The Flowers Won't Die
S. j. Cruz
A poet by trade, S. j. Cruz has given us a début novel at once original and familiar: while at first glance its structure and preoccupations seem reminiscent of the hip novelties found in other alternative literature, the author's voice distinguishes The Flowers Won't Die as an earnest literary exploration of contemporary subjects. Cruz's unique hybrid of poetic grace and comedic lunacy shine through a novel that, although it may only be enjoyed by other young writers and artists, nonetheless offers a fresh perspective on youth, art, and life.
Describing what it feels like to read The Flowers Won't Die necessitates an analogy to another, equally intoxicating text: the multi-layered poetic code that comprises the work of Djuna Barnes. Jeanette Winterson of The Guardian has said of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood that the novel, “is itself. It is its own created world...” One would not be wrong in making a comparison to Cruz's novel, in which rapid, shape-shifting prose gives way to a logic all its own, like that of a dream—albeit one that takes itself less seriously than Barnes' masterpiece.
In The Flowers Won't Die, language is not fixed but patched and contradictory; time is not linear, but rather exists as projection and effects nostalgia, causing the present to bend and stretch into expectation and fantasy. What manifests is an extended musing on the intersections of art, life, and the commercial world—themes which serve not only as a backdrop, but also as threads in the web for narrative explorations of love, sex, and relationships across various orientations of time and space—amounting to what feels like a long drug trip peppered equally with earnest insight and incisive humor.
Our narrator is a starving artist living in Newark, New Jersey, whose playful intellect, self-deprecating narcissism, and penchant for booze, cigarettes, and women paint him as a sort of parodic noir anti-hero with money problems. What starts as a meeting between Painter Man and his own femme fatale, Flower Girl (or FG), a linguistically truncated symbol for the paper- / petal-thin woman as artistic muse, quickly develops into a raucous ride between the surfaces and underbellies of urban America. Less comfortable at his own art exhibits in Los Angeles or New York than in the downtrodden go-go bars of Newark—where his half-hearted, hybridized Spanish and Portuguese get him further than does the broken English of his immigrant interlocutors—he fights a quaintly, hilariously, frustratingly unoriginal battle between the urge to imitate life with art and the urge to spit in the face of a commercialized art world threatening to exploit him.
All the while, Painter Man cannot help seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic lens of art itself, resulting in candid observations of art's tendency to reflect its creator—musings not unlike those in the opening pages of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.” As S. j. Cruz's narrator navigates his world, he appropriates the people he meets as subjects of his artistic gaze; his portraits of the women he loves (or who love him) become “paper dolls” that reflect his own desires. Yet for Painter Man, the drive to realize his pains and pleasures with the fantasy of art dissolves into impossibility—his reality and his vision continually circle around each other, never able to meet.
When he is not peering through the kaleidoscope, our narrator dons the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia for a “long, long ago” time in San Francisco—a semi-autobiographical element for the author and a bead of irony in the life of Painter Man, whose longings for the poor glorious streets of the Mission District settle like an ill-fitting dress in light of the city's recent demographic trends. Painter Man longs for a time that scarcely ever was, a time that now seems stolen from an imagined past. In the latter half of the book, our narrator laments “Manifest Destiny's navel-gazing future,” a time when “there's nothing left to steal”: it is in his own nostalgia that such navel-gazing becomes a cross for the narrator to bear, a cross appropriated and then displayed as artistic meaning in an exhibit Painter Man never wanted to be at in the first place.
Any clichés of plot or character are consistently undermined by Cruz's sharp wit, so that a chapter written entirely in experimental verse comes not as a tired gimmick but rather a hard-earned device used to gracefully manipulate the ever dynamic mood of the piece. The prose itself is deliciously idiosyncratic, reveling in the unexpected clarity afforded by stark linguistic contrasts: a character may find herself staring “absent-mindfully” into space, for instance. Cruz's poetic symbolism creates layers of meaning that sometimes make it difficult to tell which side the author is really on. The reader has not to wonder for long, however, for the plot devolves quickly into a carnival of absurdities—at one point Painter Man threatens an adversary with just the decapitated handle of a gun—and one is almost relieved to find that a sizable portion of our starving artist's sufferings have in fact been painted in jest.
Whether you see this novel as a poetic exploration of art, life, and love, a romp through the fantastical babblings of a sharp-minded artist, or some combination of the two, it is clear that S. j. Cruz has carved out a truly original place for himself among today's artistic voices. You may have no idea what he's talking about, but you certainly won't want to stop listening.
Muller is an educator and reader who can't stand to live just one life – so she also writes. She lives in her head/Oakland.