Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jason reads Gemma so you don't have to (but maybe you should). 
Always be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.

Ok, so I finished Gemma. I had to stop and put it away...mostly because it turned me into a haunted, depressive, insomniac shell of a man. So what else is new?

But when I experience art, I want to be taken on a journey. It is not necessary nor expected that the journey be pleasant.

Some writer - I forget who it was - said that writing is simple: You just sit down at the keyboard or typewriter, take out a clean sheet of paper, and open a vein. The reader should be similarly open, and Gemma affected me profoundly.

A word about the plot: Gemma is an unapologetic and unhedged variation on the Nabokov novel Lolita. The 12 year old protagonist, Gemma Sullivan, is 'sold' by an abusive stepfather to a 36 year old friend, Hazen Wood, for 100 dollars. Hazen becomes obsessed with her, kidnaps her, and subjects her to a sadistic, brutal, and harrowing weeks long ordeal of rape, beatings, and psychological torture that pushes her spirit to the limits of human endurance.

The novel is told almost entirely in stream-of-consciousness style, alternating between the points-of-view of Gemma and her rapist. In terms of technique, Tilly is unequaled in honestly conveying the throat-choking fear experienced by the powerless in the grip of the evil, and does so with breathtaking detail and nuance. And the effect is both gripping and disturbing.

Not that it is a perfect book. Without giving too much away, our young heroine is eventually adopted by a loving family in a rather formulaic denouement that goes on too long. Tilly is an incredible horror stylist, with the keenest grasp of the psychology of victimhood - and the gargantuan strength necessary to overcome it, even to win the tiniest of victories - as you will find. Why? Because she herself went through Hell -- and is gifted with the courage to write so honestly.

If I tried to do the same thing - especially if I tried to crawl into the psyche of the sadistic abuser, and live there long enough to wring the last drops of a novel out of it - I am sure I would wind up mad, and meet the same fate as so many of the authors I most admire: Primo Levi, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway.

As a structuralist, Tilly is not as strong. Not that she's weak - she's still better than most. But that's something that comes with practice. It's been ten years between novels.

Stylistically, the novel suffers slightly from the similarity in voice between Hazen and Gemma. While their logic and characters are naturally completely different, their language, rhythm and syntax are at times nearly indistinguishable. The novel could have benefited from one more rewrite with an exquisitely sensitive editor.

Nevertheless, taken as a work in itself, but also in its effect, Gemma is a triumph - as is Ms. Tilly's innate strength and grace.

It is not for the weak-of-heart, and it is not for those who prefer to shelter themselves from the depths of human depravity. It is also probably not for some who've undergone nightmares of their own who are not prepared to confront those emotions head-on.

And though the cover looks like it belongs in the young adult section, this is not a book for most children.

I think it was Philo of Alexandria who wrote "always be kind. Everyone around you is fighting a great battle." Gemma was a powerful reminder of this principle for me. Under Tilly's demanding tutelage, confronted with evil again - this time through the vivid force of art - I feel my capacity for empathy, kindness, and love rekindled.

Splash, out


P.S., Meg Tilly is donating half the royalties of her book to charities that serve abused women. I will likewise donate any Amazon proceeds from Meg Tilly book sales to a similar charity, and match them myself.

Please, please click on the Amazon link above.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, October is DOD Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Commanders can go through an online training module available here.

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