Language of the Heart: A Review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes — Jason DeYoung
A Brief History of Yes is seemingly a novel about a break-up, but it is also about an inestimable loss of something, something nameless, ancient, beyond or before language. It is a homesick novel. —Jason DeYoung
A Brief History of Yes
Micheline Aharonian Marcom
Dalkey Archive Press, 2013
119 pages, $14.00
A Brief History of Yes is a weeping novel. Its cohesion is mourning. Ineluctable sorrow manifests in its structure and grammar, in its sounds and imagery. Its subject is one woman’s obsessive grief and despair after a break-up. But it would be impertinent to think of A Brief History of Yes as a trite break-up novel. In prose, in thought, in raw emotion it defies expectations, seeking in its disregard of traditional novel form to describe in the “language of the heart” the misery of having one’s ideals and ideas of love confronted and dashed by a lover. And Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s abiding interpretation of this language is reaching and relentless and unrestrained.
Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the author of five novels. The first three—Three Apples that Fell from Heaven (2001), The Daydreaming Boy (2004), and Draining the Sea (2008)—take as their subject genocide, and operate loosely as a trilogy. For Marcom the role of the artist is to be “concerned with the things as they are: not as they ought to be,” and in these first three novels she depict characters in all their warmth and coldness, hopefulness and despair. They are intense, deeply felt novels, uninhibited by subject or style. Her new novel, A Brief History of Yes, is the companion novel (and the second in a new trilogy) to The Mirror in the Well. Marcom describes these new novels as “domestic,” and they are ostensibly about love affairs. The Mirror in the Well explores physical love, ecstasy, and (very openly and beautifully) female sexuality. As Marcom told The Rumpus, in The Mirror in the Well “I wanted to write a book, in effect, from the female sex, where the word ‘cunt,’ that fine and strong old Anglo-Saxon word from Old Norse, is, I hope, a little bit rehabilitated as a word…the taboo on its use upended.”
While The Mirror in the Well burns with the rapture of an illicit affair at the edge of love, A Brief History of Yes wallows in the fizzling of a break up at the edge of madness. Its main character, Maria, is a middle-aged woman of mixed heritage—Armenian and Portuguese. She is divorced and has an eight-year old son. She is difficult to characterize since much of the novel focuses on her inexpressible emotions and internal conflicts (at one moment she summons this disheartening reaction: “I would not like this feeling that I have now, which is a feeling without a name, not a feeling even…”). She is passionate, a woman who “loves love,” and she is flawed—she believes quite wrongly that her lover is some sort of savior. The lover is an engineer, and we have Maria’s understanding of him to rely upon: “a man who is reasonable above all things (above love).” Between the characters lie a multitude of insurmountable dichotomies and intractable psychological wounds: Maria is from a Roman Catholic family, he: a Protestant; Maria is metaphorically the heart, the lover is the head (in fact, he has a concaved chest as if no heart can lie beneath his ribs); they are both haunted by parental abuses—she by her father’s, he by his mother’s. The polarities continue as she says “yes” to everything, while he says the decisive “no.”
It is a relationship ill-fated from the outset as Maria intuitively knows, yet she continues to believe that they were brought together because she “called” to him, as her grandmother had “called” for her husband, Maria’s grandfather. There is a mysticism that runs through this novel. Ghosts, daemons, and old-world gods inhabit Maria’s mind—holdovers from her heritage, perhaps. But they’re not to be dismissed. They give her depth and soulfulness whereas her lover denies his deeper passions and seeks “only…playful and happy girl[s] to sleep with and to love.”
The interplay of gods and spirits relates to the overall time structures of the novel, too. From the first sentence there is a sense that for the next 119 pages the reader will hear a tale that has been told before, that is perhaps both ancient and modern: “So that, yes, here are the two lovers, again…” (my itals.) Marcom steeps herself in an heirloom narrative—unrequited love—and time is elusive and recursive in A Brief History of Yes. In the timeline of the novel, the earliest chapter is just a few months before the lovers meet, and the latest one is three months after the break-up. With each chapter we shift forward and backward, shuffling vortex-wise around the night of the break-up.
Jean-Paul Sartre writes on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that “the order of the past is the order of the heart,”. While apt words for Faulkner’s novel, they also apply here. From the start we know that the couple has parted. We know that they were together for one year—from August to August, from “dry season to dry season.” But time is something that resides in this novel like a capricious god, giving it a semblance of arc, and Marcom does a superb job of placing the actual break-up scene close to the middle of the book. But in many ways time becomes odd, sometimes superfluous—“There is no today”—and at other moments of dire importance. We are locked in Maria’s festering memory. Some chapters straddle two timelines, some depict scenes that never occurred, and at the crux of the novel there is a breakdown of reality all together—“she pulls her own heart from her chest…” Maria in fact “puts scene together” to see what “unhappiness looks like.” At times we cannot be certain of what we are shown. Maria is smarting from grief, bewildered, and Marcom shows us how “trauma is a repetitive mode of the mind,” giving the reader less of a narrative and more of a stratum of grief. Marcom is writing “into” her character’s emotion. And the suspense of the novel is whether despair will take Maria under or will she be washed ashore—“Madness either destroys you at the abyss, or from there a new form is made; something else is born.”
