Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part IV: Valley

Neila escapes the Complex in Part IV. She becomes more fully herself, which means no more pretending to be loyal to the Complex, but does not mean becoming an active resistor. She goes into herself, becomes overtly alone.

Neila is revealed as a resistor to the Complex, but not because she freed the Island exiles. After the Island trip, guards greet Neila at her office and escort her to the top-floor office of the Complex Leader. She wonders if she faces promotion or censure. She even fantasizes about what she could do to “turn everything around” if she inadvertently became the Leader of the Complex because of their failure to comprehend her real sympathies. Her thoughts as she goes to meet the unknown are “I am not indomitable. I am not a hero. I am not an activist and I do not care for groups and ostentatious political stands. I am also a coward and fearful, although I do appreciate the efforts of the brave.”

She faces the actual Leader, to whom she is polite and proper, though she thinks of how he as “ruined thousands, killed thousands.” He reveals Serena, obnoxious Serena, who survived the lark of a boat ride that ended in disaster. Serena has returned, “thin and sunburned,” determined to destroy Neila.

The juxtaposition of opposites – expecting either promotion and censure, awe for and resistance to the Leader, relief and fear at seeing Serena – is what the whole novel plays with – each thing and its opposite, characters continually changing sides, nothing being as it seems.

Serena pins the disastrous results of the leisurely boat trip on Neila. Serena’s position is one of the few clear ones now; she is a loyal Complexer. Neila’s confessed cowardice and fear are revealed in the telling of the boat ride. As the boat sank, she decided to swim for help; she was the only swimmer on board. But she admits to us that she swam because she was scared. While she did gather help once ashore, the boat was not found.

Serena accuses her of purposefully trying to execute the companions on the boat. (All but Serena are confirmed dead.) Serena fingers Neila as the Chief Resistor. She assigns to Neila what she wishes she could be: Brave. “I was actually thrilled. Chief Resistor. But of course she was wrong. I would like to be Chief Resistor material, but I am not. I will never be.” And Neila sees in Serena the same cowardice she feels – a mirror of herself. She thinks, “You rotten, lying bitch, piously mouthing loyalties. Serena, as is always apparent, saves herself first.”

Neila is imprisoned in what sounds like a lovely room: double doors, a terrace, a garden. Neila is determined to just walk out of her prison. “I intend to flee, and I suppose it won’t be too hard.” And it isn’t. Neila buries her journals and her copy of The Scared Journey under a flagstone in her prison garden, “a little square gave.” The written words are abandoned. She walks, and those who see her assume she is just going for a stroll in the garden. She just keeps walking – on her own sacred journey.

She pretends to be crazy so that workers in the Fields dismiss her, ignore her. She is performing at first, but the performance slips toward reality. She goes a little mad – both removed and unaware while also very paranoid.

After a stop in a Fields town, she escapes the notice of a group of Complex soldiers posting wanted notices, which may or may not picture her. She decides to indeed head back to the Mountain to become a hermit there, and her crazy beggar routine becomes increasingly real.

As she walks, she thinks about Lak and questions everything, “I was doubting everything that every happened to me. I was thinking I had manufactured my love for him. My whole past life seemed vague, uncertain. Even The Sacred Journey and its lessons seemed like nothing as I walked, though I could remember my obsession with it. What did I care?”

When Neila takes a serious fall while walking on ice up the Mountain, she loses herself in crying.”What am I doing here?” Complex soldiers riding in a jeep capture her. As a prisoner, tied with rope, she rides down Mountain roads, and the jeep crashes. She is seriously injured and ready to die.

But, seemingly deus ex machina, Lak appears to save her. “’My Neila,” are his first words. Lak reveals some unanswered questions and keeps referring to “the plan.” But we have no idea what “plan” he means. We think maybe he is talking of some Resistor plan. But instead he quickly reveals that he let his own family be arrested and assumed that Neila left that very day because she knew they were to be arrested. He assumes she is the loyal Complexer that he himself is. He has been trying to crush the Resistors by infiltrating groups in the Mountain, and he thinks Neila is there to help him.

Neila recounts no emotions here. She loved him. But he was always this bad guy. Neila simply acts. She sets up a trap so that he will fall to his death. She is not sure if it works, but she doesn’t see him again. The last words of the novel: “I shall do what I have to do, and then start the struggle all over again.”

Memories of my mother’s ways in Part IV:
My mother took great pleasure in her clothes and was always searching for and picturing her ideal clothes (and the ideal shoes and the ideal bags). In a town near the Fields, a ticket vendor gives Neila the shirt off his back, and convinces a restaurant owner to offer her a place to clean up and sleep. And a blue cloth is left for her to use. Neila voices what my mother would have felt: “The ticket vendor’s shirt felt soft and light. It came far down my thighs, almost to my knees…I wrapped the blue cloth around me so that it formed a long skirt and I tucked the long ends of the vendor’s shirt into it. I felt wonderful, renewed.” I can imagine my mother enjoying the clothes in just this way.

