Death Sentences

Carole Maso

Through five novels and a collection of short pieces, Carole Maso has established herself as one of the very few American writers who steers her boat into the uncharted waters of world literature. Intellectually alert, sensuous, and humane, Maso is fascinated with the frisky boundaries between language and "reality" (whether that means the world "out there" or the one inside our heads). That is to say, Maso is a European at heart. As a subversive, sensual cartographer of the female bodymind, Maso brings a cosmopolitan sensibility to extending the possibilities of fiction; in some senses, she's a younger sister of Marguerite Duras, Helene Cixous, and Monique Wittig.

Maso's books, from The Ghost Dance (1986) through AVA (1993) to the story collection Aureole (1996), have thumbed their nose at the workshop-bred norms of American fiction: the painstaking creation of believable worlds complete with brand names; the top-heavy plotting; the dull pseudo-vernacular voices. Maso instead offers up a rich, complex, musical modulation of voices, and she usually traces a very simple arc of action. A mother remembered, a woman's slow death, a lyrical tryst on the beach. Recollection, free association, obsession, and observation mingle and recur in a symphony of memory and desire. In short, Maso writes with far more verve and juice than the average theory-dulled American avant-gardist, and more humanity and variety than the transgressive-sex-equals-transgressive-literature crowd.

Talking to Brian Evenson in last winter's issue of our invaluable local hip-lit review, Rain Taxi, Maso looked forward to her latest book, Defiance, as an opportunity to take revenge on the traditional kind of storytelling she's always avoided. "It's about a woman imprisoned and sentenced to death," said Maso. "It made sense to use a kind of tyranny of narrative to embody such a state.... It was fun on some level and a bit diabolical to be able to talk about the ludicrous straitjacket of these kinds of narrative conventions by employing them to dramatize the imprisoned, claustrophobic, raging psyche."

If that sounds a little, well, theoretical as a jumping-off place for a novel, the completed Defiance does its damnedest--and fails--to make the premise work. The diabolical fun Maso has with her almost comically lurid crime plot--Harvard professor strangles male students after trussing them up in bondage gear and doing unspeakable things with their privileged little bodies--never quite jibes with her heartfelt and poetic first-person portrait of a murderess. This narrator is a prodigy from the Irish slums of Fall River, Massachusetts, who goes to Harvard at 12 and becomes a physics professor there before she's 20--lugging a full bag of blue-collar pain and apocalyptic Catholic obsession along the way.

Bernadette O'Brien is in love with numbers and can turn anything into a probability problem or a differential equation (as she does in numerous diagrams and obtuse, squiggly marginalia). She's also a literary type who echoes T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare in her death-row journal (the book we're reading). And she's a sexy dominatrix who mixes the erotic and the intellectual à la Parisienne. "I am perfectly serious here," she tells her Harvard boys--or tells us that she told them. "My larks. My mopheads. My whiffenpoofs.... I expect you to reconsider for the time you are working with me your relationship to sex. I expect you to conserve that mystery elixir for me, that is, for the numbers."

Her prize mophead is one Alexander Ashmeade, a prototypical preppie golden boy and brilliant hunk whom Bernadette beds (in a vinyl bodysuit) by promising to bring him closer than he's ever been to the mysteries of fucking and physics. "What is that oblivion you beg for? My vulnerable and bursting, my serious one. I caught him entirely unaware."

The murder itself is a mystery--an act of revenge against the men who have betrayed Bernadette (including an alcoholic, womanizing father and a beloved, tormented brother whose enlistment in the army and death in Vietnam were a sort of suicide). It's also an act of love for a fellow devotee of ultimate experiences and forbidden truths, and an act of defiance against every good-girl, poor-girl, smart-girl norm.

When Bernadette flees to Georgia with another favorite boychild, then trusses him up and murders him, she lands on a nasty Southern death row, a tabloid heroine and a feminist icon. This postmodern Medea's contempt for her defenders is equaled only by her scorn for the self-help books proffered by her relentlessly upbeat African-American prison counselor/therapist, Beatrice. ("Talk to friends who feel good about their sexuality and ask them what they experience.")

Everything in Defiance feels like a pretext for Maso's white-hot language, which is sometimes fluid, sometimes fragmentary, and rich in wordplay. When she's in the groove, she's stunning, as when Bernadette, against her will, begins to fall in love with Beatrice: "Her voice. Not here now. Three A.M. How to describe that voice? A good voice. All body. That voice. And how it turns everything in me liquid. Her mass of braids entwined with glittering things.... Such yearning--she out there in her fluid, viscous, incredibly lovely night, studded with stars. She wears a shining ornament in her nose. Around an ankle a snake is wrapped. And the little Jesus drowned in her cleavage, begging for mercy--kindness."

Yet this fine writer is ultimately hobbled by the fiction conventions she'd hoped to pervert. Bernadette's background is the classic stuff of victim memoir: Mom the sad drudge, Dad the ne'er-do-well womanizer, brother Fergus, raped by the parish priest. Flying around Bernadette's tormented head, recurring and recurring like algebraic symbols, these figures rarely kindle with life; they're mostly denied the old-fashioned novelistic detail that would redeem them from seeming hackneyed. Bernadette's perfect Harvard preppies are wooden dolls, too.

Maso does not seem unaware of any of this. Her angry, lonely anti-heroine is obsessed with naming, classifying, and controlling the significance of her own writing; she's author and critic and theorist all in one. (When she says that Fergus was molested--by the archly named Father Peter--she actually calls the revelation a cliché.)

Maso has gambled that Bernadette's mania for turning life into symbol--algebraic and perhaps even novelistic--would fascinate us on its own. We're trapped in Bernadette's incredibly nimble, crowded, tormented head, and it's fascinating but claustrophobic as hell. Maso is no Dostoyevsky, and her portrait of a woman compounded of innocence, evil, brilliance, obsession, and purifying rage just misses the grandeur that would turn us into Bernadette's willing victims.

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