdles the entire area.
Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.
“This must be it,” the cameraman says, pointing to the number on a pillar whose plaster has broken away in chunks to reveal old bricks and mortar. He turns down the air conditioner.
The show’s anchorwoman sits beside him, fanning herself with a small spiral notebook. On the side of the van, the familiar logo — a large c ending in a question mark, inside which are the words: Chi L’Ha Visto? Who Has Seen Him?
A policeman unlocks the gate, checks their ids, and lets them in. While the crew unloads the van, the anchorwoman walks around, surveying the area for appropriate footage.
The villa looms over her, casting a dark shadow to the east, eclipsing the tent erected over the excavation site — a makeshift lab where forensic specialists gather specimens. She shivers under the unrelenting sun, then searches for the demolition foreman, interviews him, and jots his answers in the notebook.
The new owners want to tear it down and build something new.
We were going to take out the trees first, and that’s when we found him.
We thought maybe during the war. But forensics said around mid-1950s.
When the crew is ready, she pins on her microphone and circles the excavation site.
“What you’ll see and hear about today,” she says, “is a crime committed long ago…”
Belisolano, Italy, July 17, 2002
Piera Valente sits alone in her kitchen and stares at the small television perched on the corner of the counter. The hot July air forms beads of sweat on her forehead and at the back of her neck. She waves her thin cotton nightgown around her thighs, then draws a handkerchief out of her sleeve and wipes her face.
On the screen, a nervous attractive woman in her mid-forties is describing her descent from fame into alcoholism, while the tv host nods and cues the audience applause. The camera zooms in until her face completely fills the screen. Large tears spill out of the woman’s eyes. Then the camera zooms back out, and the TV host holds out a box of tissues. Finally, the woman stands up and sings a song she made popular in 1984, her body squeezed into a black jumpsuit. Seated in a semi-circle, behind her, waiting for their turn, seven other middle-aged singers are ready to tell their stories of falling from grace, ready to compete, vying for the TV viewers’ votes that could return one of them to former fame.
Piera gets up slowly and opens the glass balcony door. Red geraniums and pink snapdragons bask in the early evening glow. On the street three storeys below, families stroll the sidewalks, teenage couples huddle on benches, old men smoke in doorways, the front legs of their wooden chairs off the ground. In the building directly across from her, a young widow sits in front of the window, staring straight at Piera, looking through her.
Piera shuts the door. She turns the blinds, sits down again.
“My life is perfect now,” says the blonde, her tired eyes smiling at the audience.
From one of the kitchen drawers, Piera draws out a large, grotesque mask her father had whittled from a piece of wood when she was a child. It’s a replica of the Bocca Della Verità —The Mouth of Truth — that hangs in the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. That cracked marble disk resembles the human face, its mouth ever open. According to legend and tradition, the mouth was used as a lie detector, and its mythical teeth would snap shut on the fingers of any liar. In fact, the disk may have been an ancient drain cover whose face belonged to a Roman fluvial god, whose mouth once swallowed rainwater and averted floods. Or the ornamental face of a wall fountain in a rich villa on the Aventine Hill. How it became the sole judge of one’s honesty is unknown, as is who might have stood behind the mask, hatchet in hand, ready to pass judgement and sever limbs.
“Stick your hand in here and say that,” Piera says to the TV woman.
Throughout her childhood, this crude wooden Bocca mask hung on a thick nail at the side of the doors of all the railway huts they occupied. Her father used it, in jest, whenever he thought she might have been tempted to lie, unaware that she truly believed in the powers of the mask.
When her parents moved into town, Papà gave her the mask, and she hung it at the side of her bedroom door, like a ghost or a conscience, the crude carved face superimposed over Papà’s face in memory, so that his empty eyes watched her, his lips were ready to crush her bones. When people asked her about it, she said it was a reminder of Papà’s many sacrifices. But the mask hung in her house as a testament to her ability to outwit it. She crossed herself when she passed it. She took it down, finally, after her housekeeper died, when she decided to renovate the old house.
Steps on the stairs. Piera drops the mask into the drawer and turns off the TV. She hurries to the bedroom and climbs into bed.
When Teresa’s key turns in the lock, Piera takes a deep breath and falls back onto the pillows.
