Monday, August 25, 2008

Review of The Water Cure from IR 30.1

Percival Everett. The Water Cure. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2007. $22.00 hardcover (ISBN 978-1-55597-476-3), 216 pages.

Reviewed by Jackson Brown

It’s a novice reader’s faux pas, but even the most seasoned critic could lose sight of the distinction between narrator and author in Percival Everett’s novels. Everett has a knack for straddling that line just enough to make his Black male narrators read like variations of himself. Erasure, one of Everett’s previous novels, is widely acknowledged as having autobiographical elements, its plot involving a Black writer’s struggle to successfully define himself outside of a stereotypical literary persona. Moreover, Everett’s bio on Erasure’s dust jacket could double as a description of the book’s narrator: a California-based professor who enjoys fly-fishing and woodworking. In Everett’s latest book, The Water Cure, his Black male novelist/narrator, Ishmael Kidder, represents authorial self-definition gone awry. The story serves as Kidder’s personal account of how he has captured, tied up, and is torturing the man he suspects of raping and murdering of his eleven-year-old daughter. In this case, the narratorial/authorial distinction is clear, at least until one turns again to the dust jacket, featuring a photo of the author, Everett, hovering protectively over his own infant son.

A similarly multifaceted plot undergirds the novel’s multifaceted narrator. When not physically or psychologically tormenting his victim in the basement, Kidder entertains his literary agent, Sally, upstairs. Kidder’s double life is compounded with his recent tragedy and his lingering sense of loss from walking out on a stale marriage. By the end of the novel, Kidder’s left wondering whether any of it—his career, his anger, his solitary existence—is worthwhile. Everett manages to keep all these balls aloft in the narrative air, but the effort is so conspicuous that the juggling act itself becomes more prominent than the plot. The torture narrative is vaguely resolved. Frequent gaps in the book’s fragmentary structure make the narrator seem shadowy—more “there” than “here.” And throughout the novel, Kidder can’t decide what he wants to talk about: ancient philosophy, the Bush administration, semiotics, or the weather. What’s even more displacing is that Cure directs all its high-academic and far-ranging banter unequivocally at the reader, at “you.” Be assured: if Everett’s novels have a reputation for being cerebral, The Water Cure indeed follows suit, and aggressively so. While Everett intentionally conflates his voice with his torturer/narrator’s, the muddy second-person narrative conspires to displace us, the readers, into the position of the torture victim.

That’s not to say that Cure’s author/reader, torturer/victim dynamic creates an unpleasant experience—no more unpleasant, at least, than it’s meant to create. Though guided along by a violent, grief-stricken narrator, at no point does the novel feel outside the control of a capable storyteller. Everett’s humor and ear for dialogue keep the narrative afloat, so to speak, in places where it might, in less able hands, drag. Take for instance Kidder’s exchange with a JCPenny’s sales associate when he sallies out from home to purchase new instruments of torture for his victim—full-length mirrors:
“Why do you need two?” she asked.

“An experiment,” I said. […] “I’m interested in various angles of incidence and refraction,” I lied to her, leaning an elbow onto the counter. I then went on, “Do you know what the Venus effect is?”


[Kidder goes on to explain.]

“Okay.” She didn’t want to talk anymore. [Her voice’s] truckish quality was replaced by one of, not annoyance, or boredom, but of a hushed, tight-lipped, subdued alarm.


I then went to the drugstore and bought the largest hand mirrors they had.

When the clerk there asked me what I needed all those mirrors for, I told him that I was vain and left it at that.

What emerges from Cure’s unconventional plotline is a nuanced and raw depiction of troubled interiority. In an attempt to logically justify his brutal actions and disassociate himself from the greater American barbarism his victim comes to represent for him, Kidder translates his situation into word problems and algebraic equations, neither of which he can successfully work out on the page. Likewise, language frequently breaks down throughout the novel: Kidder resorting to pen sketches in moments when he finds his anguish ineffable—words devolving into garbled phonetics, as if spoken through water. Despite Kidder’s alternate intellectual posturing and narrative flippancy, he—and perhaps Everett as well—straps himself down in the basement right along with us, helpless as he relentlessly deconstructs his own project, with merely the act of expression offering hope for salvation.

Everett’s latest work is nothing if not ambitious. Unabashed in its critical commentary on America’s own special brand of ruthlessness and unflinching in its gaze at its own authorship, The Water Cure can’t be called a success in its resolution so much as successful at its own dissolution, highlighting the problematic relationship between language and our national and personal pathologies.

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