My mother could assign feelings to food she ate, such as black and white cookies – she had to take equal, alternating bites of each side, so as not to offend either side. Neila is fed in the Fields restaurant: “I ate it all, trying to use the etiquette of the Fielders, not mixing different kinds of food and taking equally from each dish in turn, so that no dish or type of food would be affronted at being first or last, favored or disfavored.”

My mother used to be so annoyed at the unreality of action movies, when the hero (a la Indiana Jones) would fall, be beaten, get seriously hurt in some way, and yet keep going. In the Mountain, after her fall, Neila expresses just such a thought: “In books and films when people are hurt, they rarely cry. They seem to grit their teeth, and give a small groan, a grimace, and then they carry on. Yet when I fall I find that my body is out of my control and needs to cry to heal itself, to recover from the shock, and to get fit to continue.” My mother wanted to assert what would be the reality of the situation.

I love seeing these bits of her, hearing her voice, used to fill out a fiction.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Games of the Strong, Part III: Island

The last sentence of Part II is “What a lark.” The first of Part III is “Now that I am out of the hospital, I have to sit and write again.” The change in mood is clear.

We don’t yet learn what exactly happened on that frivolous, ill-fated boat ride.

Neila is now the Minister of Information because Wils is dead, we assume in the unexplained boating accident. She has a high-profile, decadent office; it is a corner office with six windows and carpeting and a sofa. (Side note: my mother writes “sofa,” but I thought my use of “couch” was from her. Maybe this was an editor’s hand; I am reading the U.S. edition.) We know where Neila stands, still seeing herself as a resistor, though she plays along without actually supporting the Complex agenda.

In Part II, before the boat ride, Wils warned Neila about writing too much: “’You’re too involved with writing things down. Don’t do it. I’m trying to warn you.’” Was he threatening her or helping her? Was he a loyal Complexer? A resistor? Neila assumed he was threatening her – despite the fact that they had become lovers.

When Neila finally reveals what happened on the boat ride, we are told that neither the boat nor the bodies were found. Did the others all drown? Perhaps it is predictable that someone could have survived. The possibility that Neila will be revealed as a resistor is wide open.

Questions answered:
In this part of the novel, the reality of the Island, to where resistors are exiled, is revealed. What and where is the Island? Who is there? Is it a prison setting? The 10,000 resistors there are in exile with nothing to support them on the previously uninhabited and inhospitable Island where it rains for most of the year. But what Neila finds on her visit to the Island deepens the mystery of Lak, her beloved who disappeared after Part I. He is not there with his family. But his coded letters from Part II of the novel mention sea air. Did he escape capture? Where is he?

In addition, Neila meets an old man who knew her parents, who died in a car crash when she was a baby. She learns unexpected information about them. They were resistors, but they really did die in a car crash; they were not murdered as she suspected. And her mother had an affair with an unnamed Complex official.

Taking action:
Neila is ineffective and misunderstood throughout this part of the novel. Though she has authority in the totalitarian regime, she can’t change it and can’t do anything overt about the injustice of the Island. Her foster family even believes she turned them in as resistors. She defends herself, but no one trusts her, not the resistors, not the Complexers

Not words, not writing, but action is Neila’s turning point.

Neila decides to take 300 exiles, the most that will fit on the ferry, back with her and let them escape, swim through the shallows, before the ferry docks. She gives the ferry to a handful of resistors who remain aboard in order to help the remaining Islanders escape.

But her action is ineffective and awkward. They exiles don’t trust her, and we don’t know if they follow through on the full plan. Neila observes, “I was forcing this rescue on these miserable wretches and risking everything.” Barm, the resistor and writer Neila interviewed in Part II, is now on the Island. Neila appeals to him: “’They won’t let me rescue them.” He replies, “Why should they give you that glory?”

Everything changes for Neila after the Island trip, but not because she has helped the resistors. This action seems to go unnoticed, as least for now. It is not this boat ride to the Island that brings change, but the frivolous one from Part II.

More about writing:
I believe my mother includes her own writing process in the narrative. The chapter begins: “It is difficult to start again. I have forgotten the mood, the reasons I am doing this. But if I do it scene by scene, episode by episode, one step at a time, everything will come together.” It is as if she retained what she wrote to keep herself writing the novel as part of Neila’s story.

And, on the Island, Neila and Barm again discuss writing. Neila tells him, “Someone has to write it down,” meaning the truth of the Island. Barm replies, “Then you write it down. You go home and sit down and write it all down. As for me, I’ve grown beyond paper and pens.” In this exchange, there is ambivalence about writing, a questioning about writing.

And, like a writer, Neila admits the possibility of conflicting versions of stories: "I am always interested in versions of the truth," as my mother was.