Teresa’s slippers flap down the hall. Slap, slap. Flap, flap. Then, she stands in the doorway, a small tough woman, gaunt, with large black eyes, and bleached honey-blonde hair with white roots. Piera’s sister-in-law. In her arms, a plastic basket piled high with laundry.
“About time,” Piera says, without raising her head.
“I see you’ve been up and around.” Teresa upends the basket on the chaise lounge beside the bed.
“I could be dead for all you care.”
Teresa shrugs out of the room, and returns a few moments later with a spray water-bottle, the ironing board, and an iron, which she plugs in. “Stop making a fuss,” she says. “I’m only ten minutes late.” She picks up a pillowcase, smoothes it out, sprays it, and begins to iron it. “Do you think the whole world revolves around you?”
Piera’s eyes narrow. She and Teresa have been shackled to each other — giver and taker — in a complicated dance of insults and insinuations, ever since Piera’s brother Vito abandoned Teresa, leaving her with a baby son to care for. Last year, after Piera slipped and fractured her ankle, an unexpected role-reversal. Teresa’s voice softened, her hands gently massaged Piera’s feet, she sponge-bathed her, and brought her delicious soups and pastas. For a few weeks, Piera savoured the attention, marvelling at Teresa’s unexpected assertiveness. She lingered in bed longer than necessary, well past the time when her ankle had healed. But slowly, Teresa’s resentment returned, her brow furrowed, her sighs expanded, and soon, she was leaning in the doorway, sullen and mocking. She has, however, continued to shop for Piera, who has become reclusive, solitaria, and has left the apartment only once or twice since then, yet has convinced herself that she knows all that occurs outside. She is certain, for example, that Teresa lounges all day in front of the TV in the apartment Piera had paid for. Or that Teresa sits in bed and flips through the lives of movie stars in magazines and telenovelas. She imagines frivolous shopping Teresa might be doing and Piera might be paying for. She imagines, in short, that every moment Teresa spends out of her sight is wasted.
“No one cares,” she says. Her face crumples, and her eyes spout tears that she angrily wipes away. “No one cares how much I’ve suffered, how much I continue to suffer,” she says, but even in her own head, the words sound hollow, ridiculous.
Teresa laughs. “Always melodramatic.”
Piera smiles weakly, but she can easily imagine herself as the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel, or an opera. She is Violetta, sola, trascurata, or Cio-Cio-San, when what she always wanted to be is Carmen, Aida. But it’s all the same, she thinks. The divas die in the end, either for love or lack of it.
“If you got out now and then, you might see some real suffering,” Teresa says. She picks up the remote, flicks on the television, and turns up the sound. Credits roll down the screen, to the soundtrack of old familiar songs. All the singers stand together, their cheeks puckered into smiles. Phone numbers flash twice at the bottom of the screen, just before the commercial break, during which Teresa irons two pillowcases and two sheets. Flap, flap. Slap, slap. She walks to the bureau and folds them in.
“Why don’t you buy some shoes?” Piera says suddenly. “Didn’t anyone teach you that it’s crass to go out in slippers?”
“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Teresa slams the bureau drawer shut, and a small puff of dust flies into the air. “Come on. Let’s get you up.” She begins to pull Piera’s legs over the edge of the bed, then slowly bends to pick up Piera’s slippers.
“And your hair,” Piera says. “It’s disgraceful.”
Teresa stops, half-crouched, unmoving, and Piera thinks, now I’ve gone too far. She sighs loudly and lifts herself into a sitting position.
On television, the familiar graphic of Who Has Seen Him? displays the faces of men, women, and children who have been lost, and found through the marvels of the phone-in show.
“Poor families,” Piera says, anticipating the most recent losses about to be broadcast. She settles back into the pillows, as if nothing had happened.
Teresa, too, returns to her ironing, without comment. They both religiously watch this program, although Teresa prefers the end, the updates that tell them about a grandfather discovered wandering in a field, or a child found in an amusement park, a murder solved, a husband returned. Endings, closures.
The announcer begins this segment in a hushed voice. “What you’ll see and hear about today,” she says, “is a crime committed long ago.” She pauses. “So long ago,” she says, “that we need your help in identifying the victim, and the possible motive.” She pauses. “We are here, in Fregene, a coastal town near Rome.” Behind her, the iron gates, the chain and padlock.