In counter beat to Marcom’s rendering of this language of the heart, palpitates a plaintive, commiserating music, echoing Maria’s emotions. The song of the hermit thrush reoccurs through out the novel. It is a bird, Harold Bloom writes, that “behave[s] … like a person in mourning, withdrawing from the world when overcome by grief.” It is a stunning image for Marcom to apply, and creates an enticing allusion with the fourth section of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
Yes, Whitman is grieving Lincoln, but Maria views the break up as a death too: the lovers have “died to one another.” The thrush’s “death carol” (Whitman) is an “ingrained [song], what sounds and song-form were made in his species millennia ago” (Marcom). Grief is old, the thrush’s warble is its serenade:
And the thrush: two ounced the song filling the tiny lungs the hillside grove and hills in the distance his brown small body brown feathers black eyes and pink grabbing feet he hops up and he cannot be seen while he sings, hides as he sings, and seeing him he does not look like a god, Maria thinks: small brown not-beautiful bird but for the melody and in his song all of the world, its beauty, its growth and decay.
Music appears elsewhere in the novel and entwines itself with language. Marcom has called her novel a “literary fado,” comparing the novel to a style of Portuguese music that is mournful, characterized by sentiments of resignation and melancholy. “Song is always a nostalgic form, the past is always its guide—the longing for home,” she writes. By the end of the novel, Maria is a woman in exile—her ex-husband and son celebrate Thanksgiving without her, her lover doesn’t want to see her, she is hundreds of miles away from her mother, even further from her native home of Portugal. Amália Rodrigues’ “Fado Português” plays on the radio. It is around this time the word saudade emerges:
In English you don’t have this word, and there’s no accurate translation of it. Is it nostalgia? Or yearning for the absent one? Or the love that remains after the beloved has gone? All of this could be saudade. Have you not seen your Christ on the cross? And why does the Protestant deny the image where the knowledge can be felt.
I love that, “where the knowledge can be felt.” It is without words, obscure, similar to the hermit thrush’s song, to Whitman walking with the “knowledge of death,” to the elegiac voice of Amália Rodrigues, to Maria’s internal place where she goes when she is feeling pain, a place without language. In fact, A Brief History of Yes, and most of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s work, is a challenge to the sufficiency of language. She strives through neologisms and disarticulated and run-on sentences to press the English language to do more. And despite the third person perspective, A Brief History of Yes is ultimately a private narrative, built out of one individual soul’s language, unhinged from collective rules of punctuation and meaning and time:
It is the early morning of the American holiday of the mythical meeting of the Indians and the English, and Maria is not celebrating today, she doesn’t cook the holiday fare and in any case her son is with his father in another city celebrating, eating, and the old husband fucking his American wife with the horsy face and there is nothing chosen or wrong with a horse’s face, Maria thinks, my face today is lined, aggrieved, unmalleable, and the icon suspended above my bed when I was a girl, the small palm-sized image Mãe hung on the wall above my headboard of the Madonna and Child, one of grandfather’s early icons, of the small unreal-looking Jesus child, the stiff, small-faced, thin-faced mother of Christ inviting, eventually, Maria’s own face today years later when she took the photograph of herself and saw the grief of the lost son, lost lover, husband, and father in it.
A Brief History of Yes is seemingly a novel about a break-up, but it is also about an inestimable loss of something, something nameless, ancient, beyond or before language. It is a homesick novel. As the title suggests, this is a history of a word, of the word, not a love affair or a couple or a life. “Lover, the world began with a yes.” (The echo with the Christian Bible is unmistakable, compounding the sense that Marcom is working with material that is old, elemental to the human condition.) Without yes there is nothing, we are told. It is from the Old English, the “single present subjunctive of beon, to be.” Without yes there is no life, no richness of feeling, no good, no bad: no heartbreak, but no love. It is yes that starts the affair, and it is yes that Maria ultimately returns to for self-salvation.
There are few living American writers who write novels as challenging, mesmerizing, and intriguing as Micheline Aharonian Marcom. She proves herself again and again to be a writer with an unremitting gaze, and her work wounds and leaves behind sacred scars as they show us a love for humanity’s spectrum—its gorgeousness and wretchedness. Since she takes on as her subject the ineffable in her characters, her novels are difficult to talk about and convey. Her characters often go to a place—whether internally or externally—that is beyond or without language. And, if they themselves have no language for their feelings, what is our hope in being able to speak about it? We offer our silent commiseration, our imperative as sincere readers. Often I sense there is something in the novels that aches to re-experience the charge and mystery of myth, and as with A Brief History of Yes, her novels read like poetry. Structured, yes, but full of sequences that don’t succumb to the dictates of prose, passages that go on unpunctuated and grow wild on the page. It is a style honest to Marcom’s characters and to her own challenge to push language, a style that brings forth originality and worthy of love.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared or forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Art and Letters, New Orleans Review, The Los Angeles Review, Numéro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012
- Shushan Avagyan, “Interview with Micheline Aharonian Marcom,” Context, No. 22, Dalkey Archive Press, Date?↵
- “I think of it as a trilogy because I’ve written three ‘domestic dramas,’ different from the historical books which preceded them.” Micheline Aharonian Marcom in interview with Taylor Davis-Van Atta, “A Conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom,” Music & Literature, Issue 1, page 144↵
- Jean-Paul Sartre, “On The Sound and the Fury: Temporality in Faulkner,” We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939 – 1975, New York Review of Books, 2013, page 21↵
- Taylor Davis-Van Atta, quoting Micheline Aharonian Marcom, “Marcom & the Possibilities of Language,” Music & Literature, Issue 1, page 164↵
- Harold Bloom, Walt Whitman, Chelsea House Publishing, 1999, page 92↵
- For those who are interested, this song is based on José Regio’s poem Fado Português. Even if you cannot read Portuguese (as I cannot) a quick web translation reveals the precision of Marcom’s choice in this song with its reoccurring lines: que, estando triste, cantava, / que, estando triste, cantava.↵
Nice work, Jason. Going to have to add this novel to the list now!