A Book So Red
Anachronies and displacements. Mismeanings or misunderstandings. Historical fictions or fictional histories. Aprocryphalism is at the heart of Rachel Levy’s A Book So Red.
What is natural?: “The people in the street asked, ’What are you?’ and 'Who the fuck made thee?’” (85) (to the lipsticked lamb in the street).
What is Nazi?: “Horst knew me better than anyone. He knew I was a modern woman. Yes, I shaved the pits of my arms, but I wasn’t a fascist about it. So what if I missed a day? We lived in a modern age, and I was no big-booted Nazi” (83).
What is nominal?: “Not-My-People was the name Adam gave to the very first horse when it fell from the firmament to the face of the earth. / At the height of our innocence, during the early childhood of the son of man, the plague did visit us inside the skin of a horse” (72).
What is not?
These are the questions Levy poses, uncovers, decapitates, dissects, reburies. A Book So Red is a Trojan horse of a book, from which an army of ideas and allusions emerge to sail on a sea of spilled, or is it spoiled, or is it soured milk?
Or is it Centauromachian?
Whatever I call A Book So Red, it is a story of women: I, Bethany, she, Mitzi, I. Of males: Horst; Hirs(c)h; buck and stag; bull. It is a story of identity, in all its confusion: “There were boundaries, but we didn’t believe in bullshit like that.” (32)
Of names and battles, the power and the shifting of power based on perceived victories and applied titles.
Of abduction. “’I have taken her ostrich. / ‘You mean hostage [. . .] A kidnapping.’” (13).
Hybridism is a theme Levy threads through her work. Be it of man and horse, gender, sparrow and camel, or languages: “The Yiddish word for ‘deer’ is ‘hirsh.’ The men of that name were fated as cattle, corralled, slaughtered. / It was impossible to be precise. / But one must choose a side. I must choose” (54).
This is a book of mountings (and of falling off / from).
I recently heard Levy speak in Los Angeles about her writing process, which she says often includes watching German films and documentaries about WWII, and translating the subtitles, from which she then makes stories. She was on a panel titled “Desire in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” where she read a mini-memoir, as she called it, which invoked both the Book of Job and the Marquis de Sade. Levy’s are stories of suffering, tempered by the subject shift of suffering’s spread.
Hers are stories of sex, cruelty, and fetishism: “At night, the stable girl was made a horse” (69). Of being forced to wear other skin, to play new roles.
With swift sections and brief and straightforward dialogue, Levy creates an historical, cultural, social, and political layer cake, with social etiquette as the topper. Levy writes, “I found some joy in fervent repetition but never in public. I found some joy during my loneliest hours” (20), and later in the book, “Nobody lasts long by following public opinion” (75).
Because we are all windsocks of breath, with faces, right? That we say keeps us standing, but what is said may knock us down, Levy observes, through her characters and anti-linear narrative. Representation is a poor site, but it is connectivity, is presence of a sort, which displaces but doesn’t replace absence: “It is impossible to confuse the photo of a person with the person herself. Her photo will serve as my anchor, and though I may give myself wholly to her, I am not entirely lost. I can also be yours, partially yours, forever” (21). Partiality is a prime (p)layer here, and through all the encounters—from the forest, where the woman lives with her father, to a more “civilized” Berlin, where she is traveling with Horst; to the province where Bethany and the chambermaid embark upon a journey of stolen identity and matrimonial mishap—the violence opens up and poorly attempts a re-stitching together of material things, while acknowledging the aporetic state of philosophically immaterial things: “I used to believe in matter. I used to believe in the wholeness of things” (74).
Hitler and Greek mythology are bedfellowed here, and the “narrator” is constantly claiming, “I am not [. . .]”: “a vegetarian,” “a Nazi”: ““I’m not vegetarian” / “ The public misunderstands.” / “Say this: The words “soy” and “Nazi” were once interchangeable” (41). And in the myths of vegetarianism and ironic humane treatment of animals, I read through Levy’s words here that Hitler meets the mythological Eurydice in Hades, perhaps, where Orpheus must leave her: “Next we were laying on her dead parents’ bed, as close as Eurydice and Orpheus, obliged to stay” (106), for, “The room was eager to shade” (24).
Rhodopis, slave-cum-queen, was the first Cinderella story. Levy may have here ended Cinderella: this loss, this potential search for an absent appendage and / as love, but here it is the shoe that will never fit again. And while nothing may be as it appears, “’Everybody’s the same.’ / It was a hot day. My dress was of snow, and it melted. / My shoe was of glass, and when I bumped into a stone it said, ‘Crap!,’ and broke into pieces” (114).
All the broken pieces of time and place and personage have found a home with Levy. A Book So Red may be stallion, gelding, or mare. It doesn’t matter, because a horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless it’s not.
Mullin is an editor and writer residing in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a B.A. in English; an M.F.A in Creating Writing; and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought. Her poetry collection must (with drawings by Mariela Yeregui) was re-released by Nomadic Press in March 2016.