A policeman approaches and opens the gates. The announcer walks around, camera crew following. “We’re hoping someone will recognize this location.” The villa sags, paint peeling, shutters dangling at odd angles, windows shattered, doors splayed open, marble floors cracked and filled with clumps of weeds. Outside the gate, children have gathered to watch the TV crew, hands waving, faces pressed between bars.
“And now,” the announcer says, “we’ll go to the excavation site.” Two forensic investigators step aside, while the camera zooms in to the bottom of the dig. Superimposed on the empty grave is a police photo of a skeleton gaping out of remnants of clothing.
Piera reaches across the bedside table, picks up a small bottle, and uncaps the lid. Her hand trembles.
“You don’t need that,” Teresa says gently. She pries the bottle out of Piera’s fingers and sets it back on the bedside table. “You don’t need most of this stuff.” She points to the bottles and boxes of pills, drops, tablets, suppositories, lotions, syringes.
“How do you know what I need?” Piera says weakly, but she falls back onto her pillow.
Teresa swoops the belt of Piera’s dressing gown from the floor, and hangs it like a dead snake on the bedpost, all the while watching the television program. She likes to know that people are found, that families can rejoice or mourn. What is terrible is not knowing.
“…please take a good look and call the number at the bottom of your screen, should you recognize any of these items.” The camera zooms in to another police photo: three objects tagged with letters and numbers: a bullet casing, a thin gold wedding band, and a pewter mano fico amulet, engraved on the back with V + T Forever.
Teresa sucks in her breath. She edges closer to the screen, stares at the mano fico — a small hand, thumb thrust between the curled index and middle fingers in an obvious sexual gesture. It can’t be, she thinks. How did that get there? Vito is in Argentina. Isn’t he? Piera has received letters from him. Yet there, on the screen, V + T Forever. She frowns, brings her hand up to her face, her heart thudding. She turns to the bed, but Piera has closed her eyes.
Vancouver, July 25, 2002
Middle of the wedding ceremony, guests hushed and weepy.
“Repeat after me…” the minister says, and a hummingbird slams full-tilt into the plate glass window facing the lake. The bird’s small body quivers on the gravel path, its feathers iridescent, like neon fish. David’s friend, Joe, and his almost-wife falter mid-word, their eyes fixed on the trembling creature. No one moves. Better to pretend. David thinks of the word, ‘hummingbird’: an Americanism. The birds don’t hum; the rapid beat of their narrow wings produces the sound, makes them appear to be in constant motion. This one is lying on its side at a most unnatural angle.
David’s chest expands. Enlarged heart: A compensation for increased need. He sighs. Concentrates. This is Joe’s wedding; this is a happy occasion and that’s that.
Later, after the kiss and the pronouncement, David steals outside, but the bird is gone. Cleared away, no doubt, by the diligent hotel staff. He would rather believe the bird regained its senses and flew away. In the window, a postcard backdrop of sky, water, and trees. How easy to mistake reflection, he thinks, catching sight of himself as a stranger, a forty-six-year-old man in a tuxedo, hair dark and wavy. A slender man with bleached green eyes and a cynical disposition women find attractive. A man who goes to weddings, dinner parties, lectures, and movies on his own; who is not afraid of solitude.
“See anyone interesting?” The bride emerges from the side door, her puffy white dress clouded around her.
David smiles, startled. “Not even looking.” Annie is always trying to match him up with someone, as if he were a shoe. She doesn’t understand that David is perfectly happy. As happy as anyone can be with a series of e-romances and a lover who lives thousands of miles away.
“You plan to spend the rest of your life on your own?” Annie says, her tone all sympathy and pity.
“I have Bernette,” David says, “we’re good,” though it sounds fake even to him. Bernette is his long-distance girlfriend, a serious young woman who teaches in the Women’s Studies Department of a small private university southeast of Chicago. A couple of months ago, on a lark, he googled “Long-Distance Relationships,” and came up with an advice site in which he read that the most important aspect of long-distance relationships is “to have a solid time in the future for when the long distance part of the relationship will end, no matter the time length. Without it, the relationship can begin to mold into something that is always distant — even with great communication. With it, each person can see the point at which the distance will end, and work harder to keep emotions readily available.” He and Bernette have never discussed this solid time. Their relationship is built on a series of small impermanent futures — we’ll go on holiday; I’ll come to visit — carrots dangled at the end of a long stick.
Annie clamps her small hand on his forearm. “You hardly see each other. What are you getting out of it?”
“My freedom.” David smiles through clenched teeth.
Annie stiffens and pulls back her hand. She thinks he’s dismissing her marriage, and maybe he is. “Freedom’s highly overrated,” she says. “You’re kidding yourself.”
“That’s your version,” David says.
Annie shrugs and goes back inside. David watches her disappear behind the window mirage, thinking, Romance is a shatterproof window. The phrase applies equally to his e-romances, where the screen is a buffer zone between real emotions, and to Bernette, whose distance forms a thick murky glass.
You plan to spend the rest of your life on your own?
It’s not a plan, like a three-week holiday — charter a small plane to Everest, chatter-teeth up to base camp, click a few photos, then into that five-star hotel. This is his life and this is how it’s going so far. Instead of cultivating a mate (like some exotic orchid from a jungle, or an arctic rhododendron that blooms for a few hours one day a year), he has concentrated on words.
In the evenings, when according to Annie, he should be on spring-loaded dance-floors, sashaying with wonder-women, he is bent over endless piles of English essays he marks night after night, essays written by nineteen-year-olds whose arrogance and ignorance are staggering.
It’s not a plan, it’s the absence of one.
He’s in his hotel room by ten o’clock, minutes after bride and groom hop off their cake and drive away in their tin-can car. They’re at Harrison Hot Springs, 70 miles east of Vancouver. Off with the tuxedo, on with the bathing trunks, and down he goes to the outdoor hot pools. The air is crisp, though it’s early July. Up here, the narrow lake forms a wind tunnel between mountains. Once the sun sets, except for a couple of weeks in August, the temperature plummets.
He swims the length of the pool a couple of times, then perches on one of the ledges moulded to resemble natural rock, and looks up. Directly across, the hotel’s tower: a succession of glass patio doors, like a multi-screen tv, as if one story were not enough. Short Cuts. Many of the drapes are open, either because the room’s occupants have forgotten that despite the mountain in front of them, there are pools below from which people can view their every move, or because they don’t care about privacy any more than exhibitionists who install cameras in their homes and project their dull, generic lives onto the Internet.
Soon, couples arrive — wedding guests giggling and chasing each other around like children finally emerging from their adulthoods. They squeal, laugh, jazz into each other. They splash, race, kiss underwater, as if they were the newly-weds. When one couple starts kissing passionately on the ledge two feet from him, David gets out of the water and patters up to his room.
He’s brought a set of English essays to mark. “Get a life,” Joe and Annie would say if they knew. He sits up in bed, opens the first one and begins reading, “True wisdom comes only after you have learned to fear God.” He slams the essay back into its pile, and dumps the pile onto the rug. The last thing he needs right now is faulty logic. He flicks off the light, slides open the glass doors, and parts the curtains. Flakes of conversation, trickles of laughter waft into the room, disembodied. He moves back to the bed, where he can see out but not be seen. In front of him, the dark, imposing mountain face.
At 2:14 a.m., he is awakened by the rhythmic banging of a headboard against the wall behind his head. He opens his eyes, turns over, listening. A couple making love, their voices amplified in the dense silence. “Come on,” the man is saying, over and over, as if trying to coax the woman somewhere. She responds in hyper moans that sound both forced and theatrical. He turns on the light, sits up. Picks up the receiver and dials Bernette’s number.
“Hello?” Her voice is sleepy. High-pitched, childlike.
They live in different times, he thinks. She’s always hours ahead of him, her future, his past. Divisions and codes. What was he planning to say? Phone sex. Now, her vulnerable voice silences him.
“Hello?” she says again. This time her voice is more awake, almost alarmed.
He hangs up slowly and carefully. Turns out the light and lies in bed thinking about Bernette. Two marvellous years of nothing. They hardly know each other. Three times this past year, they’ve met in a city mid-way between their homes and fucked for a weekend. Weak. Weak. End.
—By Genni Gunn
And here is a taste of Genni’s opera Alternate Visions (music by John Oliver).